Lena Dunham’s Nudity as Handicap Principle

by W.F. Price on January 23, 2014

A couple weeks ago, I came across an interview questioning Lena Dunham’s decision to take her clothes off in Girls despite the fact that she has an odd, unattractive figure. Lena Dunham is not merely “average,” but rather sub-average in that department. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but most people would tend to compensate for a deficiency by trying to make up for it in other ways. Dunham, however, does the opposite, taking every opportunity to display herself nude.

From a rational perspective, we might think this is counterproductive behavior. She will alienate viewers, inspire disgust and generally turn people off. However, something else has happened. Dunham has gained quite a following, and is held up as a hero by the socially dominant in-crowd of entertainers.

When Tim Molloy, a reporter from The Wrap, asked her what the point of the nudity was, he immediately provoked a hostile reaction from Dunham and her friends:

At yesterday’s Television Critics Association winter press tour, a panel for HBO’s Girls became a tense battleground when The Wrap’s Tim Molloy kicked off the event by asking creator Lena Dunham why so many of the show’s characters were naked all the time.

“I don’t get the purpose of all of the nudity on the show, by you particularly, and I feel like I’m walking into a trap where you go, ‘Nobody complains about the nudity on Game of Thrones,’ but I get why they are doing it,” Molloy said. “They are doing it to be salacious and, you know, titillate people. And your character is often naked just at random times for no reason.”

The reaction from the panelists — which included Dunham and the three other main Girls cast members and executive producers Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow — was swift.

[...]

Apatow verbally pounced on Molloy, as seen from the following transcript snippet:

JUDD APATOW: Do you have a girlfriend?

TIM MOLLOY: Yeah.

JA: Does she like you?

TM: Sure.

JA: OK. Let’s see how she likes you when you quote that with your question, and just write the whole question as you stated it.

TM: Well, ask tell me —

JA: Then tell me how it goes tonight.

TM: Tell me why it’s wrong.

JENNI KONNER: Maybe she’s a misogynist.

JA: Let’s move on to the next question.

Later, Konner went back to the earlier incident while answering a question about being creatively flexible with the show.
JK: I literally was spacing out because I’m in such a rage spiral about that guy that I literally could not hear. I’m so sorry. I really don’t mean to disrespect you. I just was looking at him and going into this rage, this idea that you would talk to a woman like that and accuse a woman of showing her body too much. The idea, it just makes me sort of sick, and so I apologize to everyone. I’m going to try to focus now, but if I space out, it will be because of that guy. And I’m really interested in what publication you are from.

[...]

Molloy then wrote a piece for The Wrap to explain his position, noting that following the panel, executive producer Judd Apatow told him that his line of questioning was “sexist, offensive, and misogynistic.”

The hapless reporter was subjected to a smackdown live on TV, all for daring to ask a fairly mild question about one of the defining aspects of Girls.

The response to his question was illustrative. The idea that he could dare to ask Lena Dunham “why?” was met with a torrent of abuse. Because Lena Dunham is socially dominant. In this context, we see the reason for her nudity in the show. Because she can afford it.

Could some wannabe starlet from Texas pull it off? Not a chance. Judd Apatow would stand by with a smirk as she was eviscerated for baring it all. So would Jenni Konner. Some little nobody from the hinterlands would not have the social cred to shed her clothes in public. Lena Dunham’s nudity doesn’t have anything to do with “ordinary women,” but rather extraordinary people and what they can get away with. Lena Dunham is saying “look, I can take off my clothes and expose my unattractive body, and people will applaud, damnit!” It’s a powerful demonstration of social superiority, and a clear example of the handicap principle:

The handicap principle is a hypothesis originally proposed in 1975 by biologist Amotz Zahavi to explain how evolution may lead to “honest” or reliable signaling between animals which have an obvious motivation to bluff or deceive each other.[1][2][3] The handicap principle suggests that reliable signals must be costly to the signaler, costing the signaler something that could not be afforded by an individual with less of a particular trait. For example, in the case of sexual selection, the theory suggests that animals of greater biological fitness signal this status through handicapping behaviour or morphology that effectively lowers this quality. The central idea is that sexually selected traits function like conspicuous consumption, signalling the ability to afford to squander a resource simply by squandering it. Receivers know that the signal indicates quality because inferior quality signallers cannot afford to produce such wastefully extravagant signals…

By showing that she can afford to be ugly and yet still be on TV, Lena Dunham is signaling greater fitness than other women. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but it makes sense if you think of what might happen if a lower-status actress from a lower-status part of the US tried to do the same. Her career would be over right at that moment, and nobody would bat an eyelash.

I’ve noticed more examples of the handicap principle at work in popular culture and the media as the class gap widens in the US. Scott Stossel, for example, recently wrote an article for The Atlantic in which he discusses his struggles with anxiety. You might think the article was an effort to bring a sometimes debilitating condition to light so as to offer some help to people afflicted by it, but instead it was a navel gazing expose of Stossel’s drug and alcohol abuse, incidents in which he shits himself and retches for hours and family dysfunction. However, throughout the essay, he drops allusions to his status, his high-class background and his professional success. We learn that despite his considerable handicaps, Stossel is still far better than most of us. He might as well be saying: “Look at me! I’m a pill-popping, scotch guzzling neurotic who has a better job and knows fancier people than you ever will.”

The sad thing about this is that it actually does work. Lena Dunham and Scott Stossel are admired by people. The assumption is that they are admired because they are ordinary people, but this is not true. They are admired because they are extraordinary outliers — people who can get away with things that would put most of us in a mental institution or on the street.

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