“I’M GOING TO SHOW my thighs every day till I die,” vowed Lena Dunham after the social media scorning of her red carpet appearance in short shorts during Girls’s first season. As evidenced by her recent flaunting of cellulite-studded flanks on the cover of Glamour’s February 2017 issue, Dunham maintains that mantra, both as herself (presumably having learned her lesson about airbrushing after unretouched photographs of her 2014 Vogue shoot surfaced) and, going into Girls’s sixth and final season, as alter-ego Hannah Horvath. Although average-sized rather than plus-sized, and joined along the way by other not-thin leading women on screens big and small, Dunham still stands out for her refusal to cover up or slim down.
What so many Dunham haters have dismissed as passive-aggressive exhibitionism remains, to me, a radical refusal of (self-)disciplinary regimes that engender women as what Foucault termed “docile bodies.” Remaining a loyal Girls lover in the face of the nonstop shaming of its white privilege and problematic post-feminism, I’m in no less prickly a position defending Dunham/Hannah’s body-baring — a spectacle that may well elicit a gaze uncomfortably akin to gawking at a freak show attraction. My own response (and I don’t imagine I’m alone) arises from an overidentification that precludes any such othering, and that time and again provokes my admiration at Dunham-as-Hannah’s balancing of defiant self-love and courageous self-mockery. While her “nasty woman” attributes extend beyond body image to encompass a thoroughly unladylike, impressively anti-aspirational protagonist, it is those audacious images — of her splinter-embedded rump, tits-out mesh top, Spring Breakers–worthy string bikini, and love handles aplenty — that remain to me the most indelible across Girls’s run, and as likely to foster a feminist legacy as Laura Petrie’s Capri pants did 50 years ago.