Friday, January 10, 2014

We Need to Change the Conversation...

Every TCA press tour there is at least one panel that sparks controversy amongst attendees and casual observers (via social media and publications' immediate posts). Only one day into this winter's tour, and we have already hit upon one-- but what is sure to be just the first of a few. Yesterday Judd Apatow, Jenni Konner, Lena Dunham, and the rest of the female cast of HBO's Girls took the stage at the Langham hotel in Pasadena to talk about the comedy, which is entering its third season. It is not as rare a luxury for returning shows to be presented at TCA in the world of cable, and therefore it is not uncommon for questions to be repeated or expanded upon from previous years, now with more content behind the production and more context for the person asking the question. Still, yesterday's Girls panel opener of what basically amounted to "Why all the nudity on the show?" from The Wrap's Tim Molloy set things off on a defensive tone for the panelists.

The way these TCA panels work is that a couple hundred critics, reporters, and bloggers (and yes, there is a distinction!) sit in a ballroom, press conference style, with the show's producers, writers, and cast on a stage. The TCA attendees raise their hands to have microphones brought over to them to ask their questions when they think of them. There is no order; there is no vetting of the questions beforehand; and often, there is no time for follow-ups as their is more than one microphone circulating the room and others are ready to pounce with their question often before the one currently being answered is even finished. A lot of times, the loudest person gets their question in, literally actually talking over others to be heard. With so many different publications being represented (trades to tabloids and everything in between), needless to say there are a lot of different agendas at play. There is often not a lot of flow to the way or when of the questions being asked, and it is not the time or place for thoughtful back and forth, in-depth discussion between the person asking the question and the person answering it. And that latter point is not just because of the questions but because of the panelists who are all there to smile and promote their new show, whether they actually like their new show or not and whether they plan to answer questions with anything other than pre-planned soundbytes or not.

With that kind of context for the situation, the way questions are answered (jokey, anecdotally, personally, politically, etc) do often have the most to do directly with the way the question was asked, though. Phrasing and tone are key, especially in a setting like the TCA press tour where you are not even allowed to clap as panelists take or walk off the stage because that could show bias.

As a somewhat casual viewer of Girls (I loved the first season but tuned out in season two when I realized I was not rooting for any of the characters), I have to admit when the show first started, I had questions for Dunham about her writer's process that were not dissimilar to what Molloy asked. We as an audience have been so trained by other, older films and television that on-screen nudity must be for a purpose, often simply just to get it past censors or even to get actors to agree to do it. It had to be "tasteful" or "artistic" or "pretty". Otherwise it fell into the "gratuitous" and oftentimes "salacious" camp, being done simply because it could or to let two usually classically attractive people roll around together. Things are different overseas, but in America, casual nudity was never commonplace, especially for female characters. But what this has taught us about nudity is that it may only be acceptable if it is a certain way, and that created a moment of jarring disconnect when a viewer first encounters something that doesn't fit into the traditional or stereotypically accepted molds.

Dunham utilizes casual nudity easily, often, and oftentimes seamlessly simply as tool to fully immerse the audience in the world of these characters. In a key scene in season three, Hannah (Dunham) is engaged in a conversation with her boyfriend and a house guest, but she is also getting ready for the next stage in the day, and in the middle of the conversation she strips off her shirt and slips on another. Not a word is said by any of the characters about this; their conversation continues on as normal. Had this happened in season one-- and when similar things did happen in season one-- I fully admit I would have been thrown by it-- by how free Hannah as a character was to do such a thing and by how accepting and used to it those in her life were to not remark about it while it was happening. While their responses (or lack thereof) say everything about the characters, even more can be said for the audience. 

In season one, the adjustment to casual nudity included moments of disconnect for me personally. I wasn't uncomfortable by it, but I was surprised by it. Simply not expecting it to come in the random moments it did often distracted from the story for a second while I looked for the other characters to be as thrown as I was. When they continuously and consistently were not, it was easy to slip into their frame of mind and no longer think about it in the same limiting ways. In many ways that was freeing and opened the door to a lot of realizations about what we have been trained to believe is "okay" or "acceptable" by societal and censorship standards-- after all, not that long ago seeing gay characters on television wasn't common either and the introduction of them certainly probably threw many viewers initially, but that doesn't mean they are not a part of life and don't deserve to have their stories told. It really was a can of worms that could be a couple additional blog posts long...

By utilizing casual nudity in the show, though, Dunham has asked audiences to accept something as "normal" and "regular" that for too long before had been used selectively and often strategically, to control and contain power. By season three, the fact that I no longer think twice about these instances of casual nudity means Dunham has done the job successfully. But as a writer myself, that doesn't mean there aren't still questions.

Now the questions that come to mind (for me) are process ones in the sense of how many of these instances are actually written into the script as specific, clear descriptions and actions Dunham plans out ahead of time for visuals versus things that just happen organically on set, in the moment of a scene because it feels real and right and natural for the character. Questions about why write a scene that takes place in a bathtub into the script in the first place-- is it just to reflect all aspects of reality (Dunham answered Molloy's question by saying that it's real to be nude, leaving me to assume these moments are just so natural in her own life she doesn't think twice about them the way so many of us do when viewing them), or is it to set a conversation in a new and somewhat unique location-- or is it even to more intentionally make a point to be with a character in an intimate situation? Questions about whether or not she has felt that divide of acceptance and understanding shift over the years. Questions about comparisons she may draw between different ways to express a character's self. Questions that give us peeks inside her brain and her unique brand of creativity that may not make us like her product more or less but certainly allow us to understand where she is coming from and why. We're all better off when information and inspiration is shared.

Unfortunately, that was not the way the question was posed in the room at TCA (and before you get up and arms and then say I should have raised my hand for the microphone-- I fully acknowledge that being in a room like that is not the way to get a real, deep conversation going). In fact, the way the question was posed may have proven how taboo or at least different and difficult casual nudity still is to many. Everyone doesn't have to love it, but the idea of limiting an artist's sense of storytelling just feels wrong (and archaic) on so many levels.

Hopefully what can come out of these stories that are more about this one reporter's take on Girls and Dunham rather than the show as a whole now is a discussion about how people are watching and responding to these things. After all, that matters just as much as the product itself.

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