Girls: is there art beyond the banality of "life as it is"?


Jared Schumacher

The HBO original TV series Girls is a controversial comed-rama pioneered by Lena Dunham.  The series is controversial for many reasons, but foremost is its questionable and abundant use of nudity. At a recent press event, one reporter raised the issue directly with the creators, and the exchange created a firestorm of criticism. In brief, he asked "why the ubiquity of seemingly meaningless nudity?" Sides were predictably drawn in response between those who viewed the nudity as "brave" (one reviewer calls it "unflinching", which is the poetic synonym) and those who see it as gratuitous.

What is most interesting about how the debate took shape was that it fundamentally centered around contrary understandings of the nature and purpose of art.  The reporter who raised the question of the meaning behind the substantial, repeated, and explicit nudity himself is no prude, saying he has no problem with nudity as such, but rather with what it is being used 'to mean' in Dunham's articulation.  It is clear from the exchange that Dunham (mis)understood the question as an attack on the fact that it is her nudity, her assumption being that the questioner thought that she does not meet TV-conventional standards of physical desirability.  Her response is enlightening because, in the end, she appeals to the nature of art as "representation of reality" to justify her creative decisions:  

“It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it,” said Dunham. “If you are not into me, that’s your problem, and you are going to have to kind of work that out with whatever professionals you’ve hired.”

Judd Apatow (the show's producer) later backed her response in the same interview by saying that her depictions are "honest", presumably he means to true life.

Dunham's and Apatow's appeal bases 'the meaning' or goodness of nudity in their art on the condition that it accurately depicts the human condition.  But this is precisely to eschew the very difficult problem of naming either the art's or the nudity's social value or good.  I read the reporter's original question which instigated the fight this way:  "Ms. Dunham, your program is a ground- and heart-breaking portrayal life in the City, one which we as the discerning audience are tempted to call art.  But we have questions about the social value your piece brings with it in respect to its seemingly banal use of nudity.  What is the artistic reason of your usage?"  To this question, Dunham replies:  "Because life looks like this."  And she is correct.   Humans are naked on a daily basis.  Where she is wrong is in assuming that the nudity is harmless, or else innocent. Showing nudity on a screen and appealing to "life as it is" as a justification for the executive decision made to show it repeatedly cannot be innocent in the nature of the act.  It is necessarily intentional.  The original question was aimed at uncovering this intentionality.  And the answer provided is far from satisfying because it leaves unaddressed what "the good life" (in ethical terms) or the "beautiful life" (in aesthetic terms) is.  In this sense, the usage is banal.

More than any other leading lady on television at the moment, Dunham exemplifies the (new?) normal, but not in her attempt to correct warped standards of physical beauty, though she does this too. Rather, she is normal (read: average, quotidian) in her use of art as a sophisticated catch-word for the uncritical and therefore banal depiction of life.

Having watched the show myself, I can state that there is a pervading sense of the tragic about the self-styled "comedy".   It is tragic because it makes manifest the alienation of the female experience of the modern City, how its modes of life generate banality in relationship and self-understanding.  But this truly valuable insight is never recuperated into a criticism of those structures and the City which create the alienation.  In short, there is no vision of the good lying beyond or behind this observation, but rather a meaningless resolution – of the (potentially) creative tension that arises –  in "the banality of life." In short, while she may indeed accurately depict a segment of the female experience of the City by means of banal nudity, we are left wondering why it was worthy of depiction in the first place. 

In the end, it just may be that Dunham is pioneering a new use for sex and nudity in media, beyond erotic stimulation or marketing ploy: the banalization of life.  Because art is both a product of artistic presentation AND the means by which visions of the good are habituated in others (through repeated exposure), isn't the depiction of "life as it is", when unaccompanied by the fecundity of the good, a means to banality?  

This is the first in an envisioned series of posts that will be dedicated to theological anthropology and what it can learn from, or else say to, cultural movements and trends, paying particular attention to pop-cultural representations of what it means to be human in the (post)modern condition.