In the three days since Girls first aired on HBO, the conversation about the show has gone from a chatter to a dull roar, with many writers, critics and viewers discussing whether or not the show is realistic, insightful, funny, relatable, etc. But even more importantly: Girls has a serious problem when it comes to race.
It's no secret that the show's stars are four white women. In the first episode, there was a minor character who was Asian (and good at Photoshop) and a cameo by a black man who appeared to be homeless. For those of us who are — or have been — young twentysomethings living in New York, this version of New York is a bit peculiar.
As Kendra James writes for Racialicious:
Not only do I work with a WOC who attended high school with [Lena Dunham], I have friends who went to high school with both her and her younger sister and, because my friends consist of Latin@s, Asians, Blacks, and whites, I know her life couldn't possibly have looked as white as the posters for Girls (which is semi-true to life; she calls her character Hannah "another version of herself") would have you believe.
I, too am a black woman who grew up in New York. I went to both public and prep schools. I, too, have been a struggling twentysomething writer. And yet. The world in which Hannah and her friends inhabit seems familiar, except for its complete lack of diversity.
Jenna Wortham, writing for The Hairpin, agrees:
These girls on Girls are like us, they are like me and they are like you, they are beautiful, they are ballsy, they are trying to figure it out. They have their entire lives ahead of them and I can't wait to see what happens next. I just wish I saw a little more of myself on screen, right alongside them.
After Wortham's post went up, former Vice columnist Lesley Arfin, who is a staff writer on Girls, tweeted:
What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.
The tweet has since been deleted, but the internet has a way of preserving screenshots. Wow. Where to begin? Precious is about a woman who is, in every way, drastically underrepresented — ignored — in both the world and pop culture. Black, overweight, poor, illiterate. Girls is about white twentysomething women. Who are not overlooked in life, in TV, in movies. At all. But if the argument is: You can — and should be able to — enjoy a story about someone different from you, well, that is obvious. A movie about a goatherder in Tibet can touch your heart even if you have never seen a goat or been to Tibet, because you relate to human experiences and emotions. But as James questions: "Why are the only lives that can be mined for 'universal experiences' the lives of white women?" Girls was meant to be different from what we usually see on TV: Highly current, thoroughly modern. But the casting choices are not different. Not modern. To be clear: It's fine that the show is about spoiled, delusional, narcissists. The idea that "if a character isn't exactly like me, I can't relate" is bullshit. But that doesn't mean we don't desperately need diversity in the stories being told, characters being explored and actors being hired.
Racialicious has casting notices for the show; actresses of color needed include a Jamaican nanny ("overweight, good sense of humor, MUST DO A JAMAICAN ACCENT") and a nanny from El Salvador ("sexy, MUST DO A SOUTH AMERICAN/CENTRAL AMERICAN ACCENT"). The fat sassy black woman and the sexy Latina have been two of the most pervasive TV stereotypes for years. Again: not modern. And honestly, does it even matter that it's New York? Even The Office (set in Scranton), and Parks and Recreation (set in Indiana) offer more diversity.
Then again, what do we expect from Arfin, who, on her blog, described defecating as "dropping off the kids" or "taking Obama to the White House." That's right, she equated the black President and shit.
If Girls was merely a terrible show with zero potential, none of this would be up for discussion. Part of the problem is that the creator, Lena Dunham, and the premise — a kind of more realistic Sex and The City — have so much potential. I longed for women of color to be included in SATC as well; the cocktails and the heels and the love troubles rang so true, it seemed a shame that there wasn't a black lawyer, real estate agent, PR gal, record label exec, something. New York is chock full of people of color making moves.
Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress believes "there is an argument to be made that the whiteness of Girls is a manifestation of how cloistered the characters' lives are." She notes that after living in the city for two years, the characters have "mostly failed to establish relationships outside the group of people they graduated from college with." She continues, "That may be the show's myopia, or the characters' limitations, or both, but as with many things in Girls, those perspectives are not actually one and the same."
Rosenberg also writes:
There's a world in which Girls' whiteness wouldn't be so alienating: a media landscape in which we had a healthy mix of shows and movies created and run by men and women, people of color as well as white folks, and dedicated to the deep exploration of experiences that range from tight, insular groups of friends to the mechanics of bureaucracy.
The biggest problem is that some people seem to think that we live in two worlds. Separate but equal. That Girls is fine the way it is because Tyler Perry movies and shows exist. This argument comes up when we point out the way black people are treated on the cover of Vanity Fair and in the comments on Elspeth Reeve's Atlantic Wire piece about Girls. One (barely literate) commenter laments,
So now, in order to be pc we can not tell any stories about thin white girls?! They do excist and would like their stories told also. Nobody ever criticises a perry tyler movie for not having white people represented. Focus on the storie being told instead of this absured color focus all the time…
Tyler Perry is one man, a droplet of water in an ocean of filmmakers, who are predominately white. I am a black woman, but I find more in common with characters in Seinfeld than I do with the ones in House of Payne. My world is neither all black nor all white, but a mix — whether it be race, gender, socio-economics, weight or age. And for those who say, well, create your own show, then: If it were only that easy! Being black puts you at a huge disadvantage in the industry. Like Lena Dunham, excellent writer/director Dee Rees made a movie about a young girl in New York. Unlike Dunham, Rees didn't get a show on HBO — could it be because the main character in her movie, instead of being upper class and white, was middle class, gay, and black? Even Denzel Washington has said, "It's almost impossible to get $100 million to make a movie about a black family in New York City." Black people get the message, time after time, that no one cares about us, and Girls just joins the throngs of the indifferent.
Does Girls have the right to be all-white? Of course. But we, the public, have the right to critique the insular, homogenous world a young woman with the good fortune to have her own TV show has chosen to present. Because it's exclusionary, disappointing, unrealistic, and upsetting. And it perpetuates a sad trend. As Wortham put it:
Girls is good for girls. But which girls? If this show succeeds, what other shows will get made because of it? Probably a half dozen just like it. Who wins, then? And who loses? Girls was supposed to be for the people, by the people. It is for people like me - weaned on Sex and the City, amused by the simple charms of Gossip Girl, and weary of the bromance comedies that rolled through theaters the last two summers like a never-ending heatwave - who were hungry for something relatable, something real. It's a tricky time in America to talk about race and belonging, but deep down, I'd hoped that this should would somehow get past the same challenge of all the BIG shows that came before it - Friends, Party of Five, Sex and the City, Gossip Girl - that failed to weave a main black character at the show from the jump.
There's a lot of pressure being put upon Girls, and its writers. And it remains to be seen if or how the characters will change and evolve. But right now, this whole race situation reminds me of something my parents, who survived the Jim Crow South and the turbulent '60s would say — the old battle cry of hippies and activists and regular folks yearning for better: If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.
'Girls' Writer Responds to Critique of 'Girls' with Horrible Joke [Atlantic Wire]
Dear Lena Dunham: I Exist [Racialicious]
Where (My) Girls At? [The Hairpin]
The Other ‘Girls' and Diversity Goals for Pop Culture [Think Progress]