Girls stripped bare
Art has never had a good name. Plato ruined it when he said it could be nothing more than a reproduction of reality; something – and I’m paraphrasing The Symposium here – of even less practical use to us than a Golden Age of the Railroad Etched Commemorative Tankard.
Art has not appreciated much in its critical value since then. Aristotle, who agreed art was a reproduction of reality, said it might help us to work a few things out. Art is, at best, a tonic. Here. Drink it down from this worthless pewter mug.
Of course, the Renaissance had different ideas about the transformative power of art. So did Dr Freud. But let’s not let the useful thought of previous centuries stop us from watching television as most everybody does. Let us, for the moment, agree that the popular understanding of art is back in antiquity. That is, “armchair” critics (as though there were any other kind) see art for its usefulness in explaining the world.
No one has felt the sting of this figurative criticism more keenly than the young auteur Lena Dunham. The 27-year-old creator and star of the very, very good HBO series Girls has had her work assessed almost entirely for the relation it bears to reality.
In progressive US publication Mother Jones, the show was decried in its first season for the “blandness” of its characters. This was the overture to a critical sinfonia that had at Dunham for being too white, too middle class and too naive about being white and middle class. She was warned by The New Yorker, The Atlantic and a range of online publications to, as modern cant has it, “check your privilege”.
That Girls was, in fact, in the business of checking not only the privilege of its deliberately selfish central characters but every detail of their social construction as white, middle-class idiots seemed to be missed. Critics asked for more of “the diversity that makes life in New York City so special for young women’’. In The Daily Beast.
Even James Franco, a protégé, like Dunham, of Judd Apatow, had a go. In The Huffington Post he said he could see no men who resembled him in Dunham’s work. Many of us are annoyed that there are generally so few men who resemble Franco. And, certainly, none of the underachieving, uncertain and vulnerable men of Girls did. They represented only the disappointments visible through a lens that is in the business of documenting not all reality but the shabby optimism of a silly, if compelling, young protagonist.
Currently in its third – and I would say best – season, Girls has recently served up rather a lot of “incidental” nudity. This unsettling striptease is not a matter of showing women “as they really are”; it’s much more a technique of jarring intimacy such as we might see in a film by Robert Altman. There is a scene in the 1993 film Short Cuts, which Altman based on stories by Raymond Carver, where Julianne Moore speaks on the phone naked from the waist down. It is not sexual. It is not a “statement” about body acceptance. It’s just an instant of intimate strangeness where somehow, we are seeing a mons veneris that is not, in any way, particularly female. This nudity, like Hannah’s nudity, becomes mise en scène. Dunham’s sublimely selfish Hannah Horvath, who is always dressed like a thrift-store Bridget Jones in ambitiously undersized hand-me-downs, gets her kit off at least once an episode.
So, perhaps we could see this nudity as part of Dunham’s ongoing idiosyncrasy as an artist. We probably should. She is, by her own account, an artist. In 2012, she reminded an interviewer from Time that “The Sopranos started when I was in the seventh grade”. Dunham has never seen TV as distinct from the art of the French New Wave cinema, in whose visual language she is fluent, and so her difficult nudity can be read as discontinuity; as her version of a jarring jump-cut close-up that reminds us: this is art.
But it is not read as art. It is read as a Positive Move for Young Women. Popular critics will not allow Dunham to be Jean-Luc Godard when it’s simpler to make her Bridget Jones.
In newspapers, news sites and on social media, Dunham – who was asked by a very Aristotelian critic at a January press conference why she was “often naked just at random times for no reason” – was applauded for her nakedness. Not because the nakedness extends the language of art but because it was great to see an “unconventional” beauty let it all hang out.
But Dunham, who by the age of 24 had been invited to lunch by Nora Ephron and Judd Apatow, is not remarkable for letting it all hang out; rather, she is remarkable for forcing it all to hang together with such a capable hand.
Granted, there were a few soap-operatic moments in season two which Dunham and I could have both done without. However, this filmmaker’s consistent control is the most laudable thing about her. She is not speaking for her generation and she makes this plain from the outset when Hannah says, season one, episode one, to her incredulous parents, “I may be the voice of my generation.”
It is clear in this moment, which is a plea for money to sustain a literary talent that the audience always sees as uneven, that Dunham rejects the universality of speaking for anyone but herself.
Of course, critics are entitled to view the work as useful realism. Many young women writers derive great satisfaction from the display of a body that is slightly larger than most other female bodies seen on TV. But this satisfaction eclipses appreciation of a cultural product more significant than Dunham’s body. In our joyous fixity on this unconventional body, what we are not seeing is Dunham’s unconventional work.
Dunham is a literate, cinema-world girl and not an idealised farm worker such as we might admire in socialist realist posters. Her work should disturb our idea of art, and of TV as art, and not reaffirm our ideas of what it means to be real; or to be a “real” woman.
Dunham is lucky, at least, that this interpretive criticism is now positive. For the first two seasons, she was criticised all over the shop for “excluding” people of colour from her lens. While it was true that Hannah’s small world was very pale, it was also purposely filled with evidence of a selfish midwestern girl’s superego. Hannah, through whose naive eyes we see a quasi-literary New York, is as likely to really see a person-of-colour as a pre-1980 Woody Allen might be to see a non-Freudian analyst in his films.
Of course, now the critics who demand absolute realism in art have struck Allen off their Netflix lists for allegations of his real-life crimes. The work cannot be divided from the man and the criticism cannot, for shame, be severed from the dreary business of reality. Let us hope these critics learn enough soon enough to allow Dunham the occasional privilege of making art and not inspiration.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 8, 2014 as "Girls stripped bare". Subscribe here.