It has been widely acknowledged that HBO’s “Girls” features what is likely the worst sex ever seen on the small screen—or, at least, the worst sex with a female mind at its emotional center. This is fumbling, incompetent sex, performed on a dirty couch in yellowish lighting and filmed from unforgiving angles. Hannah, the character played by Lena Dunham, who is also the show’s creator, gets mounted from behind by her terrible not-quite-boyfriend, Adam. He instructs her to lie on her stomach and “grab her legs” and responds to her nervous small-talk with “let’s play the quiet game.” She ends up with her face pressed into the sofa and her rear-end hoisted. You have to strain past mortification to find it funny, and even then it is less funny than grim—a spectacle of bodily humiliation. The sex on “Girls,” which premiered on HBO last night after a massive marketing campaign, has been praised for its brutal honesty; it has also been criticized as objectifying, moralistic, and just plain un-fun. But the humiliation, more than the sex itself, is what makes this show so singular.
Awkward nudity has always been part of Dunham’s artistic approach. In college, she made a short film of herself bathing in a fountain on Oberlin’s campus. In her breakout film Tiny Furniture, she wandered pantsless around her mother’s apartment. The discomfort she stirs up in viewers comes from a kind of mortification of the flesh: Here she is in full view, with normal-sized thighs and loose abdominals. In one episode of “Girls,” explaining her decision to tattoo herself, she says, “I gained a bunch of weight very quickly [in high school] and I just felt very out of control of my body and it was just this riot grrl idea like, I’m taking control of my own shape.” Her exposure is at once a kind of self-flagellation and an act of self-possession.
On “Girls,” Hannah—who spends more time naked onscreen than anyone else—constantly compares herself to her best friend Marnie, played by the lovely Allison Williams. “Victoria’s Secret angel, fat baby angel,” Hannah says, pointing to Marnie and then to herself. But Marnie has her own issues: She has grown bored of her adoring boyfriend, whose touch, she says, “now feels like a weird uncle.” During sex, her face barely registers her boyfriend’s cries of pleasure—she only wants it to be over. Then there is Jessa, the British bohemian who conveniently miscarries on the day she is scheduled for an abortion, and Shoshanna, who is deeply ashamed of her virginity.
When women embarrass themselves on screen, it tends to be cute or slapstick or both: Zooey Deschanel splayed on the floor in high heels, Maya Rudolph in a wedding dress squatting in the street with food poisoning, Lucille Ball adorably messing up one domestic task after another. But “Girls” takes female humiliation to a new level. In one scene, Adam sits behind Hannah and jiggles her stomach. “I think your stomach is funny,” he says. “Maybe I don’t want my body to be funny, has that ever occurred to you?” she replies. It feels like a retort both to the pageant of well-formed bodies having acrobatic sex on cable television and to the Bridesmaids mode of using the imperfect female shape to generate physical gags. In “Girls,” women’s bodies do not have to be strictly funny or strictly sexy, which may be this new show’s boldest stroke. Instead, they are emotionally complicated: one more source, in the uncertain landscape of post-college life, of anxieties and self-doubt.
FEMALE NUDITY FIRST surfaced onstage in America in the burlesques of the 1840s through 1960s, which spoofed the social behaviors of the upper classes with performances featuring bawdy humor and scantily clad women. These women used near-nakedness as a way of being funny; Lydia Thompson, the famous burlesque actress of the late 1860s, once wore skimpy tights while playing a man, and her show became one of the most successful in New York. By the end of the nineteenth century, burlesque comedy had begun to use naked women largely as props, featuring men who leered at the ladies and made sexual jokes. And by the 1920s and ’30s, these shows had devolved into stripteases, until pornography became widespread enough to render burlesques mostly obsolete. So in the entertainment world, nudity evolved as a tactic used mostly for the purposes of male titillation.
Even today, female nudity, though occasionally unglamorous, is rarely unappealing onscreen. Aging women’s bodies are sometimes used for comedic shock value (Kathy Bates’s hot tub scene in About Schmidt, 85-year-old Jessica Tandy skinny-dipping in Camilla) or to winkingly show us they’ve still got it (Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give, who wows Jack Nicholson when he accidentally glimpses her in the buff). But it is hard to summon another example of a young female body used onscreen as anything but an object of lust. “Girls” is unique as a genuine portrait of young women being naked with men and feeling weird about it, rather than sexy or triumphant.
Because “Sex and the City” comparisons are inevitable—and the show invites them, as one character has a “Sex and the City” poster on her bedroom wall—it is hard not to think of Samantha in bed with some strapping creature, looking lithe and blissful. On “Sex and the City,” sex was a prize, an achievement, a consummation; on “Girls,” it is a marker of adulthood to be grimly tolerated, like having a job or paying rent. What made “Sex and the City” funny was the incongruity of hearing “I’m done with dick” and “It’s my clitoris, not the sphinx” from women with impeccable hairdos and glossy Jimmy Choo pumps. Their over-sharing was a spectacle; they shocked us with their raunch. Not so in “Girls,” where no one has fabulous stories to tell about sex or even seems particularly eager to talk about it. It mostly just exhausts and confounds.
Of course, these “Girls” are at one end of the developmental spectrum of adulthood, embarking upon careers and learning their way through an overwhelming city. The women of “Sex and the City” were at the other end, already professionally established and pushing up against a different kind of adulthood—the pressure to settle down. Carrie and her crew bonded over sex; Hannah and her friends bond over the daily humiliations of life as a twenty-something young woman in the city. The depth of their connection comes from understanding and offsetting each other’s anxieties, which are sometimes related to their bodies and sometimes related to the world outside: parents, jobs, money. On “Sex and the City,” female insecurities seemed fleeting, always attached to a particular relationship with a particular man, and easily banished over cocktails with the girls. These were slick women who had it together in every way but one: They were single. The protagonists of “Girls” are a mess in every way but one: They have each other.
DUNHAM DERIVES MUCH of her humor from forcing her characters to endure long bouts of situational awkwardness that they themselves provoke. Hannah makes a tragically inappropriate joke about rape during a job interview, and we see her interviewer’s face slowly frost over. Hannah lies in a gynecologist’s chair and rambles through a speech culminating in the revelation that perhaps she wants AIDS, and the doctor looks up at her in horrified reproach. And so she is far less reminiscent of the posh ladies of “Sex and the City” than of a certain species of male comedian: the likes of Woody Allen and Larry David and, as Emily Nussbaum wisely points out in her New York cover story, Louis CK. These are decidedly average-looking men who seem displeased with their bodies but resigned to them. When they attempt sex or seduction, the results are similarly dispiriting. “I ate too much and masturbated too recently,” Louis CK says in one stand-up bit. “The meal is not over when I’m full. The meal is over when I hate myself.” The body is a source of countless humiliations: social, scatological, sexual. On “Girls,” Hannah eats a cupcake in the bathtub and, at one point, wearing only a towel, googles the phrase “diseases that come from no condom for one second.” “You were never fat, you were soft and round like a dumpling,” an ex-boyfriend tells her. “Thanks,” she replies.
Though Hannah is insecure and self-deprecating in the mold of the gloomily obsessive male comics, her self-esteem survives more or less intact. We know she’ll be okay in the end, largely because she is so enmeshed in her network of girlfriends. This is what sets her apart from the Woody Allens and Louis CKs of the world, who are fundamentally solitary, and who seem, beneath the jokes, to be nursing a self-loathing that runs deep. Woody Allen, in the end, is alone inside his own head, but Hannah has Marnie and Jessa. In the world of “Girls,” female friendship is both a retreat from solipsism and a force that combats body-related insecurities. It is also the most safe and comfortable form of physical closeness these young women have. They talk on the toilet and while in the bathtub. They sleep in the same bed. “I could not be more proud of you for getting this abortion,” Shoshanna tells Jessa. Hannah asks Marnie to schedule her STD test. They bond over their bodily humiliations.
Meanwhile, the adults of “Girls”—the parents, the gynecologist, the interviewer—are mostly uncomprehending and impatient. They are clearly a long generation away from the world of Hannah and her friends, for whom intimacy is outsourced to Facebook and Twitter. And the adults—in the first three episodes, at least—are never naked. Hannah’s parents are both wearing conservative full-body pajama suits when she stumbles into their hotel room at night.
Nudity is reserved for young people, but not because they look good naked. It is because nudity entails humiliation, whether during sex or at the doctor’s office. Nudity on “Girls” often means trying and failing to be an adult. It is not the sex itself that is important, it is the embarrassment of exposure: the indignity of being naked when you do not want to be, with someone who doesn’t appreciate it. When Marnie and Hannah have a (fully-clothed) two-woman dance party at the end of the third episode, it is the show’s most comfortably physical scene. They swing their hips and flip their hair and wave their arms with total abandon. These are young female bodies at their least self-conscious, and it is the moment in which you realize that, though the girls may be struggling, they are going to be alright.
Laura Bennett is the assistant literary editor of The New Republic.