Last week’s episode of “GIRLS” showed Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, engaging in a topless round of ping pong with Joshua, a recently separated 42-year-old handsome stranger performed by Patrick Wilson. They unselfconsciously hit the ball back and forth, jumping up and down, laughing. In one shot, his taut tan chest. In another, her small pert breasts. Later they fuck on the table. Elegantly shot through a doorway, we just barely see Hannah’s round ass as they thrust into one another.
The two share a seemingly idyllic time in Joshua’s beautifully maintained brownstone. She wears his cashmere sweater and eats his steak. When he asks her to make him come, she responds, “make me come first.” The camera frames their faces tightly, as Hannah leans her head back in pleasure. In this day and a half in which the episode takes place, both of their fantasies play out: for Hannah the luxury of wealth and good taste, the good looking older man, and for Joshua, presumably lonely from his recent separation, the ability to share with someone his fine things.
The episode is complex; it both broke my heart and left me reeling with revulsion. Most notably, I’m wondering why in such a beautifully shot and realized episode, critics are still commenting on and writing about Lena Dunham’s naked body. I’m not so much annoyed that people are talking about the frank and obvious nudity in “GIRLS” (it’s there, of course, talk about it). I’m frustrated that they’re talking about it in all the wrong ways. This isn’t a warm message about “accepting your body.” It’s not a Dove commercial about loving your curves (though, if it inspires that, great). Hannah has, as we have seen throughout the arc of “GIRLS,” as fraught a relationship with her body as anyone. In one scene in this episode, Joshua holds her face gently between kisses and says, “you’re beautiful.”
“You really think so?” Hannah responds.
“I do, don’t you?”
“Umm…” she pauses. “No, I do, it’s just not the feedback I’ve always been given.”
“Well, you are, very beautiful.”
Instead of beauty, Hannah’s body in past episodes has been a type of playing ground for humor, a nearly grotesque display of the female body as Dunham’s choices almost always involve bad lighting or angles that accentuate the awkwardness of her form. I recently started seeing her approach to the body as not unlike Manet’s stark realism in Le dejeuner sur l’herbe. Like Manet’s central female figure, Hannah’s body is divorced from any sense of romance. Yet, in this episode we see Hannah in bed, a sea of white linen surrounding her, the curve of her hip juts out as soft lighting emanates from the window. She looks like the ultimate Odalisque, the epitome of beauty as realized by Rubens.
If the nudity in “GIRLS” is shocking, it should only be as shocking as Lena Dunham’s blasé approach to the body, which is not unlike her father’s, the painter Carroll Dunham. In his recent show at Gladstone Gallery, he displayed cartoonish paintings of wide, pale female butts, round thighs, legs spread eagle, spikey-haired vaginas exposed. Neither Dunham is seeking an acceptance of the female body; if anything, they present a giddy and ridiculous perversion of outmoded norms.
Nudity is prevalent in this episode, but it’s a far cry from what it is about. Hannah’s nakedness is not just for its own sake; instead, it presents a chilling emotional intimacy that is eventually rejected. We see Hannah apprehend a future, an insular, secure future, that actually might provide a sense of worth. And it is this glimpse of a normative world that frightens her most. She cries in Joshua’s lap, “don’t tell anyone,” she makes him promise, “but I want to be happy.”
“GIRLS” appears on HBO, renewed for a third season in January.