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Naked as We Came: What Lena Dunham's Nudity Says About Us

Posted: 21/01/2013 00:00

Lena Dunham has once again become the focus of media attention this week for something that should be entirely unremarkable: for having the body of an average female human, and for exposing said body on screen in her Emmy award-winning HBO show, Girls. Dunham appears naked in the new series of the show she writes and stars in in a variety of ways, and not all of them in a sexual context (she appears in one memorable scene in the nude, eating cake. We've all been there) and the reaction amongst the show's American audience has been, on the whole, one of disgust and a sense of something distasteful and embarrassing; that Dunham is causing a scene by refusing to be ashamed of her body, or avoid nudity apart from a carefully prescribed, semi-pornographic context. Dunham's nudity is strange in that it is entirely different from almost any other type of nakedness we are routinely exposed to.

The anodyne inoffensiveness caused by 'normal' nudity in other shows, and by other actresses, stems from the total desensitisation that has occurred in the censorship of anything but the ideal female body, which in turn is a body designed to cause the minimal offence possible: it is a body with all quirks, all overtly personal aspects removed. The effect of the consistent exposure of slim, large-breasted, toned women in the media has been well-documented with regards to its impact on the self-esteem of women, but in this case the problem is more that the 'perfect' body is one stripped of the peculiar intimacy that, by rights, comes naturally with nudity. We are unfamiliar with seeing a 'real' body represented on screen, and the intimacy that it creates is startling, and challenging, and the challenge makes us uncomfortable, and discomfort leads us all too often to the kneejerk reaction of criticism and of disgust.

Our attitude towards nakedness is bizarre, and hugely regressive. The actress Eva Mendes, who has appeared nude on screen several times, has said "we seem okay with violence, but nudity we race to criticise and censor", and this is particularly apparent at the moment with the release of Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Django Unchained. Tarantino has generated almost as much public scrutiny as Dunham for the heavy violence in his films, but in Tarantino's case there is at least an acknowledgement of the fact that he uses extreme violence as a means of artistic expression, something that has become a trademark of his work. We make no such allowances for nudity, however, despite it being something that, after all, should surely be classed as less dangerous and harmful to potential impressionable viewers than systematic decapitation, no matter how amazing the soundtrack.

The naked body is humanity at its most vulnerable and its most truthful, and it should be celebrated not only for its potential to be beautiful but also its potential to be funny, and awkward, and sad, and old, because this in turn is all that we are, and can be. Instead, we condone it only when it is wheeled out and painted in tired one-dimensional shades of sexy, for titillation purposes only, and we react viciously (Howard Stern said that Dunham's nudity "kinda feels like rape", a misnomer that is a whole other ocean of fish in itself) to the suggestion that we look at it afresh and celebrate it for what it really is.

Lena Dunham is an award-winning, talented writer and actress, and this is the first thing we should be talking about her for. Her approach to nudity is a secondary concern, but it is ground-breaking (although arguably breaking ground we should have left behind several centuries ago) and should be serving to shake us from the stupor of the blandification of over-sexualisation, particularly in a year that has already seen Beyonce spend a double page spread in GQ magazine defining feminism by the baffling admission that she owns a copy of every photograph ever taken of herself (and keeps them! In her house!) and Esquire magazine has run a feature that gives Scheherazade a run for her money by describing Megan Fox's figure in approximately one thousand and one different ways. Lena Dunham's bottom, then, in all its normal, average, fantastic glory, should be heralded as a turning point in our attitudes towards nudity: a herald of a happier, healthier, naked-er time to come.

 

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