The Politics of Self-Exposure


Girls, HBO

by Maia Silber

If Lena Dunham undresses on TV and no one is around to watch her, does she still make an impact?

On a recent episode of Girls, Hannah Horvath poses nude, George-Costanza style, in a makeshift photo-studio in the back of a coffee shop. After learning that her boyfriend, Fran, stores naked photos of his ex-girlfriends on his phone, Hannah feels threatened. She’s angry, she tells her friends, not because she objects to women exposing themselves, but because that’s her thing.

“You know I pride myself on my sexual openness,” she says. “What I lack in skill I make up for in extreme curiosity. I’m not going to get edged out by girls who don’t even have any interesting fat deposits on them.”

When it first came out, Lena Dunham’s Girls attracted both praise and criticism for its frank portrayal of young women’s private lives and private parts. Five seasons and one confessional memoir later, Dunham has shown us all her fat deposits. The actress, who mooned her way into the spotlight as an Oberlin student by undressing in a public fountain, now makes more news when she dresses up for the Met Gala.

Girls premiered in 2012, when suit-clad Don Draper and Hazmat-suit-clad Walter White ruled the television world. Hannah Horvath sat her naked, female butt right down on their throne. Then, Piper Chapman hooked up with her girlfriend in a prison chapel. Amy Schumer called herself “sluttier than the average bear.” Abbi and Ilana Skyped each other during sex. Morton Pfefferman became Maura. Like Hannah’s boyfriend, Dunham’s audience has plenty of naked – daring, subversive — female bodies to scroll through.

Fran — Hannah’s boyfriend — claims that he stores photos of his naked girlfriends to protest the exploitation of women by the porn industry. Hannah calls him out for his phoney feminism, but, of course, her reaction is more personal than political, too — or perhaps, self-exposure has become so much a part of her identity that she can no longer separate the two.

Can we? In a world with naked photos and revealing personal stories always a click away, what does it mean to expose one’s self? What does it mean to expose, in particular, one’s naked, female — daring, subversive, erotic, threatening, titillating, complicated — self?

Before Hannah Horvath appeared on television with her naked, tattooed arms hanging over the edge of a bathtub, Emily Gould appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine with her naked, tattooed arms splayed out an unmade bed. The writer, who had already blogged about everything from her cat’s dental hygiene to her office romance with another Gawker editor, promised to tell all.

When the Times published Gould’s sprawling, 8,000-word confession to over-confessing, the backlash came immediately. New York Magazine featured a snarky tally of the words “I” and “me” in Gould’s piece, concluding that she had earned $860 for personal pronouns alone. Andrew Keen, the author of Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, described the piece as a “naked manifestation of digital narcissism.

A commenter on Gould’s blog, Emily Magazine, told the writer to kill herself — responding, supposedly, to an article she had written for M.I.T’s Technology Review.

Even six years later, Gould had not earned a reprieve. Blogger Edward Champion published an article titled “Emily Gould, Literary Narcissism, and the Middling Millenial”— a manifesto, at 11,000 words, even longer than Gould’s original piece. In his post, Champion chronicles nearly everything Gould said, did, and tweeted between 2008 and 2014. He includes the transcript of her Jimmy Kimmel interview, screenshots of tweets she had since removed, and even an extended description of a run-in with her.

Champion claims that he has nothing against personal narratives, per se. He opens his article by praising prodigious fiction and nonfiction writers who published highly personal pieces. These authors, Champion claims, all published “serious works of art peering fearlessly into America’s troubled soul.” With the exception of Edwidge Danticat, these authors are also all male.

Champion favors no coy or subtle sexism. He describes Gould as a “minx,” with her head “so deeply deposited up her own slimy passage that it is often hard to see the sunshine.” (Of course, that’s in contrast to Champion himself, who spends his time “carefully studying books, developing my writer voice, and interviewing prominent writes only after thoroughly perusing and researching their work.”)

Edward Champion types were shaking their phallic walking sticks at women writers long before Gould edited Gawker and Dunham directed Girls. In 1839, William Thackeray satirized “the Fashionable Authoress,” who has “published forty-five novels, edited twenty-five magazines, and I don’t know how many annuals, besides poems, plays desultory thoughts, memoirs, recollections, and pamphlets without number.” While a male writer labored over a single page of his manuscript, the Fashionable Authoress dashed off dozens without a thought. At least Thackeray had the tact not to mention anyone’s “slimy passage.”

Here’s the thing: Emily Gould wrote a shallow, narcissistic essay. Edward Champion wrote a petty, misogynistic essay attacking her shallow, narcissistic essay. Does that then make Gould’s self-exposure a political act? Or just a shallow, thoughtless provocation for a shallow, thoughtless guy?

Today, though, the Internet makes Emily Gould and Lena Dunham look like prudes. Blogs like xoJane’s “It Happened to Me,” Vox’s “First Person,” and BuzzFeed’s “Ideas” have created what Slate’s Laura Bennett has described as a “First-Person Industrial Complex.” Recent headlines on xoJane include, “I Had a Threesome with my Engaged Boss,” “My Gynaecologist Told Me I Wasn’t Pregnant When I Definitely Was,” and “My Boyfriend Burned My Love Notes to Stay Warm on the Appalachian Trail.” Jezebel has a content tag named “genetic attraction.”

If feminists argue that the personal is the political, then Internet feminists seem to argue: the more personal, the more political. But what political statements do such articles make? What forces of the patriarchy do they denounce? Threesomes in the workplace? Unqualified gynaecologists? National parks? Besides, these sites tend to publish the work of amateurs significantly less media-savvy than Emily Gould—and when the hateful comments come in, those women can hardly defend themselves on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.

Yet the past three years have also seen the rise of female self-exposure with real literary and political value. In September 2014, Ariel Levy published an essay titled “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” in The New Yorker. It includes a graphic description of a miscarriage. xoJane could have published the piece with the title “It Happened to Me: I Had a Miscarriage in a Mongolian Bathroom” — except that Levy’s piece is beautiful, thoughtful and nuanced. This past summer, New York Magazine published the portraits of 35 women who had accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault on its cover — an act of exposure that few would deny took great courage.

What makes “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” different from “My Gynecologist Told me I Wasn’t Pregnant When I Definitely Was? What makes the New York Magazine cover different from “I Was Groped While Performing Street Poetry”?

Most would say taste, or intention. We can’t really judge taste, though, and we can’t really determine intention. Does our preference for “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” have nothing to do with its publication in The New Yorker? Does our admiration of the New York Magazine cover have nothing to do with Bill Cosby’s celebrity?

In “Exposed,” Emily Gould writes that Gawker editors saw her as a “sacrificial virgin:” an ambitious but inexperienced writer ready to give up her dignity for page-views. It’s easy to see Gould — and the nameless, faceless bloggers of xoJane and Jezebel — as martyrs, sacrificing themselves to the gods of the Internet so that greater women could tell more important stories. There are many reasons, though, why we might choose to expose ourselves: political, personal, literary and financial.

We are women, and our bodies hardly ever tell just one story.

Note: The portraits of 35 women who had accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault appeared in New York Magazine, not Vanity Fair. This article has been corrected to reflect this.

About the Author:

Maia Silber is a junior at Harvard College studying history and literature. She writes for the Harvard Crimson and the Harvard Advocate, and her work has also appeared in 21 South StreetTimeOut, and Harvard Magazine.