Can sex still shock? Lena Dunham’s naked body in “Girls”

Like every good feminist I can mouth the rhetoric: In the last three decades, the acceptable female form has grown ever more circumscribed, forced to adhere to a strict set of guidelines in order to please society’s critical eye. Women’s bodies are the canvas on which patriarchy writes.

At the same time, sex has continued to work overtime in America, blatant imagery standing in for quality products in ads, for thought-provoking writing on television, for emotional connection online.

In media and advertising, more often than not, sex is signified by the female form, a form which is slowly shifting, becoming ever more botoxed, hairless, prepubescently lithe, vaginally rejuvenated, evenly tanned, white teethed, shiny-haired, devoid of cellulite, surgically enhanced and preternaturally young.

Yet sex is by nature bodily. Sex involves fluids and smells and orifices, the antithesis of the neutered imagery we’ve been primed to associate with it. So can a female form girdled by our sterilized societal perimeters truly represent sex?

No, and that’s just how we want it. Evidence: the critical reaction to HBO’s Girls, more specifically to its creator and star.

Photo: Jon Koplaff/Getty

Given our current airbrushed beauty standards, Lena Dunham doesn’t measure up. On the short side, cute in a pert, even doe-eyed way, Dunham is probably of average weight, her skin pale and her teeth uneven. Critic Linda Stasi describes her in less generous terms, writing “it’s not every day in the TV world of anorexic actresses with fake boobs that a woman with giant thighs, a sloppy backside and small breasts is compelled to show it all.” Within her review, Stasi echoes the responses of other critics and viewers alike when she calls Girls “Revolting and heart breaking,” a representative sex scene “ugly to watch.”

While I’d label Stasi’s commentary inexcusably cutting, her disgust with Lena Dunham as sexual being is shamefully familiar. Watching the show, I found myself stunned by Dunham’s willingness to bare her body, caught off guard by the rawness of her sexual entanglements. But what was it, I wondered that made her sex scenes so viscerally affecting? Sure, Girls is, uniquely blunt in its depiction of the sexual experiences of young women, however; the actual sex portrayed is not necessarily more explicit or unusual than that shown on, for example, Sex and the City or Californication. The difference is bodily.

No other show offers viewers a sexually active, physically ‘imperfect,’ female protagonist. We are not, therefore, shocked by Girls by virtue of its content. We are shocked because the very un-retouched nature of Dunham’s body makes what she chooses to do with it somehow more sexual. Without the soothing anesthesia of unnaturally perfect female bodies, we see sex for what it is: powerful and sometimes grotesque.