By Andrew Wallenstein
Hollywood may finally be on the verge of confronting its weight problem, and Lena Dunham is the one who could tip the scales.
“Girls,” the new HBO series in which she stars and co-created, doesn’t exactly shy away from depicting her character, Hannah Horvath, as pleasantly plump. In the pilot episode, Hannah refers to herself as a “fat baby angel” as she stands in boxer shorts hitched up to her belly, a visible bulge poking out above the waistband. She sheds her ill-fitting clothes repeatedly in sex scenes that are less than flattering. And just in case you didn’t notice, Hannah tells a doctor in the second episode that she weighs 143 pounds, yet seems barely over 5 feet tall.
Then there’s what just might be the un-sexiest sex scene in TV history. A loutish lover pinches a roll of fat on her back as he examines the elaborate tattoos on her torso and remarks, “You’re not that fat anymore, you can just have that lasered off.”
Yes, even the pillow talk in “Girls” doesn’t ignore her pillowy frame. Which is a big part of why as polarizing as Dunham’s writing and performance will be, you’ve got to give her points for bravery. Her presence in “Girls” topples a taboo that has held firm since the days of Twiggy, preventing plus-sized people from getting on-screen love, too.
It’s not that female body image is Topic A in “Girls.” That’s really a secondary theme for a series that signals what it’s really about in its choice of title: the terror of being an adult as seen through the naive eyes of four twentysomething gir…er, women, trying to make it in New York City.
“Girls” comes just as there seems to be a new breed of defiantly full-figured public figures standing out among the anorexic-looking actresses who seemingly populate every film or TV role that calls for a female sexual being.
But now there’s “Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence, multi-Grammy winner Adele and “Mad Men” sex symbol Christina Hendricks proudly proclaiming in interviews their refusals to diet, as if it’s some form of conscientious objection. Dunham joining their ranks could be the most forceful demonstration yet of replacing the ideal with the real deal.
Hollywood hedges the creative bets it makes on female performers by insisting they be sexy even there’s nothing inherently sexual about the nature of their performances. Even TV shows like ABC’s “Suburgatory” and MTV’s “Awkward” require some suspension of disbelief, featuring outcast nerdy protagonists who just happen to be played by stunning young women. And is it a coincidence that the most popular female comics out there in recent years are all skinny minnies like Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler and Whitney Cummings?
On the flipside consider Melissa McCarthy, who scored the comedic breakout performance of the year in “Bridesmaids” by playing someone who wasn’t about to let her bulk stop her from un-self-consciously carnal. It speaks to how uncomfortable we are with the un-sexy female.
Given all the pressure a young woman is under to look her best whether in front of a camera or not, Dunham’s willingness to depict her body in such unflattering ways takes courage. It’s not that she’s just blissfully unaware of how she looks. To the contrary, she’s sizing herself up with the same brutal honesty with which she perceives everything else. She’s just not about to let a little thing like vanity or insecurity distort that view.
To some degree, HBO is just as brave as Dunham. Most networks would have restricted her to the creative side and recast her with the ingenue du jour, who would wear thick-framed glasses and a bad haircut in a futile attempt to convince viewers she’s homely like the rest of us. To cast a rather ordinary looking person as a protagonist is more than a little subversive and, as a result, a gamble.
Sure, maybe Dunham isn’t doing anything as extreme as Charlize Theron did to uglify herself for her Oscar-winning role in “Monster.” But there’s something quite transgressive for a woman who dares to be less than gorgeous baring nearly all for sex scenes that aim to deliver physical comedy instead of an erotic charge. There’s risk of repelling the audience, which is such a sad commentary on society that you can’t help but hope “Girls” shakes the status quo.