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Eating Like a Girl: Food Issues in HBO’s ‘Girls’

Arts & Culture | March 4, 2013

HBO’s hit series ‘Girls’ is well into its second season and it seems no one’s gotten tired of talking about it yet. At first, critics slammed the show for being “monochromatic” and lacking all diversity, while other, more prudish viewers cringed at the raw and unglamorous sex scenes. Many others have picked apart the show for myriad reasons, while a seemingly equal mass have raved about it. But despite all this talk, very few have addressed the topics of food and eating in the series, concepts that have proven to be fundamental in the narrative.

Anyone who’s watched the show, even if only once, has seen Hannah Horvath naked. (That’s Lena Dunham’s character, if there’s anyone left who didn’t know that.) We’ve seen her naked in the shower, naked playing ping-pong, and of course, naked having sex. But it doesn’t take many angles of Dunham’s nude form to realize that her shape is not one we’re used to seeing on television. Many viewers have whined (most rather rudely and inarticulately) that Dunham is too fat to have sex on cable TV, as The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum noted in a recent television piece. But not only does Hannah have a more realistic body shape than many women on cable, her character also has an important relationship with food.

Dunham, who plays the double role of the show’s creator and main character, is anything but oblivious. She knows she isn’t skinny; she knows that people comment on it. But rather than hiding it, or engaging in any ‘body shaming,’ she flaunts what she’s got. But on top of her confidence and apparent comfort being fully exposed on-screen, Hannah’s character seems to be constantly shown eating or talking about food. This creates a confusing dynamic for the viewer. The audience is urged to view Hannah as beautiful and desirable, despite the societal unconventionality of her beauty, but she’s simultaneously portrayed as gluttonous in a way that seems to mock her very body type.

In an earlier episode this season, Hannah whines to Elijah, ‘I want to get married wearing a veil and I want to taste like fifteen cakes before I do it!’ While she struggles to get words on the page for her ebook-to-be, she winds up staring at a screen that says, ‘Twelve Fruits That Will Make You Fat.’ After the first time that Hannah and Josh (‘it’s Joshua!’) have sex, they share a steak dinner on his porch. Marnie or Shoshanna, women who are undoubtedly slimmer than Hannah, would never be shown enjoying a post-coital steak with a lover, let alone say, as Hannah does, they like their steak ‘so rare, it’s almost still dead.’ Through scenes like this one, Hannah becomes the poster girl for food and eating on ‘Girls.’ Just because Hannah happens to be the largest girl on ‘Girls,’ should her eating habits always be the butt of a joke?

Maybe this isn’t Dunham’s intention; food may represent something more subtle and significant in the series. After all, many of the show’s important scenes—especially in Season 2—take place over meals. Shoshanna finds out that Ray is secretly ‘living with her’ during the same meal that Marnie and Audrey have an awkward face-off over Charlie. Jessa embarrasses her new husband over a fancy dinner with his parents where she exposes her tumultuous past. And, reaching back into the ‘Girls’ archives, the very first episode opens with Hannah at dinner with her parents. In an article from the Los Angeles Review of Books about the first season of ‘Girls,’ Jane Hu tries to argue for the importance of meals in this way. She says that the show “uses food scenes as a way of driving plot, and exploring character development.” It may be a compelling argument, and it’s possible that this is Dunham’s intention, but many of Hu’s points seem far-fetched and overly analytical. And more often than not, ‘Girls’ is pretty blunt and to-the-point.

Perhaps Lena Dunham just likes self-mockery, and wants her audience to know that she’s in on whatever jokes they might be cracking about her physique. Or maybe, more simply, she really likes food, and it’s worked its way into her writing of her character. But as long as Hannah continues to have a cupcake within reach at all times, a food-centric joke on the tip of her tongue, and the heaviest body frame in the cast, there will continue to be something unsettling about the way the ‘Girls’ girls eat.