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).
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.
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?