Lena Dunham takes up a lot of space. Some people seem to think the writer and actress takes up more space than she should. In an era that is progressive on the surface and reactionary an inch below, women in popular culture are still expected to scale themselves back, to shrink to fit a template of attractiveness and likeability, and to never be the loudest voice in a room.
Let’s look at Ms. Dunham’s body for a minute – everyone else is. The star and creator of the hit HBO series Girls is a beautiful 27-year-old, but she does not conform to standards of televisual hotness. She does not look like Kerry Washington or Julianna Margulies or Nina Dobrev or any of the other denizens of the planet Impossibly Perfect who were shipped to our ragged world under cover of night and now masquerade as “one of us.” Instead, Ms. Dunham has lush thighs and intricate tattoos and the kind of stomach that will make 99 per cent of the women in the land say, “Hey! Wait a minute. That’s my stomach. How did it get on TV?”
Last weekend, on the premiere of the third season of Girls, there was Ms. Dunham, playing lead character Hannah Horvath, naked as she so often is, and happily in the embrace of her dubious boyfriend, Adam. Just her and her flesh – no coyly placed sheets, no pretty bras. Her nudity is flagrant and unashamed, and some people apparently find it deeply unsettling.
TV critic Tom Molloy stepped on a sleeping crocodile when he asked Ms. Dunham about her choices during a panel discussion in Los Angeles: “I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show. By you particularly. … Your character is often naked at random times for no reason.” Judd Apatow, the show’s producer, went ballistic and accused the reporter of misogyny. Ms. Dunham, who must be bored to tears with questions about her flesh, shrugged it off: “It’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you are not into me, that’s your problem,”
I mean, she’s heard worse. Howard Stern, ever a scholar and a gentleman, called her a “little fat chick” and added, “It’s so hard for little fat chicks to get anything going on these days.” (She responded, quite wonderfully, that she wanted his words printed on her gravestone.) Even the allegedly progressive interviews she does turn wearyingly and predictably to her body. In a recent story in The Guardian, the reporter writes approvingly that she looks “less bulky” in person.
What’s great about Ms. Dunham is how unrepentantly “bulky” she is – not just in shape, but in ambition. Her grasp is large – she’s a director, writer, producer and actor, and will soon publish a memoir – and society doesn’t particularly like grasping women. She does not seem neurotic, self-loathing or in pursuit of some chimera of self-improvement; she’s not the “before” picture in a diet ad. Perhaps those things would make her more “likeable,” but then she’d be less real. Ms. Dunham takes up a lot of space in the culture, as I mentioned – the backlash began almost as soon as she arrived.
Her character, Hannah, is constantly shown eating. When was the last time you saw an actress eat on television, unless it was kale with dressing on the side? Hannah wolfs down doughnuts and tacos, and astonishingly this does not prevent her from having sex with men who find her attractive. She doesn’t sidle across a darkened room in a floor-length nightie, as all women except Kate Upton are expected to do.
It’s Ms. Dunham’s curse that she has become the touchstone for every anxiety young women are feeling about themselves: She may not be the voice of a generation, but she is its body. Even feminists are unsure how to deal with her. This week, a controversy raged over how much Photoshopping had been done to the photos of Ms. Dunham in February’s Vogue magazine (the cover shows her face but, tellingly, not her body). The website Jezebel paid for and published the untouched photos, trumpeting the scoop as if it were the Pentagon Papers.
I’m trying to imagine how Jonah Hill or Seth Rogen would react if they were asked incessantly about whether they loved their hips and if they had made peace with their figure flaws. Yet we keep talking about the size of Ms. Dunham’s behind, as if it’s as important as the virtuosity of her talent. It will keep happening as long as women who look like her are as rare on TV as happy marriages.
Here’s what I wish for Ms. Dunham: that just one interviewer breaks ranks and refrains from asking about her appearance; that she does not get caught up in more faux Twitter controversies about her face, feet or anything in between, so that she has more time to write Girls. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t need this advice – she’s got a mind, and a body, of her own.