Lena Dunham’s bare nipples have become a pop culture icon — and one of the greatest gifts to modern television.
Dunham is the creator (and director/producer/lead writer/lead actress) of “Girls,” the bold HBO series that made waves during its debut last year and was called, hyperbolically, “the voice of a generation.”
Last Sunday, coinciding with the premiere of its second season, “Girls” brought home a pair of Golden Globes for both Best Actress in a Comedy Series (Dunham) and Best Television Series — Comedy or Musical.
Perhaps most of all, “Girls” has been acclaimed — and criticized — for its raw representation of sex.
Season one saw Dunham’s character Hannah getting peed on in the shower, Marnie masturbating in a hotel bathroom, Shoshana attempting clumsily to lose her virginity and Jessa declaring, “Every time I have sex, it’s my choice.”
This weekend, the opener of season two (appropriately titled “It’s About Time”) held true to its reputation with sex scenes that were one part cringe-inducing, one part surprisingly sexy and entirely true-to-life.
Admittedly, HBO is the nymphomaniac of cable networks, with graphic sex scenes in nearly every series. But “Girls” is different. “Girls” doesn’t just display sex — it displays the reality of sex.
“There is a total absence in our society of honest, truthful, healthy representations of sex — especially in porn,” Cindy Gallop, the founder of Make Love Not Porn, told me in a phone interview. Her project, not unlike “Girls,” aims to showcase sex in a more realistic way by inviting real couples to submit sex videos, which can be viewed by other members of the site.
Unlike Gallop’s site, “Mainstream porn doesn’t teach women how to expect or ask for their own pleasure and it doesn’t teach them how to get it,” Gallop criticized. “The porn industry is very male-dominated and it’s very hard to find the good stuff made by women.”
The same is true of television. Women made up only a quarter of all creators, directors, writers, editors and producers of TV in 2012. Only 9 percent of film directors are female. So when sex is shown onscreen, it comes — unapologetically — from the male perspective.
This is exactly why Gallop finds “Girls” so refreshing. Its approach to sex is not only genuine — sometimes a little messy, sometimes a little kinky — but also definitively feminine.
“After centuries of women being played back to themselves through the male gaze, we are being played back to ourselves through the female gaze,” Gallop said. “I love, love, love how much nudity and skin exposure Lena Dunham goes for. That is real world body, having sex with men who find real world bodies desirable.”
The imperfections of Hannah (vis-a-vis Dunham herself) are what set “Girls” apart from other television series that have featured sexually explicit content.
“Sex and the City,” which also appeared on HBO and is commonly understood as the predecessor of “Girls,” became famous for its gratuitous sex scenes and was arguably more sex-motivated than Dunham’s creation.
Still, between the four sex-obsessed Manhattanites who starred in “Sex and the City,” not one was bigger than a size four and not one encountered the kind of raw sexual fantasies — like when Adam fantasized about Hannah as a runaway 11-year-old — that have been mentioned in “Girls.”
Many TV series involve sex, but few involve sex in a way that feels honest. “Girls” does.
Even in the first episode of season two, we’ve already witnessed Hannah taking control of her sex life in a way that feels both empowering and authentic. Like a mantra for her bona fide sex life, she asserts, “I’m an individual and I want what I want when I want it.” With Dunham’s nipples making several appearances in Sunday’s episode, we can expect another season full of untainted nakedness and unremorseful sex.
That authenticity is what has allowed “Girls” to make an impact. When Dunham accepted her first Golden Globe on Sunday, she breathlessly dedicated her award to “every woman who’s ever felt like there wasn’t a space for her.”
If anything, this should be the legacy of “Girls”: redesigning the way we look at sex and forcing us to face the moments in sex that are messy, unpredictable, unglamorous and real.
Really, it’s about time.
Arielle Pardes is a College junior from San Diego, Calif. Her email address is email@example.com. You can follow her @pardesoteric. “The Screwtinizer” appears every Wednesday.