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Owning Her Abjection: Lena Dunham's Queer Feminist Sexual Politics

by Ethan Tussey

by Maria San Filippo for IN MEDIA RES

From the 2007 YouTube short featuring her bikini-clad and brushing her teeth in a public fountain to the 2012 Emmys opener “revealing” her sitting naked on a toilet scarfing cake, 26-year-old Lena Dunham has devoted the past several years to making her flabby torso into a political statement.

No condescension intended; quite the contrary. Dunham’s body, with which her fans are by now intimately familiar, accomplishes precisely the opposite of conventional uses of female nudity to conceal and deny women’s humanity.

Dunham’s aspiring writer Hannah, chief protagonist of HBO’s Girls, is mocked by love interest Adam (Adam Driver) for not having the B.M.I. of Megan Fox. Rather than dissolving in Bridget Jones-style self-loathing, Dunham remains unapologetically defiant both in character and as herself. With relatively free rein at HBO and supplemented by social media self-promotion, Dunham insistently presents images of imperfect female bodies (it’s rumored she contractually arranged for only Hannah and the actress playing her middle-aged mother to be shown nude on Girls) along with acts of (sexual) self-degradation.

In feminist theorist Julia Kristeva’s formulation, abjection is a heteropatriarchal tool for coercing female bodies into regulated social subjects, alienating women from their bodies and one another. The psychic trajectory that Dunham’s provocations evoke is one of uncanny self-regard: disgust turned outward then inward, with judgment becoming recognition, then admiration.

Driven to explore and find inspiration in what is typically deemed abnormal or shameful, Dunham is America’s equivalent of French writer-filmmaker Catherine Breillat, who forged her own notoriety as a teenage memoirist and continues to court controversy with her authentic (allegedly un-simulated) depictions of sex and her deliberate desecration of Lolita-like fantasies of girlhood sexuality. Breillat and Dunham invert pornography’s “frenzy of the visible” to reveal misogynistic forces of female abjection, validating women’s bodies, desires, and voices through images as well as subversive confessional “speech acts” (see clip).

Season 1 ends with Hannah alone watching the sunrise over Coney Island, dressed in last night’s clothes, again eating cake. That it is a moment neither of shame nor triumph but of tentative sublimity indicates the degree to which Dunham and (despite its ill-advised title) Girls re-envision female subjectivity as self-determining, women-loving, body-positive, pro-sex, and – to borrow an advertising slogan – contoured for her pleasure.

Hannah's Speech Act

Clip from HBO's Girls

from Girls (2012)
Creator: Lena Dunham
Distributor: HBO
Posted by Ethan Tussey