'Girls' Sex Scenes Took Risks, But We Still Have A Long Way To Go For True Representation On TV
When it first premiered in Spring 2012, Girls provided some of the first primetime sex scenes to feature a nude woman whose body was not the perfect picture of aspirational beauty. In her "imperfection," creator and lead actor Lena Dunham — and especially her character, Hannah Horvath — undoubtedly became relatable to viewers the world over. Here was a slightly chubby gal with a non-flat tummy, some cellulite, and a hint of side rolls. She wasn't at all fat. She was just, for lack of a better word, kind of "average." The sort of woman you might see your best friend in, if not yourself. At least aesthetically.
In the five years since that debut, Girls has continued to take risks with its depictions of sex. We've seen Jessa being fingered in a bathroom stall by a stranger while on her period. Later in the series, she went down on Danielle Brooks' character, Laura, at a rehab center. There have been many displays of full bushes and landing strips on the show's leading ladies. Not to mention Marnie's anal sex scene; Adam's penchant for bizarre, often skin-crawling, but not at all unrealistic dirty talk in earlier seasons; and Elijah and Dill's less than rom-com-esque banging sessions. Most recently, the show gave Aidy Bryant's Abigail and Ray a romantic storyline, never once referencing or making a big deal out of Abigail's plus size body.
There were also moments that toyed with consent, forcing viewers into a state of contemplative discomfort. There were others that resulted in a reevaluation of the meaning of psychological abuse and manipulation. Along the way, Girls very likely helped deconstruct the image of sex ingrained in many folks within a generation brought up on Hugh Grant films, Titanic virginity loss, and WB teen soaps. These were narratives that framed sex as dreamlike "love-making." Something that's never awkward, never messy, never uncomfortable, and always effortlessly pleasurable. Something that you'd never call "f*cking."
That Girls took risks few Millennials had ever seen on TV before is undeniable. But as the show inches towards its conclusion, many are left asking, "What's changed?" Have the realistic pubic hair glimpses, sloppy hook-ups, and slightly chubby naked body actually resulted in more raw, inclusive sexual representation on-screen?
The long and the short of it is probably not. Perhaps if some of the risks had been taken with characters representing more marginalized identities, the series' impact would be more tangible today. There are so many viewers who are more than ready to see visibly fat actors in sexual and romantic roles.
People are itching for more queer sex, too. For more queer sex that's not centered around traditionally attractive white people. The awkwardness of much of the sex on Girls was relatable, absolutely, but how amazing would it have been to see that manifest through narratives that highlighted queer, black, fat femmes, or non-binary couples, or a love interest with vaginismus, or a polyamorous relationship, or big, hairy dudes, or a character whose sexual plot helped to further de-stigmatize living with HIV? How amazing would it be to simply see a lead cast featuring actors of intersectional, diverse identities?
Television unfortunately still seems pretty far-removed from all that, though. Orange Is The New Black, which premiered in 2013, has perhaps done some of the most progressive work in the realm of lesbian sex. Broad City, which premiered in 2014, brought us that memorable scene in which Ilana rode Lincoln while Skyping her best friend and has, in general, done a pretty good job of showcasing mixed race and queer relationships. Empire, released in 2015, also saw Gabourey Sidibe wrap her thick, bare leg around a thin male love interest. It was a sex scene that did, in fact, feature a plus size woman of color.
That all of the aforementioned programs came out after Girls is interesting to note. Whether the show's success really did inspire other writers and networks in the U.S. to make TV that was less about "aspirational" human beings isn't something anyone but those writers would be able to answer for sure. But more relatable TV plot lines, more relatable characters, more relatable sex, and more relatable bodies are certainly out there now than there were five years ago, and Girls' success may have played a role in that.
However, all of the aforementioned moments feel like outliers. Anomalies in a still very white, very able-bodied, very thin, fictitious sexual universe. Sexuality is undoubtedly complex. Bodies are, too. Yet the nuances and intricacies of these things are still not ones readily found on any TV show. Representation of intersectionality and diversity of identities remains something to be found on the sites of indie media outlets or radical feminist publications; on the social media feeds of activists and bloggers. They make up only a handful of scenes on a handful of TV shows.
Many people like to argue that television and film are not supposed to be rooted in reality, that they are meant to be a fantasy and present us with characters that we are supposed to desire. The rationale seems to be that if so much of the world conditions women and femmes, in particular, to believe that they must be thin and conventionally beautiful and perfectly made-up, then so, too, should television. This is probably where a lot of criticism against Dunham (and her body) has stemmed from. From the day Girls was released, sociocultural fat-antagonism that rejects the appearance of any kind of roll or bumpy bit on one's body has definitely followed it.
In truth, however, tons of people want to see the rolls and bumps. Tons of people want to see a lot more than that. Campaigning for more diversity in all facets of media has arguably never been as accessible and prevalent as it is today. Should it ever be achieved in ways more progressive and inclusive than what we are seeing now, one could certainly hope that such inclusivity would extend into the portrayal of sex — and the infinite types of people, with infinite types of bodies, having it.
As Girls gets ready for its end, however, it's safe to say that true inclusivity remains far from the norm — be it on television or any kind of mainstream media.
The value of Girls' wild, and at times painfully familiar, sex scenes cannot be taken away from the writers and actors of Girls. But there's still a lot of work to do. There's still a lot of work for feminist writers to tackle, and for progressive networks to take a chance on when it comes to the series they produce. There are still a lot of risks that need to be taken, in general. And realistically, it's only by first taking the risks that the success of them can be gauged.
The fact that one oft-naked, slightly-chubbier-than-the-average-Hollywood-star character quickly became so beloved by so many people, however, seems to at least be a glimmer of evidence proving that such risks can pay off.