This time last year I had not heard of Lena Dunham, 26-year-old actress, filmmaker, writer, and director behind HBO show Girls. Now, Dunham seems to be everywhere.
The second season of Girls ended Sunday, and since the show's debut, TV critics have debated its portrayal of 20-somethings millennials in New York City, raising questions about privilege, race, and whether Dunham really is the "voice of a generation." Still, the most talked-about aspect of the show is not Dunham's voice, but her body.
Dunham has appeared topless in a number of episodes, and while nudity is rather common on HBO, Dunham's body isn't the type we're used to seeing naked on TV. She is not thin or busty. She is a regular woman with an ordinary body.
Dunham's nudity has stirred up quite a bit of controversy. Radio personality Howard Stern derided Dunham as "a little fat chick." Fashion critics have wondered about Dunham's off-screen fashion choices. After Dunham was photographed displaying her thighs in revealing outfits, observers failed to understand why she would accentuate her large thighs, rather than try to disguise them.
In response to this backlash Dunham has been defiant. For her, nudity and thigh-revealing outfits are calculated efforts at subverting cultural standards of beauty. As she rightly points out, many viewers are offended, not by the display of skin itself, but by the "unattractiveness" of her body. Many Americans don't mind scantily clad super models, but are only offended by the sight of bodies like Dunham's.
Dunham's detractors aside, her courage and confidence have been an inspiration to others. The Daily Beast featured a post titled "Stay Naked Lena Dunham!" in which the author shared, "Lena Dunham is really the first woman I've ever seen on screen who looks like me. But not only that—she's comfortable in her skin, in her nakedness, in her sexuality, and as herself."
Dunham's project is provocative, to say the least, and she is undoubtedly brave. She is also doing something subversive. By exposing her breasts and thighs, she challenges unrealistic standards of beauty. Because of Dunham, viewers are reminded of what most female bodies actually look like, and she does this from a platform traditionally limited to an aesthetic minority.
Yes, Lena Dunham is courageous and well-meaning, but will her approach undermine the objectification of women? I don't think that it will because it doesn't address the underlying problem. It does little to resist a culture that reduces women to their bodies or their body parts.
Here I want to pause and explain why immodesty is not my chief concern. There are times when nudity in art is not sexual or objectifying but beautiful and powerful. For centuries, Christian art has long upheld this distinction. Dunham's nudity is, arguably, sexually objectifying, since it is usually paired with sex. Even so, I don't want to miss the deeper issue here. Rather than dismiss Dunham as immodest and move on, it is worth pressing in further to understand just how American culture views the female person.
I don't believe that Dunham's project will accomplish what it hopes. While Dunham might reclaim normal breasts, normal thighs, or the normal female body, she does not address the fact that women are constantly reduced to those parts. In America, women are treated as bodies. Rather than treat women as whole human beings, women are reduced to their bodies, their body parts, and the sexual function of those parts.
Put another way, our culture has an incoherent concept of the female self. Women are not valued for who they are but the size and shape of their bodily components. Which means that even if we reclaim "normal breasts," we will not have changed the culture that reduces women to breasts. We will have changed the terms of objectification, while failing to overturn the practice itself. Knowing this, the only way to subvert the objectification of women is to do so with one's whole self—body and soul. Rather than asserting power using those body parts that women have been reduced to, the whole person is necessary.
What does this kind of cultural subversion look like? As Christians, we have an excellent example in Christ. He became human so that he could redeem the whole of us—not just our spiritual parts, but our bodily ones too. The Incarnation is evidence that God is interested in the whole person: the whole body and the whole soul. The Incarnation exemplifies this perfect unity between the body and soul. Jesus' bodily presence and physical touch communicated the very heart of God.
Likewise, there is power in the simplicity of bodily presence. Women like Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Sandra Day O'Connor, Sally Ride, and almost every woman that Jesus encountered in Scripture, are evidence of this. These women entered spheres where women had previously been unwelcome. Their physical, bodily presence contested the objectification of women in a way that the mere exposure of body parts cannot.
In the same way, wherever women have been absent, voiceless, or objectified, may Christian women enter there as fully embodied selves, reflecting the love of Christ. From the halls of the academy to the entertainment industry, from corporate America to American farms, women are most subversive when our bodies are present and our selves are fully integrated agents of the Kingdom of God. We cannot redeem our culture one body part at a time any more than Jesus himself did when he redeemed us. By means of his whole self, Christ saved us, and our call is the same.