Naked if I want to: Lena Dunham's body politic

Critics can't stop cringing, but the "Girls" star's prolific nudity harks to a decades-old feminist art tradition

Published February 9, 2013 8:00PM (EST)

Lena Dunham         (HBO)
Lena Dunham (HBO)

In Hollywood, it seems you're only allowed to be naked if you're Megan Fox. If you're not, you had better be apologetic about it, like Melissa McCarthy in "Mike & Molly." But God forbid you're a woman with an unconventionally beautiful body and you're okay with it. That's when people like Howard Stern start to get hysterical: Lena Dunham, whom the radio host described as a "little fat girl who kind of looks like Jonah Hill” and likened her taking off her clothes to rape, has become a feminist heroine largely due to the fact that she unapologetically parades her naked body across the TV screen. Dunham has been both derided and deified for baring her unconventionally beautiful figure throughout both seasons of her HBO series. (And don't expect her to stop anytime soon, she told Entertainment Weekly in a February cover story: "My point with getting naked is never proven.") And through her performance, she has established a new body ideal. Carolee Schneemann, the feminist artist who originated nude performance art in the ’60s and was dubbed “body beautiful” for her stunning figure, believes Dunham does more than add a dose of reality to the “deformations” – “the swollen puffed up lips, the emaciated shapes, the huge inflated boobs” – that populate Tinseltown. “There’s nothing deformed about Dunham,” she said. “She’s the ideal of normal.”

Five decades after female artists first started exposing their bodies in public, Dunham has absorbed this feminist art tradition and dragged it into the realm of the mainstream. In the second season premiere of “Girls” earlier this month, the 26-year-old actress, writer and director’s body took center stage three times in a space of 30 minutes: once before the credits as her character Hannah Horvath bounced on top of her boyfriend, once when she changed her dress in front of a friend and once in the closing scene when Hannah stripped off to reveal her thong to the camera. Though only three other episodes have aired since then, Dunham has appeared naked, in some form, in all but one. In the third episode, Hannah gets high on coke and trades tops with her dance partner, who, unfortunately, is rocking a yellow mesh shirt. Hannah removes her top in the middle of the dance floor to reveal her naked chest, which is barely covered by the Day-Glo fishnet she proceeds to wear through a Metro Drugs. "I usually hate when you wear your nipples out in public like that," says her gay ex, Elijah, mid-snort. "But you look so beautiful right now." The latest episode of “Girls” contains Hannah’s most low-key nude scene of the season so far, in which she briefly flashes her breasts in a bath.

The second series’ surge in flesh sparked a parallel surge in press that had been brewing since the first season. In December, Hello Giggles had already published an article entitled “Why Lena Dunham's Body Matters (and Why It's Ridiculous That It Does)” only to be eclipsed by the show’s racial anemia. But now that season two has kicked off with a black cast member, “it’s time to properly freak out about Lena Dunham’s body,” as the Daily Beast puts it. New York Post TV critic Linda Stasi called first dibs on the wunderkind for having “giant thighs, a sloppy backside and small breasts,” while Stern added, “I don’t want to see that.”

“People are saying, ‘How dare she show her body? She doesn’t have the perfect body!'” said Danielle Knafo, author of the 2009 book “In Her Own Image: Women's Self-Representation in 20th Century Art.” “But in the ’60s, the women with the perfect bodies were showing their bodies, and they were accused of the same thing.”

Before Schneemann lay naked in her 1963 installation “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions,” female artists kept their own nudity out of their work. “It was private, it wasn’t part of any explicit cultural discussion except as pornography or science,” Schneemann said. “The taboo about penetration and moisture and intercourse, really that overrode any other aesthetic conversation.” She started including herself in her own “body collages” in response to the “constrained realm” in which female artists lived. “I thought that was suppressive and an artifice and it didn’t respond to the way I experience my own life,” she said. “I thought I could work differently.”

Man, did she ever. In her controversial 1967 film “Fuses,” which won the Cannes Film Festival Special Jury Selection prize a year later, Schneemann recorded herself having sex with her boyfriend then manipulated the celluloid – staining, painting and re-editing and mixing the images with nature photographs. In so doing, she revealed how a woman's depiction of her own sex act differed from a man’s. Despite stating in her 1976 book, titled “Cezanne, She Was a Great Painter,” that her work was intended to make “a gift of my body to other women,” Schneemann was promptly labeled a narcissist and an exhibitionist. It was a criticism largely reserved for women, claimed renowned feminist art critic Lucy R. Lippard in her seminal 1976 essay “The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth: European and American Women’s Body Art.”


“A woman using her own face and body has a right to do what she will with them, but it is a subtle abyss that separates men’s use of women for sexual titillation from women’s use of women to expose that insult,” she wrote, adding, “Men can use beautiful, sexy women as neutral objects or surfaces, but when women use their own faces and bodies, they are immediately accused of narcissism.”

Though Lippard allowed that there is an element of exhibitionism in body art – “perhaps a legitimate result of the choice between exploiting oneself or someone else” – she refused to accept that artists like Schneemann were vain. To illustrate her point, she used male performance artist Vito Acconci, whose 1971 work “Seedbed” had him lying underneath a gallery ramp masturbating and fantasizing about the visitors above. “Because women are considered sex objects, it is taken for granted that a woman who presents her nude body in public is doing so because she thinks she is beautiful,” Lippard wrote. “She is a narcissist, and Acconci, with his less romantic image and pimply back, is an artist.”

While Schneemann was exposing her unblemished back on the East Coast, Judy Chicago promoted performance art on the West Coast. By the 1970s, Chicago had reportedly coined the term “Feminist Art” prior to launching the Fresno Feminist Art Program, the first of its kind in the U.S. There, she used performance as part of a “consciousness raising objective,” according to Jayne Wark, author of 2006's “Radical Gestures: Feminist Performance Art in North America.” Like Schneemann, Chicago employed the medium to break women out of their established position in society. “I discovered – long before feminist theory – that my young female students all knew how to ‘perform’ femininity, and I helped them translate those abilities into performances,” Chicago said via e-mail, “including 'The Cock and Cunt Play,' which I wrote and used to help the students deal with their limitations because the 'female role' (as we called it then) interfered with their abilities to grow as artists.”

Throughout the ’70s, performance art began to proliferate (“Women often flock to new creative areas because there are not the same institutional barriers,” said Chicago), with conventionally beautiful women like Schneemann at the helm. According to Knafo, pretty performers would use their looks to “question the person with the gaze.” In Hannah Wilke’s 1979 work “So Help Me Hannah: What Does This Represent/What Do You Represent (Reinhart), 1978–1984,” for example, the artist sat in a corner lost in thought, naked, her legs spread. “It would ordinarily be a pornographic image but it’s not because she’s got her hand on her head and she’s thinking, so you see her as a thinking woman, not just as a sexual object,” Wark explained.

Though body image seemed to be less of a concern 40 years ago, Schneemann said “the same over-idealizations inhabited women's sense of how they should be or could be,” and some of that bubbled up to the surface of their performance pieces. In "Carving: A Traditional Sculpture" (1972), Eleanor Antin recorded herself losing 10 pounds over 37 days, playing with the idea of Greek sculptors carving at marble to create ideal forms. Two years later, Canadian artist Lisa Steele blurred the gender lines when she filmed close up images of her various disembodied imperfections in the video “Birthday Suit — with Scars and Defects.” Though Chicago admits that anorexia and bulimia weren’t yet major issues during this time, she recalls a film in Fresno by one female artist that showed “a very large, naked woman getting into a bathtub and caressing herself.”

Chicago blames the "white male canon" for the fact that, 40 years later, Dunham’s normal naked body is still considered “shocking.” “When I created 'The Dinner Party,' I believed that I would be able to break the cycle of erasure that it recounts in which century after century, women do not know what women before them thought, taught or created,” she said. “Now I understand that we are still IN that cycle largely because the mainstream institutions (universities and museums) perpetuate a male-centered curriculum and art in which women are 'added on.’”

But Dunham is breaking the cycle in one institution at least: Hollywood. The self-styled feminist knows about Chicago’s work, even if precious few others in Tinseltown do. Last April, in response to L Magazine's question of who she would invite “living or dead” to her fantasy dinner party, Dunham listed off everyone from Katharine Hepburn to Tavi Gevinson and said they would all be eating “on plates designed by Judy Chicago.” And while still a student at Oberlin College, Dunham appeared to give Chicago another nod with her 2008 performance piece “The Fountain,” which she uploaded to YouTube. According to the New Yorker, the video (which was removed after garnering 1.5 million hits) showed the 21-year-old student breaking the rules by stripping down to a bikini and performing her ablutions in the campus fountain. Dunham’s work reminded Wark of Chicago’s 1972 performance piece “Ablutions,” a meditation on rape that included a tub in which women were “bathed.”

Over the years, Dunham continued (and continues) to include the art world in various forms in her work. In her first series, the 2009 web show “Delusional Downtown Divas,” which was made for the art magazine Index and includes a cameo by ’60s performance artist Joan Jonas, three pretentious New Yorkers attempt to cash in on their 15 minutes in the local art scene. And in her subsequent indie meta-feature “Tiny Furniture,” Dunham’s college-grad alter ego moves back in with her artist mother (played by the director’s own mom, photographer Laurie Simmons). Then there’s Marnie, the wannabe curator in "Girls" who realizes in the second season that she may already be a dinosaur.

Delusional Downtown Divas #1 (Desperate Decadence) from Delusional Downtown Divas on Vimeo.

For better or worse, Dunham was weaned on art. Her mother is a photographer who creates domestic miniatures with dolls, and her dad, Carroll Dunham, creates paintings “inhabited by rectangular shapes sprouting male genitals,” according to the New Yorker. In an interview with Baltimore City Paper in 2011, Lena admitted that, on top of the semi-autobiographical subject matter of “Tiny Furniture,” her mother’s photographs inspired the film’s minimalist aesthetic. And despite her father’s refusal to appear in her projects, Lena described his work as having “kind of an interesting body-sexuality thing to it that I think I found sort of liberating and inspiring.”

Knafo, a psychoanalyst as well as an art historian, believes Lena’s parents may be the key to why she uses her own body in her work. “Sexuality, dolls, these are things she grew up with, and where did that leave her relationship to her own body? Her own body that is overweight for our culture?” she asked. “Her putting herself out there naked over and over again is in a way saying, ‘Look at me, I’m OK.’” To her credit, Lena basically said the same thing in a New Yorker profile that called her nudity “a pre-emptive strike against disparagement.” “I live in this constant state of 'This is what I look like — fuck you!’” she said, “and being, like, ‘I am so sorry, I want to cover myself up.'” In an interview in the Hollywood Reporter earlier this month, she added that her penchant for nudity “does not come from a place of confidence and is a compulsion.”

Regardless of the psychological motivation behind taking her clothes off, Lena’s nudity is having a positive affect on American society’s psyche. “Lena Dunham is in a way desensitizing the culture by showing her naked body,” Knafo said. “All the reactions to it show all the prejudices that people have about what kind of female body is fit to be seen in the public.” Feminist icon Gloria Steinem told New York magazine's Vulture blog of the HBO show earlier this week, "I am so relieved to see real people saying real words."

It’s about time, considering that bodies like Lena’s were even less welcome in the arts 50 years ago, according to Schneemann. “When I used my naked body, if it hadn’t been ideal, I couldn’t have made any inroads into perceptual consciousness — I would simply have been laughed off,” she said. “But my body was able to confuse the issues because it worked as a double agent: It was conventionally attractive, it could receive attention, and then, what it was doing in terms of my own creative imaging was subverting expectations.”

Lena’s goals are not so lofty. She claimed in an interview with artist Miranda July in this month's Interview magazine that she was thankful that, in the '70s, her mother and other artists of the Picture Generation, such as Louise Lawler and Cindy Sherman, “were trooping around and stuffing their photos in everyone's faces and saying it was OK to have a show that wasn't about big theoretical ideas about math and structure and theory.” Lena is a master at the art of simplicity. While Sherman continues to put on masks, Dunham removes them, both literally and figuratively. “It’s very matter-of-fact — and that’s one of the reasons it has made an impact,” XO Jane editor Jane Pratt told Salon earlier this month of Lena’s nudity. “It’s not like she’s trying to make a statement.” While feminist artists questioned the gaze with their beautiful bodies, she uses her normal body to ignore it. “What ‘Girls’ says is 'Fuck the gaze,'” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic. “Lena Dunham ain't really performing for you.”

Which is not to say she isn’t performing. Lena is a savvy writer and director who is deliberate in her choices, including when she takes her clothes off and what parts of her body she reveals. And just like her ’60s foremothers, her nude performance is less about art and more about raising awareness. As Steinem explained to Vulture, "The more rebellious we become politically and economically in our lives, the more society tries to tell us that there's something wrong with us," including our bodies. "Girls" helps bring us back to normal. “The fact that Hannah exists on TV and is not a size 4 is meaningful,” Lena told UK Metro this year, adding to the New York Times, “I have a body that is outside of the Hollywood norm, and it’s not the kind of body I ever thought would be seen naked on television.”

By Soraya Roberts

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