I find Lena Dunham sexy because she is talented and funny. The writing on her HBO series Girls is smart, and Dunham’s comic timing is impeccable. Starting with her debut feature Tiny Furniture (a film whose premise practically guarantees headache-inducing preciousness and yet manages to be charming) Dunham has assembled a stable of talented actors so that now in Girls–despite her obvious star presence–she can hang back as part of an ensemble, which bodes well for her current success being the start of a long career instead of just a diverting flash in the pan. To date it seems like Lena Dunham can do no wrong, and this is compelling.
When I say “sexy” I do not mean it as cheeky praise of Dunham’s artistic talent, or a nod to her current status as a hot item in the entertainment world, or some many-layered feminist reappropriation of the concept. What I mean when I say that Lena Dunham is sexy is that I personally would like to have sex with Lena Dunham. Here are some other celebrities I also find sexy: Mila Kunis, Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, and Tia Carrere circa the first Wayne’s World movie.
The difference between these women and Lena Dunham is that I don’t find Lena Dunham physically attractive. Or, no, scratch that. I find Lena Dunham physically attractive. Even when she shows up on Girls in unflattering trying-too-hard outfits, or pasty, naked, and enduring almost-unwatchable humiliation, this is all part of the comic brilliance that is Lena Dunham, which only makes her more attractive in every way. The difference is that I would find any of the other female celebrities mentioned above sexy on the basis of their looks alone, whereas if I had passed Lena Dunham on the street before I’d discovered Tiny Furniture in early 2012 I wouldn’t have given her a second glance. Lena Dunham is not bad looking, but she is frumpy and zaftig, and like most straight men my physical tastes run more in the direction of Mila Kunis et al.
The criteria for sexiness in contemporary western society are roughly that you should be young, thin, and discernibly masculine or feminine as the case may be. These criteria apply to civilians as well as celebrities, though for celebrities the volume is turned up quite a bit. The same criteria also apply to both men and women, but with a crucial difference: a man who is not physically attractive in a conventional sense may compensate by being strong-willed, talented, or successful. This is not just a case of the markers of male power making potential mates willing to look past a general trollishness (though that happens too). No, the fireplug-shaped alpha male who commands every room he enters, the fleshy oaf with an angel’s voice, and the scrawny geek who leaves you helpless with laughter–these are sexy men. Their looks are part of the package. For women, though, the baseline is set much higher, and the fungibility of other charms is steeply discounted. So really all I’m saying about Lena Dunham is that for me she plays by a man’s rules.
From time to time in discussions of society’s standards of beauty (which are inevitably discussions of female beauty, since women are the ones compelled to play for the highest stakes in this arena) you run across a sentiment like the following: “Young-old, skinny-fat, tall-short–why can’t everyone be beautiful?” Though well-intentioned, this is hopelessly naive and can be dispatched with a concise answer: because that’s not what beauty is. By its nature, beauty is exclusive. Beautiful people only quicken our pulse because they are visibly different than us. (Or because we number among them, in which case we are visibly different from others.) The same goes for the rich, powerful, and talented. When Garrison Keillor describes his fictional town of Lake Wobegon as the place where “all the children are above average” this gets a laugh because it is, by definition, impossible. (Garrison Keillor: another person who is funnier than you or me.) In a perfect world there would still be a tiny cadre of women whose beauty makes the rest of us sick with desire and envy. It’s just that more of them would look like Lena Dunham.