Despite what you may think about the uppity characters depicted on Girls, the suave styling of her childhood home, or the banality of her plotlines, there’s no denying that Lena Dunham is different. After Tiny Furniture gained accolades and Girls launched on HBO, the general tendency was to try and examine these works as encapsulations of “our generation”. Were the experiences depicted accurate? Where they socially informed? Did they help our image or hurt it?
The skepticism was immediate and rampant. It seemed that no one had attempted to capture or speak to the state of millennial affairs from within, and people were surprisingly sensitive to the material.
People dismissed Dunham’s work for its whiteness, its affluence, and its superficiality. The concept of Dunham as talented artist was constantly challenged by the suggestion that she was privileged. This meant her success was inherited, not earned.
Why were we so obsessed with proving her phony?
A lack of female-centered narratives was partially to blame for the heightened attention Girls received. Womankind was hungry for representation. However, that didn’t mean we would welcome just anyone with open arms. Although it’s hard to say exactly how, I think it’s safe to assume that the reaction would have been different if Dunham were a man.
A subject often considered too lowbrow for discussion, yet which serves as the origin of much criticism is Dunham’s nudity.
In television and movies, nude and/or sex scenes are reserved for the physically “attractive”. Whether or not you fall within this lot is determined by a set of requirements that’s especially rigorous for women. Dunham doesn’t fit the mold, and it’s her uncompromising confidence, despite her difference, that I find most inspiring about her. She’s intelligent, she’s interesting, and she’s ignoring boundaries at no small risk to her popularity or self-esteem.
Scenes considered abrasive, vulgar, or political due to Dunham’s body would be unremarkable if she were Jonah Hill, Seth Rogan, or Zach Galifianakis.When Hannah spent an episode sleeping with Patrick Wilson, the web was in an uproar over the episode’s alleged lack of plausibility, claiming that such a handsome man would never sleep with a girl who looked like Hannah. When the look ratio is skewed in the other direction, it’s a nonissue. This is because we’re accustomed to seeing overweight, image-indifferent male characters canoodling with 10-point knockouts. This formula is familiar.
Dunham’s character on Girls radically suggests that women who aren’t Hollywood Gorgeous or Innocence Personified can still assert themselves as multilayered human beings worthy of attention and chalk full of informative perspectives, experiences, and lessons.
The baseline of a central female character does not have to be her own fuckability. Worth can be measured differently. Expectations can change.
And yet we continue to be bombarded with one type of woman on the screen and in the magazine. It’s obvious that Beauty comes before anything else. Beauty, we are told, is the ultimate gatekeeper.
A fascinating aspect of Dunham’s decision to feature herself in so many nude scenes is its apolitical nature. As the author explains in the clip below, they’re more a natural extension of the plot than an intentional challenging of beauty standards.
During the interview, it’s impossible to ignore the contrast of the tanned, tightened, coifed interviewer against the unfussy physical presence of Dunham. The dichotomy is a fitting visual accompaniment to their conversation.
You can claim that Lady Gaga and Beyonce are feminists, and I won’t argue with you. I don’t believe in witch hunts for authenticity. But if you asked me whose work I thought was actually helping to address and improve today’s oppressive beauty standards, I would choose Dunham’s.
No matter your charitable donations, your glittering FEMINIST declarations, or your song about female independence, if you still insist on starving, stitching, and shellacking yourself into a Pretty Pretty Princess, you’re not really taking a stand on beauty standards.
I applaud Lena Dunham for her impetus and confidence. Her presence forces mainstream culture to witness—and become more familiar with—a female character who stands proudly and complexly in the limelight without being altered or smoke-and-mirrored into the sexually-desirable, virgin-meets-sexpot status quo.
At the end of the day, action always speaks louder than words, and Dunham’s putting her body where her belief is.