Girls and Nudity: Why Naked Women Don’t Have To Be Titillating

What don't you get, Tim Molloy? Lena Dunham's skin-flits serve an obvious purpose

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Season three of HBO’s Girls premieres Sunday, but Hannah Horvath’s nudity is already a topic of discussion.

At a Television Critics Association panel for Girls on Thursday, a writer for The Wrap asked the show’s creator and star, Lena Dunham, why she insists on appearing naked so often on the show. “I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show. By you, particularly,” the writer, Tim Molloy, said to Dunham. “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, likely bored by the subject which has been raised again and again since the show’s first season, brushed him off by saying her aim was realism. “It’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive,” she said. “If you’re not into me, that’s your problem.” Judd Apatow, who executive produces the show along with Dunham, took a harsher stance, later accusing the journalist of asking a question that was not only “sexist and offensive, it’s misogynistic.”

But Molloy was still confused, going on to write a post about the panel where he again noted his confusion over why Dunham’s character frequently appeared naked. “I don’t like it or not like it,” he wrote. “I just don’t get the artistic reason for it, and want to understand it, because I’m a TV critic.”

It should be obvious to a TV writer — and any other savvy consumer of pop culture and/or thinking human being — that there are reasons why a female character would appear naked onscreen that go beyond “titillation.” First of all, there’s a comedic aspect to nudity and as Girls is ostensibly a comedy, nakedness is often used this way. Think of the scene in season two where Hannah, high on cocaine for the first time, trades shirts with a total stranger in a club in the middle of the dance-floor. She then spends the rest of the night walking around braless, in a mesh top. It’s not gratuitous nudity, it’s meant to be funny — and it is. Of course, it’s possible that Molloy doesn’t find scenes like that particularly amusing, which is fine. But the fact that he can’t recognize that they’re meant to be humorous is perplexing, especially when plenty of male characters have used their nudity as a punchline in the past with no questions asked. Think of Jason Segel’s full-frontal nude scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall – not titillating, but many found it hilarious.

But the nudity on Girls often serves another valuable function that is neither funny nor sexy, in that it illustrates the intimacy between the show’s characters. Hannah’s nakedness typically occurs in the presence of her girlfriends or someone she’s sleeping with. (Though not always during a sex scene. There are numerous sex scenes in Girls that show very little skin.) Take, for example, another scene in season two where Hannah is in the bath and Jessa (played by Jemima Kirke) shows up, distraught over the sudden collapse of her marriage. Without saying a word Jessa strips and joins Hannah in the tub. As she begins to cry, Hannah holds her hand. Both characters are nude, but there’s nothing titillating about it. The characters simply share an intimate, vulnerable moment, like many close girlfriends of a certain age would. It’s a beautifully done scene, and the nudity allows it to take place with very little dialogue.

Girls is peppered with moments that are funny and poignant and Dunham often uses nudity, her own and her casts’, to emphasize these moments. Sure, not every viewer enjoys it, but then again not everyone likes the provocative nudity on Game of Thrones. But what’s really troubling is not the amount of skin that appears on either  show, but the reaction to it. For anyone who thinks that female nudity should solely be about titillation — and are subsequently confused or even angry when that’s not the case — has a disturbing view of women’s place onscreen. And if Dunham and Girls helps shift that view, I say bring on the nude scenes.