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Friday, February 14, 2014

Lena Dunham's Nudity

So, I'll start with a confession: I love GIRLS - the new series that HBO calls, "a comic look at the assorted humiliations and rare triumphs of a group of girls in their mid-twenties."

That said, it's clearly for adults and decidedly not for the faint of heart.

At the close of the last episode of the first year, the lead character, Hannah, concerned that she might have contracted a sexually transmitted disease, is being examined by a woman who is a gynecologist.

Her friend Jessa says, it's just "something that happens to all sexually adventurous women."

As Hannah rambles on and on about possibly having been infected and considers the possibility of being HIV positive (the minuses and - gasp! - the pluses), the doctor shakes her head and says something like, "I wouldn't want to be twenty again if you paid me."

My thought exactly. 

Watching Hannah and her friends Marnie, Jessa and Shoshonna try to navigate adult life is painful and embarrassing - sometimes because it calls up some of my own memories of being a twenty-something and other times because I would have never - EVER - gotten myself into those situations.

I was no saint and I'm hardly a prude, but this show is filled with explicit and, more often than not, unpleasant sexual encounters - often casual, other times obligatory and impersonal and sometimes even violent.

And then, there's the nudity.

Specifically, Lena Dunham's nudity.

Look, it's HBO. If you've watched any one of their series, you know there's going to be a lot of sex and a lot of nudity.

If you don't want to see a lot of sex and nudity, don't tune in. You have been warned.

If you watch HBO's Game of Thrones, you know that there's so much gratuitous nudity and sex, the comedy writers of SNL have spoofed that one of the major consultants to the series is an over-sexed 13-year old boy who writes in "boobs" and "sex scene" into the script at least every sixty seconds.

The women on Game of Thrones, however, meet the physical standards of Playboy and Hustler. They are impossibly anatomically perfect.

Lena Dunham is not.

Unlike many women in the media spotlight - especially TV - Dunham is short and pear-shaped. She is the writer, producer, director of and actor in the series, so she could make herself look gorgeous, or use the other actors to do the heavy lifting in the nudity scenes.

Instead, Dunham films herself nude, with her skin breaking out, her belly in folds, chin doubled, or flat on her back with her feet in a gynecologist’s stirrups. These scenes shouldn’t shock, but, surprisingly enough, they do.

So many women in Hollywood seem to be so obsessed with Botox and plastic surgery, that women and men who watch "life on film" begin to believe that "altered" is the norm.

The message is that those of us who don't look like that should feel ashamed and inferior. 

When a few people recently questioned  her nudity, saying that they didn't "get it," Dunham responded, "I totally get it. If you’re not into me, that’s your problem and you’re going to have to work that out with professionals.”

I get the very clear sense that Dunham's nudity - which is random and frequent and clearly not meant to be salacious and titillate people - is her big middle finger to any attempt by anyone, male or female, to define or control her or her body.

There seems to be a lot of that going around.

Take, for example, the "A Beautiful Body" project.

It's a women's media platform which features a collective of photographers who are "dedicated to therapeutic truthful photos" - including moms with pregnancy stretch marks.

There's also Taryn Brumfitt's The Body Image Movement which addresses women's honest acceptance of their post-pregnancy bodies for the sake of their mental health as well as the future healthy attitudes of their daughters.

I have to give mention to Beth Whaanga's controversial photographs of her cancer scars. Beth Whaanga, a mother of four from Brisbane, Australia, found out just how radical and provocative an honest image of a woman can be after posting images on Facebook of her body following surgery for breast cancer late last year.

Taken by Nadia Masot, the pictures are astonishingly direct, documenting Whaanga's ongoing hair loss, total bilateral mastectomy, navel reconstruction and hysterectomy scar. Whaanga lost more than 100 friends on Facebook after posting the pictures – and then they went viral. A registered nurse, she describes herself as a "breast cancer preventer", and hopes to make people more aware of the physical changes that might signal a problem.

Her nude pictures of her surgically ravaged body - what's "under the little red dress" - convey a stunning message about the ways in which women are taking control of their own body images.

And, they don't look at all like the cover of People Magazine with Christie Brinkley at 60 - looking more like she's a 30 year old in a swimsuit.

For the past 15 years, NOW (National Organization of Women) has hosted a Love Your Body Day in October, whose goal it is to "Wipe out narrow beauty standards, superficial gender stereotypes and the portrayal of women as a sexual commodity to help erode sexism in other areas and advance our goal of full equality for all."

Last year, NOW published the results of their Love Your Body Day survey.  I was especially interested in this question

What would you most like to see change in relation to images of women and girls?

The answers seemed to provide the inspiration, at least in part, for Lena Dunham's nudity: 
  • More different body types of women and girls in the media - 9%
  • More women of color in the media - 1%
  • More women of all ages in the media - 3%
  • More women who break the conventional mold of gender presentation - 4%
  • More women with disabilities in the media - 0.5%
  • No more images that exploit violence against women - 7%
  • All of the above! - 73%
  • Suggest your own - 2%
Well, with the exception of more women of color or with disabilities.

Ms. Dunham and her "girls" are decidedly white, middle class, affluent, privileged, and spoiled with a tendency to be self-destructive.

And, they don't apologize for any of it.

In one of early scenes of the debut episode of this series, Hannah is having an argument with her parents.

She simply doesn't understand why her parents are not on board with her request that they continue to support her for several more years so she can write a book.

"I don't want to freak you out," she said, "but I think I may be the voice of my generation."

Yes, it's self-absorbed. Yes, it's egocentric. And, as I recall, it's exactly what many 20-somethings of every generation think. It's part of the developmental process.

Oh, and it's funny. Very funny. 

But, the nudity is different. It's raw. No illusions to traditional male sexual fantasy. No back lighting or candles. No sexy lingerie. It's real. It's brutally honest. It's shocking.

I think it's intended to be, but not for the typical, traditional understanding of shock value. It's not just nudity. It's the "in-your-face-I'm-far-from-perfect-*^@%-you" kind of nudity which, I think, carries a strong message about the issue of control over a woman's body.

It's pretty clear that Lena Dunham's nudity is saying, "I'm in control here. Not you."

"I get to say what I do with my body, even if it does tend to be self-destructive. This is what most real women look like when they take off their clothes."

"If you have a problem with that, get some professional help."

It's tremendously liberating and incredibly terrifying, all at the same time.

If the Republicans have a War On Women, this is one heck of a defense.

And, offense.

As a "woman of a certain age" I am appreciative of this new Body Politic, as parts of my body are, shall we say, less "perky" and "firm" than they once were.

Oh, someone is shaking his or her head and tut-tutting about how this country is going to hell in a hand basket and what do you expect when abortion is legal and . . . . .

I'm really not exactly sure what is going on here, but I do think Lena Dunham's nudity and the efforts of other feminists are part of a whole and I don't think it's as bad as some think it is.

I think every generation that begins to emerge into adulthood seems Really Bad to the previous generations of adults. 

These are the next generation of women who were no doubt delivered by a woman obstetrician, cared for by a woman pediatrician, and saw women functioning as police, fire fighters, lawyers, judges, elementary and high school teachers, college professors, real estate professionals, priests, ministers, scientists, financial experts, talk show hosts, athletes, bus drivers, actors, poets, musicians, soldiers, veterans, disabled veterans, governors, representatives, senators, Secretary of State, and campaigning for President of the United States of America.

Oh, and wives and mothers.

Sometimes simultaneously.

That's something I did not grow up with and once thought I'd never see in my lifetime.

And, here we are.

All these women - but especially women in their 20s - have a very clear message about their bodies.

If the church is wise, it ought to sit up and pay attention.

What does the institutional church have to give to these young women, besides judgment and condemnation? Who will listen to them and walk with them as they make their way through the 'salad days' of their youth? Who will be there when they fall? Who will love them through to the other side of their experiments and mistakes and successes?

Who will help them make sense of it all?

If the church is not there for them when they fall - without saying, "See? I told you so," -  why should they trust the church when they get back up on their feet again?

I'm glad these 20-somethings are figuring it out. Publicly and honestly. Boldly and fearlessly. Naked or fully clothed. Making mistakes along the way.

That's how they'll learn. That's how we all learned.

And, you know, you couldn't pay me to be 20-something again.

Naked or fully clothed.


8thday said...

I had a bilateral mastectomy two years ago and posted those pictures to my blog. I did it mostly to inform women that early screening may not have saved my breasts, but it did save my life. I only got positive feedback from it.

I went flat chested for two years and only just decided to begin reconstructive surgery. I am also posting those pictures on my blog with the tag line - breasts can be reconstructed, your life cannot. I have received nothing but positive feedback from it.

Still, I have agonized about why I am doing it. I don't think I buy into societal ideals of the physical feminine, yet I am subjecting myself to two major surgeries and months of expanders to accomplish just that. Is it a personal decision based on purely internal feelings or a reaction to the public reaction to my flat chest? I hope it is the former but I can't deny that the "message" hasn't gotten to me. It is something that still nags at me.

You couldn't pay me to be 20-something again either. But I will have the perkiest boobs in the nursing home : )

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

My dear - of course, you have heard the message and, of course, part of you is reacting to it. The larger part, I think, is a victory dance into which your body has invited your heart and soul and mind. Two years since the invader has been cut out if your body. Two years since you have grieves the loss of part of your body. Cancer has not won. Your body is calling out for an outward and visible sign of victory. Let the celebration begin! Let those who see what you do think what they will. Your body will not lie to you. Trust it with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul. And let it lead you in a dance of celebration. Joy anyway!

JCF said...

"Whaanga lost more than 100 friends on Facebook after posting the pictures"

Safe to say that (earlier) number was another case of "Friends-inflation", courtesy of Facebook.

Martie Collins said...

I don't mean to be picky, but it's the National Organization for Women. Back in the old days, critics of NOW would say "of", either because they didn't know or because they were attempting to make us look like a gang of crazy, angry separatists. Some of us were, of course, but we could see the irony in excluding anyone from an organization that was fighting exclusion. (Or most of us could. I do remember the controversy about the Lavender Menace. I hope we've come a long way.)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - could be. Did you click on the link and look at the picture? Not easy on the eyes.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Martie, you are absolutely right and even more right to correct me. I do remember 'back in the day' and I know enough to have gotten it right. I also remember the controversy about the Lavender Menace - in the early days, Margie Adam I think it was, did a whole song about "Leaping Lesbians" that, every now and again, I have to play and giggle over the way these amazing women laughed in the face of homophobia.

Bold and Brave and Fearless they were, and we are the better for their witness.

Martie Collins said...

There was quite a controversy in Pennsylvania NOW with the "Gotta Dance" resolution, i.e. that there would be a dance at every State Board Meeting. There were even purple t-shirts with Emma Goldman's quote, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution" and a picture of Emma. We did have dances where they played "Leaping Lesbians." Good times!

8thday said...

Thank you for that beautiful response. It made me very teary - in a good and grateful way.

I have seen the Whaanga photos and I'm thankful for her courage to represent those of us who are "not easy on the eyes." I am blessed that neither my partner nor any of my friends have rejected me because of my scars. (I don't do FaceBook and don't think I will ever understand the definition of "FaceBook friends")

Thank you again for your kind and encouraging words. I don't dance but I am always celebrating!