Over the past few days, the subject of Girls' "excessive" nudity has popped up again, thanks to a tactless question asked by a reporter at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. It's hardly the first time critics have called out the nudity on Lena Dunham's HBO series — and it certainly won't be the last. But once again, I'm forced to wonder why there's this much conversation about it. Yes, there is nudity on Girls, but it's hardly excessive. In fact, I'd say the show is, by and large, less explicit than True Blood or Game of Thrones, which also air on HBO.
To prove this, I decided to go through the first two seasons of the series and document every second of nudity. My methodology was fairly simple. In order for a something to count as nudity, it had to be actual and not implied nudity — there is, to be fair, plenty of the latter, but it's mostly no more extreme than what you'd see on basic cable. I was actually generous in my counting: For example, sex scenes were sometimes counted entirely, even when there were moments without nudity. (It would simply have been too tedious to count otherwise.) I even counted the grey area: a character's bare ass while on the toilet, and all of Hannah's scenes in the notorious yellow mesh top sans undergarment. It's worth noting that the latter, which hardly counts as nudity, greatly contributed to the total.
In the end, I determined that throughout the first two seasons of Girls, nudity occurred 3% of the time. Compared to network shows, yes, that's a significant amount, but in the grand scheme of things, note how little time is actually spent on Girls showing its characters naked. For all the talk about constant nudity on the show, you'd think that it would take up more than 3% of the screen time.
There is more female nudity than male nudity on Girls, which is really no surprise. But there is still a significant amount of male nudity, more than you're likely to see outside on another series with four female leads. (Sex and the City, which Girls is forever compared to, springs to mind.) The chart is not exactly balanced — and why would it be when, again, the main characters are all female? — but it certainly doesn't indicate an exploitation of female nudity.
Part of the reason Tim Molloy's question at TCA was so obnoxious is that he singled out Lena Dunham's for being nude on the show. Yes, her character Hannah is naked more often than any other character — but she's also the star of the show. I mostly included this chart because it shows that even minor characters, like Natalia (Shiri Appleby) and Booth (Jorma Taccone), had significant nude scenes throughout the first two seasons. Of the four main women, only Hannah and Jessa have been naked. Marnie covered her chest during her one topless scene. And among the men, Adam has had the most nude scenes; because of their limited screen time, Charlie's and Elijah's nude scenes fall under "Other."
Tim Molloy's other complaint about the nudity on Girls was that it occurs "at random times for no reason." That's not entirely true. Most of the nudity on the show is in a sexual context, either during sex or post-coital. Then there is nudity in the context of normal at-home behavior: peeing, showering, taking a bath, and getting ready for bed. I included a section of nudity for "fun," which is perhaps a bit misleading: The two main instances of this are Hannah wearing the aforementioned mesh top and Hannah playing ping pong topless, the latter of which occurs in a sexual context. The only truly random, non-sexual, non-hygienic instance of nudity on Girls, then, was Hannah dancing to Icona Pop with her nipples exposed.
So what does all this mean?
It means that the nudity on Girls is minimal in relation to how often it's talked about. And I think there are a couple reasons for that.
First, this is a very sexually uninhibited show. Note that I was only counting nude scenes, not sex scenes. There were many sex scenes in the first two seasons in which characters were clothed or at least protected due to careful camera angles. Those complaining about the nudity might be using it as shorthand for sex, or simply misremembering how much actual nudity they saw.
But second, and I believe more importantly, is the nature of the nudity. Hannah is a full-figured woman, and while she looks a lot like the majority of people in this country, she is not the stick-thin, big-chested woman who often populate our TV screens. Because she deviates from the norm in that way, Hannah stands out. She seems, to some, gratuitously naked, even if she's only naked for a very small percentage of Girls.
That's why questions like Tim Molloy's are met with such indignation. Whether or not his intention was misogynistic or a means of body policing — and I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that it wasn't — that is the connotation the question carries. It's not about the nudity itself, which is nowhere near constant, but rather how it makes the viewer feel. And in this case, that feeling of "wrongness" is inextricably tied to Dunham's body, making her defensiveness all the more valid.
So while Girls may indeed be too sexually explicit for some, the nudity question doesn't merit the kind of serious response Molloy may have been looking for. The characters simply aren't naked all the time, and when they are, it's because Girls, as Dunham put it, is "a realistic expression of what it's like to be alive." People get naked because they're having sex or getting clean or, at their most "purposeless," having an uninhibited dance-off because they're experimenting with drugs.
As Girls enters its third season (on Sunday, Jan. 12 at 10 p.m.), it's bound to attract the standard amount of controversy. But if we're going to keep asking the so-called tough questions, let's at least be sure we're backing them up with evidence.