From Brooklyn to San Francisco, and maybe a couple of places in between, everyone is talking about nudity. What's Lena Dunham trying to prove with hers? And can we ban wangs in public parks without inviting a police state?
Dunham is the creator and star of HBO's Girls, and she writes frequent nude scenes for her character, Hannah Horvath, even when other actors on screen (such as Donald Glover) remain zipped up. Nudity should not be surprising on pay-cable, but Dunham doesn't have the stiletto arms and legs of a supermodel.
Talk-radio host Howard Stern got some attention last month by describing Dunham as "a little fat girl who kinda looks like Jonah Hill and she keeps taking her clothes off and it kind of feels like rape. ... I don't want to see that." Dunham laughed off Stern's comments on David Letterman's show ("It put me in the best mood! I just want to be like, my gravestone says, 'She was a little fat chick and she got it going."), which may have been an unavoidable, tiny concession to the idea that there's some self-deprecation behind her show-off scenes. That's how we interpret male nudity when it involves non-Adonis actors like Jason Segel and Louis C.K. (who flashed his privates on his 2006 HBO sitcom Lucky Louie). Anything for a laugh!
From Daniel D'Addario's Salon post on Girls:
“Not only does she look like them, but her matter-of-factness about her body is the way they feel,” said xoJane editor Jane Pratt of her writers in Dunham’s age group. Pratt ran an essay by a writer praising Dunham’s showing off a body “remarkable in its unremarkableness.”
I have no reason to doubt there's a generational shift concerning nudity, at least among educated urbanites with enough money for skin care. (Hannah seems to be free of acne, excema, hairy moles, etc. That kind of thing would probably be too real even for HBO.) I'm not sure that guys in their 20s with female roommates habitually walk around the house with erections, as depicted on New Girl a few weeks ago (wearing pajamas, but still...), but I'll buy that a Hannah Horvath would feel no need to cover up in her own apartment.
What some people may find harder to take is that Dunham is in control behind the camera, adding to a sense of ... entitlement? Presumptiousness? Unmitigated chutzpah? Dunham held nothing back in this week's episode, "One Man's Trash," which seemed to be, as Todd VanDerWerff put it in his strongly positive review, "everything people who hate Girls hate about Girls." (Also known, he writes, as "a self-indulgent show about over-privileged white people and their stupid, pointless problems, with a self-absorbed woman possessing no self-awareness at its center, and she keeps taking off her clothes.")
In "One Man's Trash," Hannah hooks up with "Joshua," a rich 42-year-old doctor with classically handsome looks, played by Patrick Wilson. This episode provided a new way to talk about Dunham's looks, as seen in a now-somewhat-notorious Slate.com post by David Haglund and Daniel Engber, the latter of whom wrote:
the episode felt like a finger poked in my guys-on-Girls eyeball, or a double-dog dare for me to ask, How can a girl like that get a guy like this? Am I small-minded if I’m stuck on how this fantasy is too much of a fantasy?
My impression was that Joshua, recently separated from his wife, invited Hannah to stay in his ridiculously opulent apartment for a couple of days of sex out of boredom more than anything else. Haglund and Engber are correct that Hannah becomes rude and irritating; I think that stoic Joshua wants to be rid of her by the time she goes on and on about her recent discovery that she wants to be happy, but he's too committed to being a "nice guy" to say so. It's notable that we don't get long looks at Joshua's nude body, perfect as it's supposed to be, the way we've gotten eyefuls of Hannah's ex, Adam, and some of the younger guys on this show. (And all of them more appealing than the plastic Joshua.)
So what we've got is a show where the younger characters who take off their clothes are flawed but honest and authentic — and the handsome older guy with a perfectly sculpted body shows more decorum but is jaded and inexpressive. Except for the fact that a woman wrote it, this isn't a new story at all. Didn't all of us believe it in our 20s?
The other nudity news story of the new year is the ban on going full frontal in San Francisco, which went into effect on February 1. The uproar over the ban, a reaction to "a band of so-called 'Naked Guys, gathering daily in the Castro District" (Los Angeles Times) seems more like something from the 1960s than from the gentrified Brooklyn of Girls.
But could nudist rights appeal to the frustratingly elusive constituency for urban libertarianism?
The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf makes the contemporary case for tolerating skin in the city. I think he's sincere, but I don't know how much traction he'll get among older anti-government types:
There are rational public health reasons to prohibit nudity in restaurants or on buses. Naked kids in public schools would be a distraction that harmed the learning environment. But a blanket ban that extends to all city streets, parks and beaches? People who value freedom and pluralism ought to oppose it, especially if the given rationale is a government duty to "protect" the public from what it "does not wish" to see. I do not wish to see pigeons. I do not wish to see advertisements. I do not wish to see the subset of tattoos that depict dolphins leaping from the ocean. Tough luck for me! I'd rather not see a naked, obese octogenarian tanning in Golden Gate Park either, but if it makes her happy I can get over my shallow aesthetic preference. Like the cities that ticket youths whose sagging pants leave their underwear exposed, blanket bans on nudity are motivated mostly by a majority's desire to enforce its aesthetic preference on a minority, and to establish in law certain notions of what is moral and proper.
Would Lena Dunham and her friends join the Tea Party if it became a defender of the right to bare... everything? Would the National Rifle Association just flee to another country in response?
Nah, I can't imagine the right to go nude is going to fit with the quality-of-life concerns that define municipal politics in big American cities. The possibility that it might lead to the return of smokers' rights is enough to scare most people from going down that path.
There's more to be said about the pros and cons of normalizing nudity (I still have a post on participating in nude yoga half-written somewhere), but for now I'll leave the rest to your imagination.Top photo from "Nude Beach" episode of Bob's Burgers (Fox); bottom photo from "One Man's Trash" (HBO).