When Lena Dunham’s Girls debuted in Spring 2012, the biggest thing on HBO was Game of Thrones. A proto-typical HBO serial drama, GOT is narratively complex, anti-heroic, grotesquely violent, and packed with naked women. Indeed, its first season slowly built to its transcendent conclusion by climbing such an enormous mountain of bared female torsos that a new term—Myles McNutt's “sexposition”—had to be invented to describe the way the series bedazzles its plot exposition with essentially decorative nudity. Girls is also very preoccupied with the female body, but not in the same way that Tyrion Lannister tends to be. Despite Dunham's exhibitionism, Girls refuses to objectify its star or to aestheticize her nudity—Dunham famously described herself as "lumpy-looking" in a New Yorker profile—in the way that those other shows lavish golden lighting on the bodies of the disrobed. If Game of Thrones is a prestige autoerotic fantasy, Girls might be HBO's gesture at auto-critique.
Take the two screen captures at left. First, we have the now infamous scene of the flaxen-haired Daenerys Targaryen being undressed by the menacing Khal Drogo in the pilot of Game of Thrones. After a lingering shot of the tearful bride’s full-frontal naked body framed by a glorious sunset, Drogo proceeds to violently consummate the marriage. It’s a harrowing scene, but it is clothed in the trappings of sublime beauty. How does one disentangle the show’s implicit disapproval of sexual violence here with its voluptuous, painterly display of flesh?
In the second image, from the Girls pilot, we have Hannah (Dunham) disrobing at the apartment of her sometimes-lover Adam. After some perfunctory foreplay, Hannah is instructed to lie down on her belly and “take all that shit off.” What follows is a nearly uninterrupted still shot of Hannah, face pressed into a vintage couch cushion, trying with great effort to remove her tights. Equal parts Woody Allen and Charlie Brown, Dunham exposes something very different here.
How do we reconcile the sexual aesthetics of these two series? If Game of Thrones uses nudity as window-dressing, does Dunham’s show focus on the body itself as a tortured, neurotic subject? What if sex is transformed from a titillating distraction to such an inscrutable and humiliating void that viewers can no longer be so blasé about the representations they see onscreen? What if the clothes don’t come off so easily?