Owning Her Abjection: Lena Dunham's Queer Feminist Sexual Politics

Curator's Note

From the 2007 YouTube short featuring her bikini-clad and brushing her teeth in a public fountain to the 2012 Emmys opener “revealing” her sitting naked on a toilet scarfing cake, 26-year-old Lena Dunham has devoted the past several years to making her flabby torso into a political statement.

No condescension intended; quite the contrary. Dunham’s body, with which her fans are by now intimately familiar, accomplishes precisely the opposite of conventional uses of female nudity to conceal and deny women’s humanity.

Dunham’s aspiring writer Hannah, chief protagonist of HBO’s Girls, is mocked by love interest Adam (Adam Driver) for not having the B.M.I. of Megan Fox. Rather than dissolving in Bridget Jones-style self-loathing, Dunham remains unapologetically defiant both in character and as herself. With relatively free rein at HBO and supplemented by social media self-promotion, Dunham insistently presents images of imperfect female bodies (it’s rumored she contractually arranged for only Hannah and the actress playing her middle-aged mother to be shown nude on Girls) along with acts of (sexual) self-degradation.

In feminist theorist Julia Kristeva’s formulation, abjection is a heteropatriarchal tool for coercing female bodies into regulated social subjects, alienating women from their bodies and one another. The psychic trajectory that Dunham’s provocations evokes is one of uncanny self-regard: disgust turned outward then inward, with judgment becoming recognition, then admiration.

Driven to explore and find inspiration in what is typically deemed abnormal or shameful, Dunham is America’s equivalent of French writer-filmmaker Catherine Breillat, who forged her own notoriety as a teenage memoirist and continues to court controversy with her authentic (allegedly un-simulated) depictions of sex and her deliberate desecration of Lolita-like fantasies of girlhood sexuality. Breillat and Dunham invert pornography’s “frenzy of the visible” to reveal misogynistic forces of female abjection, validating women’s bodies, desires, and voices through images as well as subversive confessional “speech acts” (see clip).

Season 1 ends with Hannah alone watching the sunrise over Coney Island, dressed in last night’s clothes, again eating cake. That it is a moment neither of shame nor triumph but of tentative sublimity indicates the degree to which Dunham and (despite its ill-advised title) Girls re-envision female subjectivity as self-determining, women-loving, body-positive, pro-sex, and – to borrow an advertising slogan – contoured for her pleasure.

Comments

Jennifer Lynn Jones's picture

Size and Difference

Maria, thanks for broaching the subject of size. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in relation to the show as my dissertation is on corpulence and celebrity. Something that concerns me though in the reaction to the show is that Dunham’s body seems to be used to override the concerns about the lack of other forms of diversity, and indeed, becomes the main form of difference in the show. Just wondering if you might have any further thoughts on that. Thanks again!

Nedda Ahmed's picture

Dunham as model?

Thanks for kicking off the week, Maria!

Although I have some problems with the show (as Jennifer alludes to, above), the body-acceptance “vibe” Dunham’s putting out there is refreshing.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on Dunham’s turn modeling for the clothing website ASOS (see: http://www.refinery29.com/lena-dunham-asos). A glimmer of hope for a wider variety of body shapes & sizes in fashion advertising? Or a craven attempt by a clothing brand to capitalize on Dunham’s popularity? Both?

Maria San Filippo's picture

The body makes the Girls?

Thank you, Jennifer Lynn and Nedda, for your valuable comments.

While I’m troubled by the way that Dunham’s “realistic” body is balanced by the three quite “ideal” measurements of her female co-stars — not to mention the fetishizing flaunting of the frequently shirtless Adam (see the clip posted with my piece in which Adam’s abs and scale feature prominently) — it’s my sense that reactions to the show are far more highly trained on its lack of racial diversity (as this theme week’s title indicates) than on its refreshingly non-grotesque treatment of its pleasingly plump star. I hope to have some discussion this week about the question of how certain shows (and Girls is certainly one) are expected to carry a disproportionate amount of the weight, so to speak, for representing multiple forms of difference on TV.

As for Dunham’s modeling gig, I’ll say this: I understand her need to make a living, I’m glad to see a gal with curves in fashion photography, I hope the clothing is manufactured compassionately, and I definitely believe it beats Beyonce’s and Britney’s shilling for Pepsi (see yesterday’s NYT piece by Mark Bittman: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/05/why-do-stars-think-its-o-k-to-sell-soda/?hp).

"Realistic-body-shaming"?

Thanks again for kicking us off Maria! I think you raised some very great points, in particular that the show points out the abjection. However, while it seems clear that Dunham owns her body, I’m not a 100% sold that the show or even her character does. Adam, avid runner with the rippling abs, frequently poked fun at Hannah’s physique, and I don’t think she took up running out of any intrinsic desire to lead a healthier life, but instead out of a misguided desire to please him and bond with him. The other characters, the more “physically ideal,” make cracks about her small chest. Even her explanation about her tattoos is blustery but fraught with hidden insecurities. I suppose my point is that in a show that is so hinged upon this aspect of autobiography, how do we discern where Dunham ends and Hannah begins? And what are the implications of that on the politics of this show?

Maria San Filippo's picture

A refreshing lack of body envy

Great point, Jing, that the conflation of Dunham’s personal and professional selves and her fictional self Hannah muddy the waters here. But the other female characters’ remarks about Hannah’s body weren’t, in my viewing, intended negatively; rather they seem genuinely to find Hannah attractive, and to be willing to compliment her on physical characteristics not conventionally idealized, e.g. small breasts. It’s a reason I find the show’s depiction of women’s relationships with one another refreshing, for dispensing with the catty competitiveness that characterizes so much of TV’s representations of female friendships, though certainly there are other exceptions to this beyond Girls.

Chris Tokuhama's picture

The Ongoing Debate about Dunham's Weight

Regarding the Hannah Horvath thing, I also muse on the nature of the relationship between Adam and Hannah in order to consider how Adam continually picks up on Hannah’s underlying current of self-hatred (or at least dissatisfaction) as the sex scenes surely indicate. Sexual dynamics aside, though, Adam mentions Hannah’s weight a couple of times (e.g., “You’re not that fat anymore”) with the fight in Bushwick representing the encapsulation of how much Hannah’s weight has affected her sense of self.

Some of the questions that I walked my undergrads through were regarding the extent to which that sense of one’s body (as a young female) are typical—did these young women find themselves putting up with men who exploited their insecurities? I was curious to see how the undergrads drew connections between female identity and the body (and then, of course, how class, sexuality, and race served to complicate things). We ended up having a productive discussion about the rise in white rural fat bodies in television and how individual viewer responses to Hannah’s laments were often determined by class more than race although I urged the students to consider that the two dimensions are continually linked in televised representation of women.

But I do think that there does seem to be a bit of conflation between Hannah/Lena in reviews of Girls with regard to weight (much more so than on the topic of race)—for example, http://weblogs.variety.com/on_the_air/2012/04/why-hbos-girls-is-worth-th... I wonder how this will all shake out when Dunham’s advice book (http://gawker.com/5966563/here-is-lena-dunhams-37-million-book-proposal) comes out.

Phillip Maciak's picture

Regrettably Titled.

I really enjoyed this post, Maria! Mine on Wednesday will speak to many of the same issues, so I look forward to an ongoing conversation.

I think you bring up a really good point about Girls in particular being saddled with a disproportionate amount of grief for its failures of representation. Throughout the time of The Backlash (which I date as January 2012 to the present), it was puzzling to see how insistently the racial critique was made. It’s a fair critique, but it’s also a critique that could be leveled against half the television shows on the air right now, not to mention shows that claim diversity merit badges but feature only one person of color. Girls, as has been said, is not the only series guilty of this crime.

And I agree with you that what’s troublesome and perplexing is not that the critique was launched—if Girls is what makes people talk about the crazy racial politics of contemporary TV, then so be it—but that it obscured the body types, points of view, and modes of sexuality and sociality that the show actually does represent. While a show like How I Met Your Mother emerges relatively unscathed after debuting with a white cast AND reinforcing many of TV comedy’s other problematic old conventions, Girls—which is often an unusually strong critique about the misogyny of contemporary TV—gets lambasted for not doing enough.

Why? Do people read the title along with its presumption of total universality as too arrogant to stomach? Did the nepotism critique lead to the insularity critique lead to the racism critique, bypassing the show’s feminism? Is it that while real racial diversity is something TV audiences simply don’t see that often, “self-determining, women-loving, body-positive, pro-sex” feminism is something TV audiences are afraid to see at all? In other words, TV has both a race problem AND a misogyny problem. Dunham should be criticized for concentrating on one while failing to even superficially address the other, but if critics want to hold a mirror up to Girls, it seems we should also note that Girls is holding up a different mirror of its own.

Grief or 'getting down'?

The mirror Girls holds up is, perhaps, a speculum. There is something blithely confessional about the show that borders on shocking—hence the wave of critique that met it in 2012. I remember watching it the first time and being absolutely put off by Hannah’s HPV-positivity, her joy at joining the society of “adventurous women” who all share the same viral badge of honor. The spread of HPV is presented, not as a public health issue, but as a rite of passage. But though the show does not contradict Hannah’s celebratory response, it provides ample room for our reactions, be they horror or joining in Hannah’s impromptu dance party. As Maria astutely observes, Hannah turns judgement first into recognition (it becomes an opportunity to confront old and current boyfriends), then admiration and celebration. The show seems to ask us, provocatively, What purpose would shame serve here? Is it just as valid a reaction to dance?

Another notable moment in the show is when Hannah takes both the money her parents left for her AND for the hotel housekeeper. The show does not pause to condemn Hannah, nor does it return to her theft or its ramifications, but anyone with a conscience (or class consciousness) can interpret that action as wrong. Despite its title (which, as Dunham says in her 2012 Fresh Air interview, is the word most twenty-something women, in Dunham’s experience, use to describe themselves), Girls presents itself to a viewership of adults. Its undidactic quality is, I think, what invites so much conversation and critique, and what makes it, quite simply, good TV.

Nedda Ahmed's picture

Critical Double-Standard?

Thanks for your comments, everyone!

Phil—you bring up some interesting points about The Backlash. In reading some of the commentaries last year, I was also struck by the hypocrisy inherent in many of the responses. Was Girls really that much worse in terms of diversity than other shows? I don’t recall a lot of diversity on Game of Thrones, either, but I don’t remember much critical outrage when that show aired (at least, not outrage about diversity).

The show has its problems for sure, but this issue puzzles me. I wonder if there is an unspoken and different set of rules for Dunham because of her gender, age, background, education, political views, etc.

We will get more into the show’s reception next week. Should be interesting!

Just a thought

I think people would be far less critical of the show if the show wasn’t prematurely anointed as the contemporary answer to Sex and The City by armchair feminists and the Hollywood press machine alike. I recall Jezebel even begging readers to pay for HBO just to support Dunham. Really guys?

I remember reading one of the earliest articles that criticized the show’s lack of diversity. Although I have issues with a few points the author raised, I understood the basic premise. We’ve seen Carrie Bradshaw. We’ve seen Mary Tyler Moore. We’ve witnessed the “White Girl Big City” story reincarnated over and over again. What’s really new this time, and why should I be excited about it? The criticism appeared early because the praise, support, and politicizing of this show was early…premature, actually. This is why I take issue with the idea of framing the diversity criticism as “disproportionate grief” or “disproportionate weight”. The praise is real but the criticism (of a show in contemporary NYC, no less) is somehow overstated? Only to those who don’t take the point seriously. Or at least not that seriously. Diversity is now a “burden” or “weight” to be carried? The “hype” insisted that this show would fill some sort of void that we (the audience) had for female-centered television. At least we had some choice in deciding which preceding shows of this genre were meaningful to us. If you are going to present a show in this manner, I think it’s fair for a portion of the audience to say, “thanks, but no thanks”.

Other HBO shows like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire (a period drama) HAVE managed to use ethnically diverse casts. As a fan of GoT books, I take issue with how the show has been interpreted for TV, but that’s another subject. How I Met Your Mother is not on HBO. How I Met Your Mother was not shoved down our throats as groundbreaking television. Mad Men, a show that I adore, has received plenty of criticism for it’s lack of diversity. Just as the acclaim was organic and deeply felt, so was the criticism. There was no massive rush to defend the creators of this show…no calls to fairly distribute this “burden”. The response to criticism indicated real concern for the integrity of the show on behalf of the writers and producers. It did not involve childish twitter responses like that of Lesley Arfin. A similar criticism was also launched against Sex and the City, I recall. I look forward to an article that actually goes beyond trying to list other “all white shows” as evidence that the criticism is unwarranted or burdensome for The Anointed One. Dunham has touched on her inability to write characters of color because of her lack of interaction with them. There is SO MUCH that could be said about the paradox of a segregated New York City, even amongst the young progressive types, or issues around interracial female friendships. The complete absence of that conversation, and her response to the criticism (essentially saying she can only write what she knows), shows Dunham’s weakness as a writer.

Probably in fear of some 1960’s era boycott, Dunham’s answer to the “minority problem” is the inclusion of Donald Glover (a black male) this season. I am a little tickled by this fact, because I wonder if diversity or minority are now code-words for Black. If history is any indication of what’s to come, he will have a sexual relationship with the least conventionally attractive woman on the show, then fade into obscurity in a humorous but uncontroversial manner. Just a hunch.

I was able to watch five episodes of Girls before throwing in the towel. When I realized that Judd Apatow was the hand behind Lena’s hand, it all made sense. Like Bridesmaids, everyone kept telling me it was hilarious, groundbreaking feminist comedy. Much like Girls, I did not get it. Then I read that the funniest parts (if you still think fart/poop jokes are funny) were put in the movie by Apatow. I would love to know just how heavy Apatow’s hand really is in guiding this show. What is true authorship, and how much does it matter?

I genuinely do not think this show is good. I don’t think it’s terrible, but it’s not good (to me). It’s an exercise in navel-gazing that is frequently associated with my generation and I look forward to a young talent with the ability to convey more than a glossy version of their own life when capturing some thread of contemporary youth culture. All four characters feel like thinly veiled extensions of the writer. Much like her film Tiny Furniture, where the main character is a slightly more pathetic version of Hannah. Is this what female empowerment looks like to contemporary feminists? It’s narcissistic and gross. Yes, gross. Dunham’s body politics are not transgressive. She falls right in line with existing stereotypes about insecure chubby girls, sexual availability and poor self-esteem. The mere existence of a pudgy person on television is not progressive or transgressive, especially when coupled with three thinner girls that balance out her attempt at edgy politics. Adam’s initial mistreatment of Hannah, Hannah WANTING her boss to sexually harass her….am I watching a different show here? I think Dunham wants some of the sexual scenarios to be awkward and funny, but at some point, after the initial shock wears off and you are desensitized, it’s just kind of sad to watch.

A part of the backlash also comes from the fact that Hannah and her band of friends have few redeeming qualities. Each and every character seems to be off-putting in her own special way, and unapologetic about it to boot. Even mob bosses and criminals are shown passing out turkeys or cradling their children. Regardless of background they are humanized. The Girls of Girls are incredibly lazy and self absorbed. Hannah steals from the maid without thought or remorse. It would have been hilarious if she were seven years old…I guess. The fact that people who actually want to like the show still struggle to like the characters is telling.

The fact that she has received a third season with lower rating than several canceled HBO shows is also telling.

I don’t blame Dunham for the hype. The conversations around the show seem to have taken a life of it’s own and it’s a springboard for conversations about larger issues at this point.

Lastly I must say, shilling overpriced clothing and $20 nail polish is a lot more than “making a living”. And the phrase itself is the antithesis of Dunham’s circumstance, but I’m not interested in beating the dead “privilege” horse at the moment.

Please, let’s stop trying to make Dunham something that SHE isn’t even sure she wants to be.

Maria San Filippo's picture

In praise of character flaws

Thank you, Chizoba, for weighing in so thoughtfully. I’m sure your comments will continue to inform our discussion this week and next, so I’ll respond with just a few follow-up remarks for now.

Prompted by Jing’s reminder above about the importance of distinguishing among the various Dunhams (person, star, character), I think it is critical to note that the considerable hype around Girls is not its creators’ doing entirely. Media reports that anointed the show as “the next this” or “the first that” may have served the agenda of the show’s creators but, as you note, its hyper-branding by “armchair feminists and the Hollywood press machine alike” shouldn’t constitute the yardstick by which we measure the show.

Ethnically diverse casts are not in and of themselves constitutive of an engagement in the conversation about race, and representing diversity is only a burden insofar as its expectation is levied arbitrarily or unequally. While I soundly concur that the “paradox of a segregated New York City” is ripe for televisual conversation on Girls and elsewhere, and that there should be more racially diverse people “writing what they know” for TV, I disagree that Dunham’s not having addressed interracial relationships (or the lack thereof) in any substantial way during season 1 constitutes weak writing. Instead, I’d argue, it constitutes Dunham’s authentically subjective account of her own solipsism and that of her racially and socioeconomically homogeneous circle. That’s not weak writing, it’s weakness of character – and as we see in the pilot episode when Hannah steals the housekeeper’s tip, her character is undeniably flawed.

And it is significant, I think, that “the chubby girl” here is our chief protagonist rather than the sidekick. I also disagree that Hannah conforms to stereotypes of the insecure chubby girl; she may be insecure, but that’s not exclusively or even primarily depicted as being associated with her weight. That she’s insecure and occasionally awkward and clumsily figuring out which of her desires are actually HER desires (rather than the desires of her would-be boyfriend or her friends, or the result of her cultural indoctrination) is what makes her “off-putting” character interestingly human and blessedly un-role-model-like.

Phillip Maciak's picture

The hand behind the hand.

Chizoba, I take the diversity criticism of Girls very seriously. I think it’s on the money, I think critics have an ethical obligation to make it, and I think if more television shows were subject to the intensity of that critique, television as a whole would be better off. When I say “disproportionate,” I mean exactly that. When Girls was released, the show was effusively praised—I think a little wrongly—as a generation-defining statement, and it was effusively criticized for its lack of racial diversity. Having watched the show and been struck by its sexual politics, I was surprised at how comparatively few pieces I read on that subject. The diversity criticism on a whole was not necessarily overstated, but there was simply way more of it than there was criticism about the show’s feminist POV.

I do think, however, that it’s dangerous to identify Judd Apatow as “the hand behind Lena’s hand” for Girls or the hand behind the Wiig for Bridesmaids. Regardless of whether or not you feel that the feminist politics of Girls is a new thing under the sun, Lena Dunham is, by my count, the only female showrunner on HBO. And she is one of a very small number in television generally. I think it’s wrong to assume that Apatow is pulling the strings, especially because such an assumption implies that Dunham can’t be pulling her own. Do people assume that Terence Winter is taking orders from Martin Scorsese on Boardwalk Empire? Or, if we are displacing Dunham’s authorship, why not assume that Jenni Konner—another executive producer and collaborator on Girls—is the guiding hand? As I said in my earlier response, TV has a race problem and a misogyny problem. And I think it’s important to see their structural similarities. (It’s almost bizarre that Dunham can be so sensitive to sexual politics and turn such a blind eye to racial ones, for instance.) The arguments about race and Girls, like those about feminism, are about enfranchisement, about dominant and emergent voices, about creating art that is considered and progressive, and about not letting convention or—as today’s post has it, “accident”—dictate what a show looks like. I think the question you bring up about “true authorship” is a good one—and one that’s being addressed in today’s post—and I hope we can continue having conversations about it over the next weeks.

P.S. My post tomorrow talks a bit about Game of Thrones (the series), so I hope to meet you again in my own comments section soon!

Karen Petruska's picture

Girls as rorschach test

I think it is virtually impossible to call a show a “bad show.” By what terms do we assess television such that we can deem one valuable or not? I’m an anti-“quality” discourse gal, but I am equally anxious by direct rejection of any form of expression, particularly one that had so clearly hit a nerve, as has “Girls.”

I watch the show, and I have all sorts of thoughts about it. But what interests me about “Girls,” as a scholar, is the way the show acts as a rorschach test for critics. The discourse about “Girls” more often than not reveals just as much about the people who write about it as it does about the show. It highlights what we long to see on television, be that a more diversified representation of the female body, or of race, or an exposure of privilege, or a challenge to the masculinist ethos of the quality television brand of premium cable (that’s how I’d consider it, FYI). In that way, this show has become incredibly valuable because it becomes this fantasy bad object that allows all sort of dreaming on the part of critics. It is because “Girls” is somewhat daring, I think, that critics push it to be moreso.

Thanks, Maria, for your thought provoking post, and to all the commenters for making my sleepy brain work on a Tuesday morning.

Emanuelle Wessels's picture

Quality

Hi Karen, I agree. There is something intriguing going on with Girls that speaks to shifts in branding (I think) in the social media age. I suspect that part of what is going on is that Dunham-and HBO-are retooling the notion of quality to involve buzz and social media presence, middle and highbrow (including academic) critique of the show’s representational politics, and other forms of intellectual commentary. Does Girls push back against masculinist notions of quality television? Yes. Is this oppositional position, at least in part, a shrewd strategy to ensure another modality of “refined” dialogue surrounding the show? Quite possibly. Is the whole endeavor earnest social commentary or cynical capitalism, or some combination? Hard to say. The rorschach test is a great analogy!

Melissa Phruksachart's picture

Race and gender: conjoined, not opposed

Karen, I agree that one of the most interesting aspects of Girls is the public discourse around it. Chizoba is right to contest the ways in which “the racial critique” — or critiques, rather — has been spoken about in terms of unnecessary excess (as if “race” is only about the presence or absence of blackness). This is not to overlook Maria’s important point about the portrayals of bodies on the show, or Phillip’s call for further examining what the show actually does offer us, because I want to press that representations of bodies never happen outside of or beyond racialization. How can we use this opportunity to think intersectionally about what Girls has to tell us about identity today? I would hate to see a feminist critique of body politics (still!) positioned as somehow opposed or incongruous with discussions of racialization.

That being said, I understand why it seems like the show received a “disproportionate” (if justified) amount of criticism for its lack of racial diversity; out of all the shows on TV, why this one? But rather than framing this in terms of political excess or “puzzling” irrationality on the part of the blogosphere, we ought to ask what specifically about the show invites this critique — rather than assuming that it is an innocent text that has, for some reason, been targeted for open season. (Is there, though, something about the “racially innocent” position of white femininity that does leave Dunham more vulnerable to critique than, say, Louis CK?)

We could consider, as Chizoba pointed out, the great deal of media hype that promoted this show as a “voice of a generation,” etc., and this demographic’s ability to speak back to these promises via the Internet. But the most important element to me is one of genre, and I try to get into this in my post for Thursday: Girls is not your average three-camera sitcom or even a “quality” melodrama. (“Two Broke Girls,” the CBS sitcom about white Brooklyn twenty-somethings, is horribly racist, but in a way that people just seem to expect in industrial television.) Rather, Girls is positioned as a far more “authored” text than most television. I think we’re still trying to figure out what “first-person” auteurist television can be, politically and aesthetically. This is a wonderful venue for that!

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