What’s the Purpose of Nudity?: or, Stupid, Sexist Questions Are Still Being Asked About Lena Dunham’s Naked Body on GIRLS


Yesterday, during a panel for the Television Critics Association (TCA), Tim Molloy of the Wrap spoke with the executive producers of HBO’s Girls, and commented on the prevalence of nudity by star (and show creator, and EP) Lena Dunham. Molloy said, “I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show. By you [Dunham] particularly. I feel like I’m walking into a trap where you say no one complains about the nudity on Game of Thrones, but I get why they’re doing it. They’re doing it to be salacious. To titillate people. And your character is often naked at random times for no reason.” Dunham quickly responded, “It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you are not into me, that’s your problem.” Which proved to be a much more measured response than the one given by fellow executive producer Judd Apatow, who said, “Do you have a girlfriend? Does she like you? Let’s see how she likes you when you quote that… and tell me how it goes tonight.” Ouch.

Molloy later responded via a blog post, reassuring readers that his girlfriend was just fine with his question to Dunham, and defending himself by noting that he “didn’t say it was bad that she was nude” and that he was “trying to understand it as a TV critic. That’s [his] job.” At the panel, Molloy also wondered why other characters on the show weren’t nude, and why Apatow doesn’t usually have nudity in his movies. Basically, Molloy was really, really trying very hard—in his capacity as a TV critic!—to understand why he has to see Dunham’s naked body all the time. After all, Louis CK isn’t naked on his show! Why does Dunham have to be? It just doesn’t make sense! He’s not sexist! He’s not body-shaming! He’s just a curious viewer and critic asking a question about a show which is now in its third season, one that has not only consistently shown nudity, but has also explained the artistic rationale behind it over and over again. But Molloy still doesn’t get it, so he wants to ask the hard questions! Even when those “hard questions” don’t come in the form of a question, but rather in the form of a comment in which he emphasizes that, unlike the nudity in Game of Thrones, Lena Dunham’s body is in no way titillating. And so, what’s the point of showing it to viewers, then?

For his part, Apatow claimed that he actually has used male nudity in his films (including from actors like Seth Rogen), and would use more if his actors were comfortable with it, which, well, they’re often not! Apatow further defended Dunham by pointing out that “Lena is confident enough to do it so we have the opportunity to talk about other issues because she is braver than other people.” This is a key part of any discussion about why it is that certain actors are frequently naked onscreen while others aren’t. The fact that Dunham is often naked, while Allison Williams and Zosia Mamet aren’t probably has a great deal more to do with what the other actors’ contracts are like than anything else. It’s not dissimilar to another HBO show that featured a disproportionate amount of nudity by one of its lead actors, with virtually no nudity by any others. That show, of course, is Sex and the City and Kim Catrall was much more prominently naked than any of the other women, and yet was mysteriously never criticized for it. How strange! Is it perhaps because Catrall’s physique is more aligned with what society has dictated is a desirable female form? Maybe! No, wait. Almost certainly.

I can understand why Molloy doesn’t think his question is sexist. Nobody wants to think they’re sexist! They just want to think they’re being honest. And critical. But the very fact that he put Girls in opposition to Game of Thrones because he finds the nudity on one show titillating and on the other show redundant reveals a lot. It reveals that Molloy—and all those that complain about Dunham’s nudity on the show—doesn’t understand that Dunham’s character isn’t naked in order to titillate viewers. She’s nude because it is an honest representation of how many young, sexually active women go about their lives—even those women who have cellulite! Even them. And it’s ridiculous to pretend that Dunham isn’t asked this question because she has a body type that is not usually seen naked on TV or film. A quick scan of the comment section of the New York magazine post about this situation reveals that people are all too happy to call Dunham “gross” and “nasty.” Molloy didn’t use those words, of course, but his comment isn’t too many degrees separated from them. By pretending that it’s integral to the artistry of Game of Thrones to have so much nudity, despite the fact that many of the sex scenes were not in the books and are totally irrelevant to the plot, while seeing Dunham’s nudity (usually revolving around things like having sex or taking a bath…you know, times when a person is generally NAKED) is flagrantly unnecessary, is, at best, disingenuous and, at worst, just plain sexist. Dunham was absolutely right when she told Molloy that his problems with her body would best be sorted out “with a professional,” and I can also fully understand where co-executive producer Jenni Konner was coming from when she said she was going into a “rage spiral” over Molloy’s comment. Criticism of Girls is fine and valid. Criticism of Dunham as a writer or an actor is fine and valid. But myopically pretending that it’s impossible to understand why a character might be naked onscreen while having sex? Is just a line of sexist bullshit masquerading as TV criticism.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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  1. “She’s nude because it is an honest representation of how many young, sexually active women go about their lives”, is it really? Is the data from your latest study? Any how are you so certain of what’s really behind Molloy’s statement?

  2. I adore Lena Dunham and find her body to be beautiful and sexy.

    As an artist, though, I wonder why she chooses for her character to be naked in some scenes where the nudity serves neither the character nor the story, and in some cases is a distraction. It’s distracting because some shots in which the dialogue should receive more emphasis are set up and framed to draw focus to her lower body rather than to the parts of her that you would be focusing on if you were having a conversation with her.

    Those are just plain befuddling choices for a filmmaker to make. It’s unfortunate that a critic in a public forum cannot make an observation such as this without being attacked as a sexist pig. Maybe our sixth wave granddaughters will have evolved to the point where such an observation will be considered with the respect it deserves.