Would you get into a bathtub with your friend? HBO’s [Girls] and Non-Sexual Intimacy

Girls

I finally got a chance to watch an episode of Girls, an American television series that began airing on HBO during 2012. The show stars and is written by Lena Dunham, and the show is partly inspired by Dunham’s real-life experiences. Strangely enough, I did not watch the first episode of the series, but rather, I watched the fourth episode of the second season titled “It’s a Shame About Ray.” Although I had very little context of what the show was about, it was clear that this show is a realistic and raw approach to the lives of four friends living in New York city. Think about the show as a middle-class Sex In the City fused with Seinfeld, with just a dash of the wit and unapologetic humor of Judd Apatow (who happens to be a producer for the series).

Hannah Horvath, the protagonist of "Girls," played by Lena Dunham.

Hannah Horvath, the protagonist of “Girls,” played by Lena Dunham.

Regardless of my lack of context and background while watching Girls, I was amazed on how issues of gender were approached by this show, especially when concerned with its depiction of the female body and friendship between women. According to what I’ve read and been told, the show’s protagonist, Hannah Horvath (played by Lena Dunham) is constantly nude throughout the episodes of the series. Now, Hannah does not necessarily comply with the so-called normal standards of beauty. She is not supermodel thin, she has a tattoo on her arm, and she does not wear a lot of makeup. Nonetheless, Hannah is completely comfortable with her body, and she has no qualms of being naked in front of other people.

There was a moment in this episode that particularly caught my attention, not only because it depicted a situation that we don’t often encounter in television, but also because it challenges most of the ideas and assumptions that we have of gender, relationships, and the body. Check out this scene in the video below:

In order to provide some context to this video, Hannah is the person singing Oasis’s Wonderwall while taking a bath. The other person who steps into the shower is Jessa Johansson, a close friend of Hannah’s who considers herself a free-spirited bohemian. In this scene, we witness an encounter between the two friends soon after Jessa realizes that her sudden and unexpected marriage with a successful business man has collapsed. Jessa steps into the shower, hungry for an understanding soul, and we witness the intensity of an authentic friendship between two women.

I for one, have many close friends, but when it comes to nudity and my body, I definitely aim for privacy at all costs. Sure, there are friends who change in front of each other with no hesitation, but unfortunately, I am not one of those people. In all honesty, I even have issues when people stand too close to me while I’m taking care of business at a urinal in a public restroom. Thus, what was so surprising to me when watching this scene is that Hannah seems to be completely comfortable being naked in front of her friend. She does not flinch, nor does she panic. When Jessa strips off her clothes and steps into the bathroom with Hannah, my jaw nearly dropped. Naturally, as a viewer, I was expecting to see some sexual tension or nervousness between the two characters. After all, at least when it comes to film and television, what can be more intimate and sexual than two people sharing a bath together (think of bath scenes in movies such as Pretty Woman)? It is rare that we encounter two characters sharing a bath, albeit in a non-sexual fashion.

Now, if I have trouble changing in front of my friends, imagine how I would feel if one of them stepped into a bath while I was in it! Let’s just say that there would be name-calling and hair-pulling involved, to say the least. However, the level of trust between these two characters is so intense, that it only seems natural for Jessa to join Hannah in the bathtub. And to my surprise, there was no obvious discomfort portrayed in this scene in terms of nudity, and there is no embarrassment portrayed as the friends face each other naked. What surprised me most, however, is that when we encounter an intimate scene taking place between two people of the same gender in a bathtub, we automatically assume that there will be a level of homoerotic acknowledgement or sexual tension taking place in the scene. However, homoerotic or sexual tension are nowhere to be found in the exchange between Hannah and Jessa–what we get is simply a moment of non-sexual intimacy between two close friends.

We witness Jessa breaking out into tears as Hannah gently holds her hand. No words are exchanged, but it is clear that words are unnecessary during this moment. What started out as tears turns into a hilarious exchange of the grossness and indecency of a “snot rocket” taking place within the context of the bathroom–which is interesting seeing as peeing in the bathtub, or even sharing the bath with a friend are ultimately considered normal in this friendship.

While discussing this scene with a friend, she pointed out how the depiction of both friends naked within the tub seems more comfortable and natural than if Jessa were to keep her clothes on as the sympathetic exchange was taking place. It’s almost as if the nudity, and the presence of both characters within the private space, further enhances the sense of realness, rawness, and authenticity portrayed within the scene. Here we witness characters who are not only friends, but friends that know and understand each other in ways that most of us can’t even begin to comprehend.

Girls Bathtub Scene

Hannah and Jessa share a bath.

This scene makes more sense if we use Adrienne Rich‘s perspectives of the lesbian continuum in order to interpret this scene, which is a way of viewing heterosexuality and lesbianism as two ends of a continuum rather than a conceptual split. According to Rich, many sexual experiences that women face in their daily lives can be placed somewhere within this continuum, and there are some non-sexual experiences that can still be considered lesbian, or that invoke some degree of connection between two women. What we observe in this bathtub scene is an intimate exchange between two women in a bathtub, yet paradoxically, I personally am resistant to classify this scene as erotic, sexual, or even purely lesbian for that matter.

I think that this resistance is what highlights the validity and productivity of Rich’s lesbian continuum. If I were to merely describe the scene to someone, I think that their immediate reaction would be to consider this scene as a purely lesbian or homoerotic encounter. But after watching the scene, it’s easy to see that although it may seem sexual and homoerotic superficially, the profundity of the exchange nullifies any sexual or lesbian traits that we try to project onto the characters. Is it possible that a resistance to approach this scene as lesbian or homoerotic is due to the heteronormativity that is ingrained within our culture? Does it have to do with the non-sexual nature of the scene? Or, is it possible that this scene depicts a situation that resists easy categorization? I am inclined to go with this last assumption, but there is still much to be said and done with this scene.

Girls is not only providing rich food for thought, but it is also taking us into uncharted territory when it comes to the portrayal of gender in television and media. Can watchers of this show describe other instances in which Girls challenges our preconceived notions of gender, intimacy, and sexuality? Do any of you have any thoughts or opinions regarding this scene? Can any of you help me make sense of what is going on here?

3 thoughts on “Would you get into a bathtub with your friend? HBO’s [Girls] and Non-Sexual Intimacy

  1. Patricia says:

    Weird, I just binge-watched the whole series this week and got to this episode today. That snot-rocket part killed me! What’s odd, though, is that this isn’t the first bathtub interaction in the series. In the first season (fairly early, possibly in the pilot episode?), Hannah is taking a bath when both Marnie and her boyfriend come in and talk as though nothing is really happening. As well, there as a number of scenes throughout the series (so far) where one character will change in front of another and seemingly neither seems to mind or even really take notice. Also, for one entire episode Hannah wears a mesh tank top with nothing on under it throughout Brooklyn (she switches shirts with a man in the middle of a dance floor in a club, despite the fact that she has nothing on underneath – she’s also on cocaine at the time, which certainly facilitates the behaviour in this instance). It’s definitely an odd atmosphere; all the girls seem very intimate with each other, with almost no sexual undertones (which, as you said, we’ve come to expect from these sorts of scenes in other media). As well, Hannah is clearly very comfortable with her own body, which is odd coming from a female character on TV, where women of all shapes and sizes are ashamed of themselves and can identify at least one physical flaw at the drop of a hat – there’s been a ton written about Hannah’s nudity since the show started, and it’s spurred some great criticism/feminist writing/etc. What’s interesting as well is that the majority of “awkward” situations in the show (Hannah constantly naked, interactions between two naked characters, etc.) seem to make viewers more uncomfortable than any of the characters – for whatever that’s worth.

    As regards sexuality on the show, it’s interesting that the one instance of lesbianism (or at least an act on the lesbian continuum, as it’s clearly insincere and verges on asexual) portrayed thus far is between two of the friends, Marnie and Jessa (who make out with each other, fully clothed, on the floor of a swanky apartment), but only occurs in avoidance of a threesome with Jessa’s eventual husband. It seems almost entirely dispassionate, almost like they’re just doing it to avoid having any contact with the guy and possibly annoy him. It never even comes up again.

    I think what’s super interesting about Girls is it treats preconceived “taboo” topics as total commonplaces. Compared with Sex and the City, where every sexual discussion occurs in hushed tones with lots of giggling and double entendres (not to mention the incredibly stereotypical and occasionally problematic way lesbianism, bisexuality, and other aspects of sexuality not usually treated on TV are dealt with), the majority of the show so far treats sex and sexuality as something normal and not shameful in any way. They can be naked with each other without compromising themselves or feeling uncomfortable because they aren’t treating sexuality as a fetishized aspect of their personality (or, for that matter, treating sex as the only use for the body, which seems to be how Sex and the City views the female body); they recognize that the human body is not a sexual object unless the inhabitant of that body declares it to be. Hannah and Jessa can bathe together naked because they are self-aware enough to realize that there is not an attraction between them, they are simply two people interacting and focusing on their emotions and intelligence, with the sexual connotations of the female body momentarily removed from the picture. It seems to be put there (as with many of the nude scenes) to challenge the viewer to reconsider their preconceived notions of the female body as primarily a sexual object or, at the very least, an object for visual scrutiny, and to see the woman as a whole person with agency, meaning, and depth.

    That said, until your post made me think about it in greater depth, it really confused me on a practical level (and it’s not something I could ever imagine doing). Also, as a corollary to your post, I now can’t stop thinking of the differing treatments of female sexuality in Girls and Sex and the City – it would make an insanely interesting paper topic and now I wish I had a reason to work on it!

    • Angel Daniel Matos says:

      First of all… go ahead and write that paper! It seems like you have many amazing ideas brewing in your mind, and I encourage you to release them into the world! Secondly, thank you for such an awesome response! It’s been a while since I’ve encountered a television show that has pushed to me ask so many questions… and I think it’s been even longer since I’ve encountered such a fresh and raw television show. During my summer break, I definitely intend to watch the show from the beginning, especially since I think that the series is chock full of things worth talking about (and that aren’t being talked about in any other medium).

      As for the comparisons with “Sex and the City,” I can’t even begin to count the differences between the two shows. Yes, they are both about women in the city, but that’s about the extent to which they are similar. A classmate of mine brought up the issue of class differences between the two shows. While on one hand, SATC focuses on the experiences of upper class white women, “Girls” focuses on girls who are not only middle class and in some cases bohemian, but who also face serious and deep issues. I guess this comes to show that there is only so much depth you can achieve while you’re sitting in a fancy restaurant gorging on Cobb salads.

      To be honest, at least based on this one episode, I must admit that when looking at my own life, I’m jealous that I can’t achieve that level of intimacy with my own friends. Don’t get me wrong, I have close and extremely tight bonds with many of my friends, but I don’t think any of us are at the point where we can just step into the bathtub while the other is using it, and treat that as a non-issue… and this is not our fault, but rather, it is a symptom of the culture that we live in. I unfortunately have to agree with Zizek when he posits that we all don cynical ideologies… “we know what we’re doing, and we continue to do it anyway.” As you mentioned, we recognize that sexuality is definitely fetishized within our lives, but even with this recognition, we continue to uphold the fetish. Is it because it’s easier to continue living with blissful ignorance, or is it because we don’t have the faintest idea of how to overcome these fetishes in the first place?

      I guess the question is whether or not we will reach a point in which watching scenes such as these do not make us feel uncomfortable or awkward. I am hoping that time comes soon, not because I look forward to bathing with my friends, but rather, because it will exemplify a transcendence in our mode of thinking, or perhaps even a transcendence of cultural norms.

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