Why I Heart GIRLS & Lena Dunham’s Body

Lena Dunham GIRLS HBO

I’m a little late to this game since the first season of HBO’s GIRLS ended Sunday night. But if, like me, you don’t schedule your life around appointment television, then you’re probably very appreciative of the fact that I waited a respectful three days before blogging about this so as to avoid spoilers. You’re welcome.

At any rate: It is high time that I expressed my fervent appreciation and admiration for Lena Dunham and the amazingness she has created with this here show. The poor girl experienced all manner of backlash when it first premiered — how could she not? She’s approximately twelve and she’s been put in charge of a prime time comedy at HBO. She’s writing, directing and starring in a show about being a New York-based twenty-something all the while actually being a New York-based twenty-something. Most of whom are generally lacking in the perspective you would need to do such a thing. So everybody had to get up in arms about whether she was accurately capturing the experience of being poor and pretentious during your twenties. Are their jobs appropriate? Do they dress too fashion-y? Why aren’t there more black characters? Who eats cupcakes in the bathtub? Is Bushwick just too… Bushwick-y? And so on.

Frankly, I stopped paying attention to those complaints because I was convinced by the second episode that Lena Dunham somehow — albeit freakishly — has all the required perspective and is capturing the poor-and-pretentious-in-your-twenties thing beautifully. Also, I think it’s a bit mad to expect a frigging television show to encompass the entire experience of a generation. How/why would that be the goal? GIRLS is strange and funny and at least once per episode, so painfully real, sad or sweet, that I can’t look directly at it.

But enough of that debate. Here’s what Lena Dunham is doing that is so truly subversive and smart that I can’t even believe they let her get it away with it on television: She’s playing the female lead in a sitcom without a perfect Hollywood body — and her lack of six-pack abs is not the entire point of the show. 

This is really happening! It’s no Mike & Molly travesty. (And y’all know my girl crush on Melissa McCarthy — I just hate that her whole show has to revolve around the theme of “Fat people can fall in love too!”) It’s not the typical sitcom set-up where schlubby dude somehow scores the hot, thin wife. (In fact, it’s sort of the opposite, but not really.) Also, Lena Dunham isn’t enormous — she’s in that gray area of imperfect women’s bodies that usually, Hollywood has no idea how to handle. You can’t make her a pin-up but you also can’t make her a plus-size model or obesity cautionary tale. She’s just herself.

As always: I’m celebrating Lena Dunham’s body for its own self. Not at the expense of women who do fit the Hollywood thin standard (Julie Bowen does not need to eat a sandwich) or for that matter, anyone who is bigger than she is. My point is that normally, the only bodies that get portrayed in the media fit into one extreme or the other — the revolution here is that we’re seeing someone who defies that categorization.

And we’re seeing her naked. A lot. 

I can think of no other show where this has happened. (Can you guys? Maybe My So-Called Life? Claire Daines sure fits every beauty standard now, but Angela Chase was a lot more awkward in her baggy overalls. But that got cancelled after one season, but GIRLS is still going strong.) We’re presented with Lena Dunham’s body, almost entirely without explanation or apology, and then we move on to this smart, funny show that’s about so much more than what her character, Hannah Horvath, looks like.

Of course, it’s not like Hannah’s body never comes up. She self-deprecates about it here and there, like when she describes her roommate Marnie as a “Victoria’s Secret Angel” and herself as a “fat baby angel.” But it’s never the major plot line; we hear her obsess about a lot of stuff and dieting is almost never mentioned.

And then [spoiler here] I had one of those can’t-look-directly-at-her moments when she yelled, “I am thirteen pounds overweight and it has been horrible for me my whole life!” at her boyfriend, Adam, during their season finale fight.

It was funny because it was so true. Of course Hannah hates her body in this matter-of-fact way that we’re all told we should hate our imperfect bodies, always. It’s been the background noise all season — and all of her life — behind all of her other, bigger fears: That she’s not really a good writer, that Adam doesn’t really want to be with her, that her friends are growing up and leaving her behind. And at the same time, being this scared is a totally irrational and useless form of self-hatred, as Adam points out. That smidge of extra weight doesn’t qualify Hannah to know any sort of true suffering or deeper truths about humanity. It doesn’t even enlighten her about what it’s like to experience size discrimination except from her own self — because, as Ragen wrote earlier this week, feeling fat and being fat are very different experiences.

But in being irrational, Hannah’s body hatred is perhaps all the more universal — because there’s nothing very rational about hating your body or comparing it ruthlessly to others, no matter where you fall on the whole beauty standard spectrum. It doesn’t teach you anything profound or make you a better person. And despite our culture’s determination to fat shame our way out of the obesity epidemic, it’s rarely good for your health.

Lena Dunham — freaky-brilliant child prodigy that she is — has decided to simultaneously show us the kind of imperfect woman’s body that we almost never see portrayed in the media and the kind of dysfunctional body image that our culture has so completely normalized — but doesn’t want to own. “…instead of telling a story about how Hannah learns she is worthy of love, or any of the other pre-approved storylines for women with non-Hollywood bodies, GIRLS isn’t really content to stay within that expected set of narratives,” Alyssa Rosenberg observed last month on Think Progress and I quite agree. Because it’s offensive to presume that non-conventionally-beautiful women spend all of their time obsessing over their bodies and trying to lose weight (a la the usual Fat Character stereotyping and the ugly ducklings-becoming-swans plot lines of many a teen makeover rom-com). And that’s why Hannah’s story is about so much more than her body.

But it’s also dishonest to ignore the true and complicated impact of our beauty culture. And so Lena Dunham doesn’t.

[Image via the HBO GIRLS Facebook app, which lets you create your own #Girls image to share — but then they make you choose from a disappointingly short list of captions, which is why I had to use this quote instead of "fat baby angel" or "13 pounds overweight," etc.]

Filed under Beauty Standards, Glossed Over, Happenings

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12 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Posted June 21, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never watched “Girls” – truthfully I’ve been turned off, first by the backlash, then by the backlash against the backlash and now by the fawning commentary from the NYC professional-media class – but I did catch that line about “thirteen pounds overweight” during a commercial for it and I laughed and laughed, because that is how so many women and girls I know think. (That sounds weird, that I laughed at that, but it’s true, we got a chuckle out of it.) It’s actually really refreshing to see an actress on television who doesn’t have triceps of steel and abs to match, and I wish we could see more of it.

  2. Posted June 21, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    I love this. I’ve been back and forth about the whole season, but it ended on a good note for me. And even though I’m new to blogging, I had to write about Adam. I kinda of love him (I think)!

  3. Harry
    Posted June 21, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Great line but Hannah looks to be at least 20 pounds overweight. Being 13 pounds overweight is nothing.

    • Posted June 22, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      Really, Harry? Unless you’re a gifted carnival worker, I’m not sure you’d be able to tell the difference. More to the point: Why does it matter? We’re not in the habit of making value judgments about body size around these parts, thanks.

  4. PJ
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Girls, for me at least, is a very impressive first outing – for someone of Lena Dunham’s age. But I have to say while the season wore on and I became more accustomed to the sensibility of the show, it got less and less interesting. Much of the fascination here is that there seems to be somewhat of a prodigy involved in it. The proverbial fat girl from Ohio – or in the character’s case Michigan – who Francis Ford Coppola predicted decades ago.

    The major thing that bothers me about the press for the show though is how people keep saying that Lena Dunham has a “normal” body. She doesn’t. She’s overweight…and as Harry points out above, considerably overweight. Like past 13 pounds. There’s also nothing heroic about being this way while being on television. We have an obesity epidemic in this country which is getting disastrously worse amongst children and young adults. The last thing we need to be doing is applauding people for being fat and on tv as though it’s some sort of accomplishment. It’s not.

    • Linda
      Posted July 5, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      Over *what* weight? Over the weight our society arbitrarily deems appropriate, influenced by forces that have financial interest in women being scared about having fat anywhere other than in their breasts? It’s nonsense. It’s a myth that “overweight” cannot be healthy and that to be of “normal” weight (as defined by being thin, apparently) is necessarily healthy on any given person. It’s *absolutely* heroic to be this way on television, given our culture’s sick obsession with universal thinness.

  5. Wendy
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    “Are their jobs appropriate? Do they dress too fashion-y? Why aren’t there more black characters? Who eats cupcakes in the bathtub? Is Bushwick just too… Bushwick-y?”

    Asking why there isn’t more racial diversity on a show isn’t the same as asking about the reality of someone eating cupcakes in the bathtub. Diverse images on TV can include body sizes AND races…the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

    • Posted June 28, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Excellent call, Wendy — I shouldn’t have equated those criticisms. And of course, I’d love to see racial diversity right alongside body diversity.

      But here’s why I’m not more worked up about the “why aren’t there more black characters?” question for GIRLS specifically: Because unfortunately, not having a black friend in that close-knit circle of young, upper-middle-class, white girls working in NYC creative industries isn’t unrealistic. That particular slice of the world is incredibly white-washed. I’m not saying it is entirely this way and I’m certainly not saying it should be this way. But I’ve worked in publishing (Hanna Horvath’s world) for the better part of a decade and can count my black colleagues on one hand.

      If Lena Dunham cast her show like a Benetton commercial, it would be an idealistic, not realistic portrayal of this particular subculture. I’m hoping, by showing just how racially un-diverse this little world is, she’s trying to make a larger comment about how these girls think they’re living life out in the gritty real world, but actually exist in a pretty self-involved, overly self-reflective bubble. Maybe she even wants people thinking about why these industries are so lacking in diversity — when they’re populated by self-proclaimed liberals who would tell you they want to see more of that kind of thing.

      Can’t guarantee that’s what’s happening here — this is HBO after all, and Sex & The City wasn’t just about a white group of friends, it was about a fully white New York City, and that was inaccurate (they also never rode the damn subway). But that’s what I’m hoping — maybe next season we’ll see a more overt discussion of race that offers some clue.

  6. Posted July 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Dunham needs to hit the treadmill. Since when is being overweight and unhealthy consider a good thing?
    Only in America.

    • Sd
      Posted January 10, 2014 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      Ok Zolo, how about you post a picture of your body and let the Internet decide if you are overweight. It’s really easy to sit behind your computer and dish out the fitness advice. I’m sure you could lose several pounds yourself.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] reporter Virginia Sole-Smith points out, Dunham is “playing the female lead in a sitcom without a perfect Hollywood [...]

  2. [...] not been carefully toned in hours of Pilates or with the help of a surgeon’s scalpel.  As Virginia Sole-Smith wrote last year: Here’s what Lena Dunham is doing that is so truly subversive and smart that I can’t even [...]

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