Generally speaking, when America spends an inordinate amount of time pondering a celebrity body, that body is drum tight and hasn’t been within 10 feet of a carb in months. In the ogle algorithm of our culture, the likes of Hugh Jackman’s pecs, Scarlett Johansson’s hips, and Nicki Minaj’s butt are most apt to emerge at the top of the lists.
But many, many people have paid a whole lot of attention to Lena Dunham’s body. With its baggy curves and asymmetrical proportions, Dunham’s physique has been the subject of endless media analysis — cue phrases such as “pseudo-post-feminism” — and Twitter noise. Conversations about her HBO series, “Girls,” which wraps up its third season on Sunday night, inevitably come down to how readily she removes her clothes and how casually she ignores popular standards of beauty for women.
Rather quickly, the 27-year-old actress and writer has become a provocative figure, and a relatively complex one at that. The questions she inspires aren’t at the level of “Is she on drugs?” — as they are with the likes of Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber — but rather, “What is hypocritical about our culture?” Dunham has hit us in a tender spot, where we simultaneously celebrate glossy-magazine imagery but grieve the body-shaming of women, where we simultaneously expect women on TV to be likable but dismiss them for being shallow and not as compelling as our male antiheroes.
It’s a potent kind of fame, the way just the idea of Dunham polarizes audiences, many of whom don’t even watch the modestly rated “Girls.” She has reached a level of American love-hate that triggers strong feeling and debate, so that people who don’t like her don’t just ignore her. The frequent — and often funny — Gawker takedowns of her ultimately only affirm her position as a star who resonates with audiences.
Many of the Dunham haters reject her because they find her body offensive. Howard Stern — another polarizing figure — gave voice to some of them, saying, “She keeps taking her clothes off and it kind of feels like rape.” (Dunham called his show and tangled winningly with him. “You’re not obese or anything,” he said by way of apology, to which she responded, “Thank you – another thing for my gravestone.”)
Because she is pear-shaped, the thinking goes, she’s not supposed to be comfortable with her body, nor is she supposed to reveal it to the world; only the Gisele Bündchens walking this earth should be allowed. Furthermore, men with muscular bodies like that of Adam Driver, who plays Hannah’s boyfriend on “Girls,” are not supposed to be attracted to her type; she belongs with the scrawnier, geekier Ray, played movingly by Alex Karpovsky.
Other haters see Dunham as representing the worst of the millennial generation — a grown-up helicoptered child with little sense of the wider world. Since Hannah on “Girls” is a chronic upspeaker who has strong narcissistic tendencies — at an editor’s funeral this season, she inquired about the fate of her book — Dunham must be the epitome of a selfie-obsessed age group. Irritatingly, Hannah often opens her inappropriate criticisms of people with the phrase, “I feel like” — as if her family’s therapist told them to use that phrase to soften the blow. She’s the queen of TMI. While she’s hiding her body, some think, she should just shut up, too.
Meanwhile, her supporters, ranging from Claire Danes, who called her “unnervingly relatable,” to journalists including this one, have admired her willingness to reject aspirational storytelling for something less prettified, less Photoshopped.
Here’s the thing. Underneath all the analyzing of her, all the issues that people project onto her, all the side-taking over her, and all the carping about her $3.7 million advice-book deal (“Not That Kind of Girl” comes out in October), there is a fresh, amusing, and sometimes dramatic performer. She has precedents in funny women such as Sandra Bernhard and — I know this is a stretch, but here goes — the early, awkward Barbra Streisand. She’s the traditional side character moved to center stage.
If you can push aside all of her cultural notoriety as a nonmodel who isn’t afraid to be naked, you’ll find an impressive if sometimes uneven writer and actress. She has a distinctive, raw, and sometimes hilarious take on young women and men, sex, friendship, and romance, one that, unlike, say, “New Girl,” isn’t afraid to chronicle embarrassment and defeat. She didn’t invent nudity on HBO, obviously, but she has taken it in a far less glamorized direction, with shots of her in the bathtub or playing naked Ping-Pong – all in the name of creating an intimate portrait.
In some ways, she shares a sensibility with Amy Schumer and Mindy Kaling, who are also trying to push the characterization of women to a more honest place in a Hollywood dominated by men. They are not the cool girls who can make guy humor with the guys; they’re decidedly uncool and inconveniently verbal.
But she has brought her very own style of blunder to that mix. It has been said before: Dunham is a counterpart to the more realistic male characters that Judd Apatow, an executive producer on “Girls,” has developed with Seth Rogen, Martin Starr, and Jason Segal, whose naked body in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was also notably baggy. It will be interesting to find out what she does with America’s squeaky-clean teens Betty, Veronica, Archie, and Reggie when she writes four “Archie” comic books next year.
I understand that her comedic style isn’t for everybody; there’s a strong streak of cringe in her work on “Girls.” Hannah so frequently breaks the social code, which decrees that you don’t show your body if it’s not porn-worthy, you pretend you’re not self-interested, and you never feel contempt for your friends. Hannah isn’t as purely id-driven as Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but she has plenty of wildly indiscreet moments. Her interview with Patti LuPone this season was classic, as Hannah quickly made the conversation entirely about herself.
She also brings in other tones, satire — Shoshanna is nothing if not a millennial-generation caricature, and Brooklyn’s gallery culture also takes a few knocks — as well as pathos. The pathos on “Girls” can be heartbreaking, as in its treatment of Hannah’s stress-related OCD, including an episode of ear-cleaning that lands her in the hospital. This season of “Girls” has been a group shot of friends trying and failing and trying again — to find outlets for creativity, to negotiate sex and love, to survive in New York, to be true to themselves but connect with others
The nudity? It adds realism, it adds intimacy, it adds confrontation, and it is a comic tool. Indeed, Dunham can make Hannah’s occasional awkwardness about her body quite funny, as she did this season in the “Beach House” episode. On a whim, Hannah wears a bright green bikini into town, but soon, she is the only skin-showing person on the main drag, and she feels imprisoned by that choice. Dunham makes you feel all of Hannah’s discomfort, as well as her effort not to show her discomfort. It’s hard-to-watch physical comedy — subtle, painful, and worlds away from Lucille Ball.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.