Sunday night on CBS, nearly thirty million people saw Lena Dunham attending the Grammys with her boyfriend, fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff–a reasonably good-looking young guy who, I’ll just say it again, is the guitarist for a Grammy-winning rock band. To my knowledge, this was not especially controversial.
Sunday night on HBO, a smaller amount of people saw Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath hook up with Joshua, a middle-aged doctor played by Patrick Wilson, in the “One Man’s Trash” episode of Girls, which I loved. The reaction of many folks–at least in TV discussion forums and at Slate’s Guys on Girls column–was: how would someone who looks her end up with a guy like that?
For the sake of argument, I’ll accept the premise that Patrick Wilson is better looking than Lena Dunham. This is all subjective (personally, Adam’s more my type but no one asked me), and I mean no insult. But I’m going to guess that most observers would consider Patrick Wilson better-looking than most of us. He is certainly far better-looking than me. Also, I can’t see you, but you are probably better-looking than me.
All of which makes the hubbub no less silly. Asymmetrically-attractive couplings may turn heads, but they happen. They happen in real life, as my colleague Belinda Luscombe wrote in a great essay a few years back. They’ve happened to me, to my good fortune. (All those friends who gave a surprised, “She’s so beautiful!” when they first met my wife–you were correct, and the hint was not lost on me.) I’m going to guess that they would happen, to a high percentage extent, on those occasions when a recently-separated 42-year-old guy has the 24-year-old barista from up the street knock on his door and jump him. (Though I will need to consult the sociological journals and get back to you on that.)
And they happen, constantly, in movies and TV–at least when the less-than-hottie is the guy. They happen, as Alyssa Rosenberg pointed out, in hit movies like Knocked Up and scads of sitcoms like According to Jim and The King of Queens. I don’t mean that anyone who criticized the Girls episode is a hypocrite, because the fat-guy-hot-wife trope is pretty routinely mocked by now. But it also routinely reoccurs, regardless.
Regardless, the idea of imposing real-world standards of attractiveness on any movie or TV show just seems pointlessly literal. These are works of fiction in which characters are portrayed by actors. Actors! Call up a dozen paper salesmen and tell me how many Jim Halperns you find.
So I naturally assume that–as in a dramatization of a true-life story–most characters on TV get an attractiveness upgrade. Patrick Wilson is the TV version of a reasonably attractive real-life middle-aged Brooklyn doctor who can probably afford a good gym membership.
The difference here–and part of the triggering disparity–is that Lena Dunham has not given herself a TV upgrade. She’s playing, if not herself, her own author surrogate, something only a few creators get to do on TV, especially female ones. When I interviewed her last year before Girls premiered, she half-joked that she had always assumed, if her show ever got picked up, Hannah would have to be played by “someone like Kat Dennings.”
Dunham’s casting is more unusual, but men have gotten to do it before (and the occasional woman like Tina Fey). Most notably, Woody Allen–a major Dunham influence and forebear in New York sensibility–played opposite one hot actress after another since the ’70s, he getting older, to paraphrase Matthew McConnaughey in Dazed and Confused, while they stayed (roughly) the same age.
There’s a difference between how Woody and Lena played it, though, and I wonder if that difference is what ultimately unsettled some viewers of Girls. In his movies, Woody Allen might not acknowledge that he was dating above his rank, but he observed the classic bargain of thus-situated comic actors: to play his sexuality for laughs. He would be awkward, clumsy, self-deprecating. He might have serious relationships, but he wouldn’t portray his characters as objects of sexual desire. No topless ping-pong for him, that is—or for the Seth Rogens and Kevin Jameses of the pop culture world. (Even on 30 Rock, while Liz Lemon grew more confident over time and realized she was actually a catch, she would still riff on Liz’s vanilla sex life.)
What Dunham did in “One Man’s Trash” was different, and thus more of a challenge to viewers: she had Hannah own her sexuality and flaunt her sexual power in her fling with Joshua. She was openly floored at how amazing his brownstone looked, but not at how he looked. There was no holy-shit-how-did-I-luck-out? here. When he asks her if she believes she’s beautiful, she says that she does, but that it’s not the feedback she’s used to getting. She makes him beg. She insists on coming first. She’s confident, which is one of the first ingredients listed on the the sexiness package. She acts like she belongs there, and therefore she does.
In other words, Dunham doesn’t offer the usual trade-off of self-deprecation that we expect from the Jim Belushis and Kevin Jameses of TV–and I have to wonder if that was part of what unsettled some viewers about the episode. Maybe people were thrown not by Josh’s sexiness–but by Hannah’s.