Let’s talk about looking. Or to use an obnoxious critical theory term that is beloved in film studies classes, let’s talk about scopophilia. If you’re too lazy to decode the Wikipedia article, scopophilia is essentially pleasure, sometimes sexual, derived from looking. Here’s a good explanation from Laura Mulvey, author of that Screen article back in the 1970s that you had to read about six times before they’d let you graduate:
The cinema offers a number of possible pleasures. One is scopophilia. There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at.
Most of the film theory I’ve read on scopophilia involves Mulvey’s first distinction: looking as a source of pleasure. Mulvey and many other theorists have described the act of watching a film in a darkened theater as an act of voyeurism, of looking laced with desire. To be clear, there are other components to this relationship aside from the film-specific darkened theater. Again, LM puts it best (and then I promise to stop quoting and get to the point):
But the mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic phantasy [sic–She’s British]…Although the film is really being shown, is there to be seen, conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world.
NB: I am using Mulvey’s “film” interchangeably with television because in terms of structure, Girls has exhibited a clear resemblance to film far more often than traditional episodic television.
In this section of the article, Mulvey is referring more to the inherent nature of the medium rather than its content. Here she contends that film itself is the source of our visual pleasure. LM later writes about the content of most classical Hollywood films at the time, and of course, the infamous male gaze, but this quotation is more immediately relevant to our current discussion.
Let’s talk briefly about the “conditions of screening” for television, lest you think I’m making a spurious argument. Entire books have been written on this subject, but for the purposes of brevity, I’ll hit the main point that people love to discuss:
Television is an intimate medium, perhaps more so than film. We invite television into our homes: into our living rooms, our dens, and our man caves, and most significantly, into our TV rooms. Does anyone, aside from the super-rich, have a film room? A movie room? This is a pretty ridiculous suggestion to most of us middle class schlubs. Even when people do have such a room, it’s a screening room or a media center or some other bogus term invented by people with too much money and a home architect on payroll.
Television lives with you. Unlike the movies, you don’t have to make any special effort to sit on the couch and see what’s on. Television is family. And just like family, sometimes you love it, and sometimes you hate it.
To use a favorite TV expression, let’s recap: if we buy into the whole idea of scopophilic pleasure, then we know what we, the viewers, get out of seeing Lena Dunham’s nude body on TV. We derive pleasure from looking; in this case, we delight specifically in seeing LD’s unclothed body.
I brought Mulvey into all this because what I’m really interested in is the second point she makes about scopophilia:
…in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at.
Which leads us to my roundabout way of saying this: Lena Dunham, I do not want to be part of your sex life.
The most recent episode of Girls was meandering, contained, and did very little to advance character development in anyone but Hannah. To Dunham’s credit, we did see some miniscule character development in Hannah at the very end of the episode, but by that point, I was so exhausted with trying to figure out who I should care about that I couldn’t get too excited about Hannah’s overwrought speech.
The majority of the episode involved Hannah engaging in sexualized behavior and actual sexual activities that said nothing. I don’t care about sex on TV. Don’t care who has it. Don’t care what they look like. Don’t care how much and how often. Don’t care if it’s meaningless…IN CONTEXT.
I could not give less of a fuck if Hannah Horvath has rampant, personally inconsequential sex with half of Brooklyn. It doesn’t have to mean a damn thing to her, but it has to say something to us. Viewers need to be invested in her journey; we need to care about what she does and why she does it. Sex on a ping pong table might be fun for Hannah, but what does it tell us about her?
A few of the sex scenes (and scenes of sexual tension) in this episode did tell us a great deal about Hannah, but I’d argue that they lose their efficacy when they’re displayed alongside other sex scenes that don’t reveal anything or cause us to question our perception of her character or any other character.
So if I don’t care about Hannah having sex, then who am I supposed to care about? For whom do I continue watching the episode?
We invest in character. When character development is absent, then we invest in persona. And the biggest persona on Girls is the onscreen second self of Lena Dunham. So if I’m not watching the development of Hannah Horvath through her sexual experiences, then I am watching Dunham’s. And that makes me uncomfortable.
It’s not about the sex; it’s about asking your viewers to take part in your sex life. The number of sex scenes in Girls which do little to increase our understanding of a character are vast, but they are mostly unobtrusive when stuck between scenes of character development. This episode stuck out because it’s entirely premised on sex, but by the end of it, Hannah has only grazed the tip, and just the tip, of self-awareness (apologies, couldn’t resist one bad joke).
Since I see very little change in Hannah throughout the episode, my mind wanders to change found in other sources. I think about the Lena Dunham persona (brand, if we’re being ungenerous) and all the discourse that surrounds it: the body talk, the oversharing, the tendency to both judge and be judged. Hannah is a passive character that never grows, but the LD persona is constantly in flux (I say “persona” because I am hesitant to ascribe these qualities to the actual woman who lives within this mediated image).
I think about the LD persona during these sex scenes that say so very little about Hannah, but that say a great deal about Dunham. And I am uncomfortable because I feel as if I am being asked to take part in Dunham’s sex life. The LD persona has already established that Dunham enjoys talking about her sex life and its various misadventures. We might say that for Dunham, there is pleasure in being looked at.
But we continue to look, and maybe the woman who inhabits the Lena Dunham persona goes home at night and thinks about us while she’s fucking her boyfriend. Maybe she finds it pleasurable to think about all those people thinking about her, and in a way, she’s engaged in the best character development on television: she’s turned herself into a character in the story of her own life. But the problem with character is that it often leads to caricature. Stay tuned.