Slapstick "Sexposition": Girls vs. the Body Politics of HBO

Curator's Note

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? 


I haven't watched much of GOT, but what I did watch was full of sex, sure enough. Sex in the GOT world, like life, takes place in close proximity to death. The characters can and do go at any time, and their actions are suffused with the hope of immortality. This might also be a result of the show's setting in a (mythical) past--actions are generally represented in the glow and sheen of perfect and storied remembrance. Girls, on the other hand, is set in the present. Its characters are trying very hard to get it right, or to come to an understanding of what sex means to them. Contretemps abound, therefore, in the many bedrooms of the show (but are nowhere near as awkward as the "sex in a pipe in the street" of Tiny Furniture). By including both epic and farcical sex, perhaps HBO does wish to expand or round out its offerings. For my part, I'm always grateful when depictions of human relations include rather than filter out the humiliation, self-compromise, and self-discovery that they inevitably generate.

So... to what extent do we think the gender of the writers/producers/directors affects the way sexuality is represented in these shows? As far as I know, GoT is mostly created by men, from the original texts by George R.R. Martin, on through. Girls, on the other hand, is mainly the creative product of women--Dunham and Konner, specifically. In GoT we have this fantastical, mythical, sometimes violent version of sex that reads as male fantasy (to me, anyway, what with all the naked female torsos hither and yon). In Girls, as Phillip points out, we get a very different (more realistic?) view, complete with bad lighting, cellulite, humiliation, clumsiness, and yet genuine tenderness too, on occasion. The sexuality in both shows makes me somewhat uncomfortable, but in different ways. As a woman and a feminist, I often found it annoying to watch Game of Thrones because of the over-the-top male heterosexist ("Wow, MORE T&A, really???) aesthetic. Ditto for Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos. But I can't say I found watching Girls exactly comforting, either... just uncomfortable in a different (schadenfreude) way.

I realize that I'm totally generalizing here, and that it's nearly impossible to say "All men fantasize about this" or "All women fantasize about that." I also realize that each show's genre (fantasy vs. "real life") is another huge factor in how sexuality is presented.

Thanks both of you for your thoughtful replies. Ashar, I think a lot of this does indeed have to do with genre. And just as their aesthetics are opposed, so too are their genres. Game of Thrones—realistic as it may be—is a fantasy series, generically. And so, even if they are gritty or harrowing, the sex scenes are a part of that fantasy. Girls is a comic realist series very much about the collapse of fantasy. Career, friendship, city life, creative expression, and especially sex—Girls is not a series about building fantasy, but rather a series about what fantasies actually look like when materialized. The difference seems to be one of satisfaction versus disappointment, the realization of dreams versus the lived reality of dreams. And, as Nedda points out, I think that the identity—especially the gender identity—of the dreamer has a lot to do with this. Both series feature uncomfortable sexual situations, and both figure sex as a mode of negotiating identity, but they could not be more different. Take, for instance, the most triumphant sexual encounters in each show. In the context of Girls, I'd argue that Marnie's emergency self-pleasuring at the art gallery signifies some small form of almost heroic self-realization about her own desires. In Game of Thrones, the big sexual landmark is when Dany effectively stops Drogo from nightly sexual assault by having a prostitute teach her how to have sex. To mature is to come to terms with sexuality, but whose? The difference here is that the ladies on Girls have legible, credible, mentionable desires. What so frequently happens to those desires is what makes for so much discomfort on the show, but that's the difference between fantasies and realities.

Excellent post, Phillip. Though I haven’t watched Game of Thrones, your comments about Dunham’s body politics dovetail nicely with my piece and got me thinking more generally about “sexposition” versus more everyday representations of bodies and sex on TV. As you point out, Hannah’s sexual degradation in her relationship with Adam is “inscrutable and humiliating” but it is also “farcical” (as Ashar notes) and un-fetishistically depicted. I’ve noticed a similar mode of treating sex in the 21st century American independent films collectively grouped under the “Mumblecore” moniker, with which Dunham’s Tiny Furniture has been associated. In this and other films such as Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights and Weekends, and Humpday, nudity and sex are presented with extreme, unabashed naturalism, but also with a degree of humor and messiness that aptly conveys intimacy and anxiety far more maturely than other risqué cinematic modes (sex comedy, sexploitation, art film) have achieved. These “authenticated” sexual aesthetics may be discomforting and not always titillating, but they are never short of enthralling. To Nedda’s point about gendered authorship, Mumblecore might be the first film “movement” aside from that by 1970s cinefeminists to be equally populated by male and female filmmakers alike, so I’m tempted to connect the dots...

Phillip--Thank you for introducing this discussion of HBO's sexual aesthetics illustrated by the hilarious juxtapose of the ethereal sex-violence-sunset GOT vs. Hannah tangled in her own tights on a dirty sofa. However, I'd say Hannah's sexual slapstick is vintage Carol Burnett or Elaine May, if those comedians had ever gone R-rated. Woody Allen talks a lot about being humiliated, but never really takes the pratfall like these gals...or Charlie Brown. I don' t think there is a way to reconcile these two images, but I admit, I'm always trying to. HBO's Boardwalk Empire does something similar as GOT with excessive "perfect" female nudes at every turn. Even its try at some version of "transgressive" sexuality this season with Gyp's (Bobby Cannavale) preference for kinky sex and the actor's full frontal scene was ultimately overrun with gangster bravado: he was creepy, but still powerful-sexy. Ashar, agreed, nothing is as awkward (and funny, and painful) as Tiny Furniture's "sex in a pipe in the street" (confessed to one's mother, no less). I guess some things are even too much for HBO! While the needy narcissism of Girls turns some viewers off, I find it does well in striking a balance between heartfelt emotion and humiliation that leads its characters into some pretty tantalizing moments of desire. The fact that the only topless ones are Hannah, Adam and Hannah's parents is the awkward cherry on top. Invigorating conversation this week. Appreciate everyone's posts!

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