“How the Nudity & Sex Scenes on Girls Helped Me Love My Body”

In advance of the season six premiere on HBO Canada on Feb. 12, senior editor Briony Smith shouts out Lena Dunham and Girls for creating revolutionary TV that unapologetically celebrates bigger bodies and eye-rolls bad sex

(Photo: HBO Canada)
(Photo: HBO Canada)

Welcome to Girls week here at FLARE! We are celebrating the ground-breaking show in advance of its final season, premiering this Sunday, Feb. 12. Check out our round-up of the Girls stars’ craziest sex scene stories and their best behind-the-scenes moments.

There it was. Lena Dunham’s big blob of a belly, flopping around. I had come late to Girls, after several years of office gossip, think pieces and social media outrage over the flesh that the show’s creator and star spilleth on screen every Sunday night. So I figured I was prepped for the nudity bacchanal.

But the mere sight of all that flab swinging free as Hannah loafed pantsless around her apartment on a lazy Sunday afternoon, or as she heaved out of bed after sex twinged a visceral reaction deep within. Oh, and the sex. There was a lot of sex. Bad sex, good sex…but mostly bad sex, often featuring civilian bodies. It was wonderful to see. Why the reaction? Because it was me. It was all of us.

I have had a belly my whole life. Even as a skinny child. Even at my thinnest as an adult when I’m going to the gym and watching what I eat. My stomach sticks out like a pregnant woman’s, round and hard enough to be offered streetcar seats and congratulations on my impending child.

I’m mostly happy with the way I look—and I’m lucky enough to enjoy the privilege granted to able-bodied white women, and the desire of a loving partner—but accepting my squishiness hasn’t been easy. Not-thin actors are seldom on TV, let alone shown having sex, unless it’s for comedic value. Post-Girls, we have made some strides (the stars of Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer are several pizzas bigger than your standard TV stars), but those niche cable shows have niche viewership, and even the prickly, outspoken sex-loving ladies of many other critically adored comedies like Catastrophe or You’re the Worst are teensy-tiny. Girls stands virtually alone in its brazen showcasing of stomach rolls, flattened post-baby boobs, and glorious thickets of unruly dark pubes both in and out of sex scenes.

So when I was invited to interview the cast of Girls, I was gunning to talk swinging guts and garbage lays. Lena Dunham didn’t see any bodies like hers in media while she was growing up, either, and she, too, was self-conscious about her shape. “I remember my dad saying to me in the sweetest way, ‘you know, in the 1800s a body like yours would be considered very beautiful. It was considered great to be curvy; it meant that you were well-fed and wealthy and fertile.’ And it was like, ‘Thanks a lot, Dad. I don’t want to be pretty in the 1800s, I want to be pretty now.”

Dunham loved Ally McBeal, she loved Felicity, she loved Popular: they all featured quirky, opinionated women who transcended archetype in their complexity. “But,” Dunham says, “they still all looked like sticks.” So, when it came time to write her own show, she says, “I wanted to see someone who is representative of me,” she says. “[Our cast is] by no means overweight, but they don’t have the obsessively-worked-out bodies of television stars. I mean, Jemima had two kids during the course of making the show, and what I love is that she would take off her shirt in the middle of the set and she didn’t give a shit if she was breast-feeding, or if she gained 20 pounds from having her baby. You get to see the vicissitudes and fluctuations of real female bodies. It was really important for us that everyone looked like people. It’s cool to just have a cast where, like, everybody’s teeth aren’t capped. It feels good.”

There are many banner moments of body acceptance on the show to cheer about, many featuring Dunham herself, whose character Hannah Horvath never passes up a chance to strip down. There’s the beach house episode where Hannah spends the whole time lounging about in a tiny bikini (everyone else is dressed). In the season five premiere, she ecstatically vogues around a dance class clad in just an exercise bra and shorts, her belly leaping with the music. In the new season opener, Hannah squeezes halfway into a too-small wet suit, then peels it off to reveal nothing underneath when she has to return the suit to its rightful owner. As the mercurial Jessa Johansson, Jemima Kirke did many nude scenes with gusto now matter how her breasts and body swelled and shrunk and sagged. Guest star and noted pubic-hair proponent Gaby Hoffman sported hers in several scenes throughout the seasons.

(Photo: HBO Canada)
(Photo: HBO Canada)

Allison Williams, who plays the uptight Marnie Michaels, tells me, “Before, when you saw someone with ‘unconventional’ looks—that was always the way they put it— [on TV], we were reminded of it over and over again. It was part of the plot of the show. But Hannah just lives her life, as do Jessa and Shosh and Marnie. They’re just people and they happen to not look like they could also take a right turn and walk down a Victoria’s Secret runway. That goes a really long way because, what is the purpose of this stuff? So that more and more people can watch it and relate to it.” My eyes slit slightly, as the tall, thin, traditionally beautiful Williams would not look particularly out of place on the VS catwalk, but she is quick to acknowledge that the show’s advocacy may be lacking in some ways—but at least Dunham is trying. “There was a legitimacy in the criticism leveled after the first season: that we didn’t, between the four of us, present more of a diversity of background,” she admits. “But part of Lena’s big goal for this next phase of her career is to make sure that all kinds of women and girls all over the world see themselves in the things they watch.”

As one of my favourite sayings goes, “Start small, but start somewhere.” And when the entire world as represented by popular media is often so homogenous, buffed and airbrushed, and when the President of the United States bashes womens’ appearances for sport, showing off a prodigious bush is a way to take a stand. Pube power continues in the season six premiere, when Hannah hops naked out of bed after a one-night stand, only to have her paramour comment in the bright light of morning, “Whoa, you have a lot of pubic hair.” “Yes,” she snaps back. “Like God intended a grown woman to look.” “Nah, I like it,” he replies. Asked if she thinks that Girls is a political show, Kirke replies, firmly, “Yes. Absolutely. Do you think Trump would want to see any of us naked?” Everyone around the table mutters in agreement. She continues: “I can still be naked and look like this and if it is offensive, that’s a problem, so I’m going to keep doing it.”

It is no small feat. Dunham remains under constant attack from trolls screeching with disgust and rage at the hideous audacity of simply existing and creating while not thin or fitting the narrow confines of Western beauty ideals. Tweets rage about the frequency of nudity on the show: “Lena Dunham is she the fat ass who appears naked in every episode of Girls?”, “So Lena Dunham is really bare breast in every episode of Girls. I mean.. I don’t mind, I’m fat too, but I’m not showing it to world neither.” They rage about the the undesirability of women her size: “Lena Dunham thinks showing guns in ads will lead to shootings.  her being naked on tv doesn’t make people want to fuck fat chicks. So….” They rage about her dancing: “my sister is watching Girls and there is this fat whale dancing on the tv, oh wait that’s Lena Dunham, ima fucking barf!” And one person—a woman, actually—tweeted “stop going naked on TV. it makes us all lose our appetite. there’s no art to ur TV show. it’s just a way 4 u 2 b a fat hooker. You’re such a waste of space, I hope you die so there’s one less fat, ugly girl on TV.” Many would rather her be dead than big; one response to Dunham’s comments jokingly calling for white men’s extinction, tweeted, “How about we make fat women who are naked on TV all the time extinct instead? It’ll be easier and more good will come of it.” As executive producer Judd Apatow says, such outcries say more about the trolls than it does the show. “It revealed the shame and insecurity of people who got worked up,” he says. “If you can’t handle a woman showing her body confidently, then maybe you have something you need to see someone about.”

(Photo: HBO Canada)
(Photo: HBO Canada)

Just like female bodies, sex on screen has been slow to change. The irritating tropes and harmful clichés of love scenes are well-known and oft-mocked, but they persist, much to my annoyance, whether it’s the sheets that show off the man’s chest while tastefully hiding the woman’s tatas, instant orgasms the second a man enters a lady, constant violent standing-up sex against walls and quick, simultaneous coming for all. Not so on Girls. Girls shows a famous artist who talks a big, big game splayed like a starfish on top of poor Marnie. The will-they-or-won’t-they tension of Adam and Jessa climaxes paradoxically in a truly disappointing first-time fumble. Marnie and Jessa wearily make out for Jessa’s creepy future husband, and Shoshanna awkwardly attempts to pawn off her virginity on several reluctant suitors.

Even the outspoken Hannah has been slow to tell her lover what she needs or wants. The earlier seasons were rife with terrifying scenes of sludgy sex featuring Adam plowing into a bored, semi-concerned Hannah, who utters small squeaks of faux delight on cue. It was heartening and dispiriting at once: heartening to see a young woman hungry to get laid, dispiriting to see her settle for less than pleasure. Even worse, she liked Adam, and gave him many chances to treat her better. It was hard to watch at times, but it offered something very few shows do when it comes to sex and millennial relationships: solidarity. Finally, I found in Hannah an on-screen counterpart to my own dating debacles, and the misery that can result from not speaking out harshly enough against seemingly nice dudes turned douches like the wasted guy who pissed all over my beloved sheepskin rug and the man who mid-bathroom-makeout took out his dick and instructed me to tell him how small it was. Many shows play bad dates for laughs, but Girls is rare in capturing both the hilarity and the pathos of a bad lay and how the pain of it can linger longer than you expect.

“Just the fact that so much of the sex was bad was revolutionary,” says executive producer Jenni Konner. “That is just not something people do [on TV] and that’s something that young women feel all the time, so when we were shooting the pilot, having the sex be unsatisfying for Hannah felt relatable.” Her favourite excruciating scene? “I loved the way we opened the second episode of the show ever, which was Adam just pounding on Hannah. It was like a weird foreign film with bad sex.” Konner laughs. “And it really was shocking and weird and she’s kind of going, uhh uhh, like bad faking-it sounds.”

Dunham agrees. “The most iconic ones will always be the sex scenes with Adam first season, where we introduced the complex nature of their dynamic,” she says. “Those really spoke to my experience of sex in my twenties and were very therapeutic: not to film, but to put on screen and to have other women respond and go, ‘that’s my reality and it helped me to keep growing and developing.’”

“It all takes time, doesn’t it?” says Kirke. “It all takes practice.” Heading into season six, the show has now become a riot of female desire. As time has passed, and the women have grown more confident in getting theirs, the sex has gotten better and better, hotter and hotter. And kinkier. Girls is one of the boldest shows on TV in its celebration of the more piquant sex acts that me and my fellow millennial women are enjoying as they increasingly own their sexuality. The women on Girls revel in them not for the male gaze but for sheer pleasure. Marnie and Elijah veered into pansexuality with their short (but kinda hot) hook-up, and Hannah got with a lady last season. Marnie infamously had her ass eaten, giving me an easy in to preach the delights of rimming far and wide. Marnie also jerked off furiously on screen, as did Jessa (in front of Adam, no less). Jessa is also a connoisseur of spewing glorious filth, whether it’s gleefully discussing ’80s pop star Tiffany mid-coitus, or egging Adam on to orgasm with some eye-popping role-play dirty talk (this isn’t your standard cheerleader fantasy, folks).

As the sex has gotten more adventurous, it’s also gotten more tender, and, often, more fulfilling. Marnie had a sweet tryst with her ex Charlie last season, followed by the comfort of satisfyingly utilitarian morning sex with new boyfriend Ray in the season six opener. This is, in large part, because the girls have learned to ask for what they want. “It can be really hard to own your power,” according to Dunham. This is especially true of our sexual power, since we are so often shamed for wielding it. I spent years vacillating between my poor attempts at playing a blushing good girl brandishing The Rules, and embracing my actual identity as a wanton pervert. But our girls are getting there, which means we, too, must be getting there as women off-screen, slowly, slowly, but surely. Just as Hannah seems happier proclaiming her proclivities five seasons in, I have found bliss with a boyfriend who loves the wanton pervert that I truly am, quirks and all.

That is the legacy of Girls. “My hope is that people think of the show as one of many shows that allowed complex and messy women to exist on television, the same way that men always have,” Dunham says. She has been thinking a lot about The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the wake of the death of its star; she loved that show, and its offshoot, Rhoda, but, Dunham says, “they still required their female characters to have a certain level of inherent innocence that I never fully related to.” (Me, neither.) And so, she wanted to pick up where her comedy idols left off: “we’re allowed to be a little messier, we’re allowed to be a little angrier, we’re allowed to be a little more f-cked up. That, to me, I hope, is advancing women towards a place where there’s no space that isn’t safe for them to go on TV.”

There is a glorious moment in the season six premiere. After a day spent playing hooky from work, Hannah hits the bar, hard, guzzling fluorescent tropical cocktails, sloshing drinks on herself, and energetically humping the floor as part of a dance routine. Her surf instructor gets on the mic and starts rapping; Hannah stands in the crowd, mouth agape with sheer joy. “That’s my instructor, I know him! I’m going to fuck him!” It’s easy to hate on Hannah for her frequent, frustrating self-indulgence. But in that moment, she and her belly—my belly—are pure id: unabashedly horny, and hot for life and experience and wonder. And so she does f-ck him, plentiful pubes and all. The sex isn’t bad, but it isn’t really good, either. And that’s what makes it great.

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