On Monday, my fearless editor called the Internet out over the running debate over Lena Dunham’s show Girls in his article “The show ‘Girls’ isn’t racist; you are.” Sure, it may be a little bit late to the game, but we’re here now. And while Chicky makes a lot of good points about how the show is indicative of larger trends in society and television in general and how there are plenty of other shows, especially half-hour comedies, that seem to focus exclusively on white culture, I disagree with his central thesis that Girls shouldn’t catch flak for its lily-white characters and portrayal of Brooklyn, and I want to present a challenge to it in a way that’s just too long for a comment reply.
A couple of things before I lay on the hammer. First, if you have no idea what Chicky and I are talking about, I encourage you to read the articles about this. Here’s a piece from Gawker that outlines the whole dispute back when this was super fresh (and, frankly, when I stopped paying attention), so you’ll have to do some more research to find what’s current. Here’s a piece from the AV Club about the problems of categorically calling out whiteness as a problem.
Second, in the interest of full disclosure, I personally can’t stand Girls. Maybe it’s because I’m a man and the show is geared towards women, but I don’t think so. I don’t dislike it because the leads are in possession of vaginae. I don’t dislike it because it seems like a mumblecore sitcom. And I don’t mind that the characters are reprehensible (I was fine with that in Seinfeld and The UK Office). I dislike it because it’s not funny and the characters seem really thinly written. It’s a shame it runs back-to-back against Veep on Sundays, because that show is about 1000x funnier and it’s got much stronger (and better developed) female leads. Girls seems to approach humor like its imitating a particularly dry Britcom without any charming British people to sell the lines. And that’s not even particularly accurate, because I just mentioned The Office, a Britcom which is dry and hilarious, and Veep, which is written by the guy who’s made one of the funniest Britcoms (and television shows in general) I’ve ever seen: The Thick of It. I’m not surprised Girls is produced by the guy who made the incredibly misleadingly titled movie Funny People.
So, I’m not a Lena Dunham fan, so far. I realize I’m in the minority of reviewers here. I want it noted that I don’t like the show based on the content of its character, not the color of its skin. I didn’t hate it, then tried to justify that hate by calling it racist.
But Girls does have a serious problem with racism. Not racism in the way that we, as white people, conceive of racism. It’s not the oppressive “Bull Connor, fire hoses and dogs unleashed on women and children” form of racism that was the hallmark of the Civil Rights movement. No one can accuse Lena Dunham and her writers of infringing on their rights with an HBO show about white girls. Certainly, no one’s rights have been violated.
Instead, Girls is indicative of a different troubling trend: a refusal to even confront and deal with race. Bull Connor hated black people, but at least he engaged with them, even if it was just to hit them with fire hoses, sick dogs on them, and throw them in jail. I’ve just mentioned a slate of shows that have exclusively or almost exclusively white lead casts: Seinfeld, The Office (British), and Veep. And every single one of them has confronted race directly, in at least one episode. Seinfeld did it over and over again, and controversially (“The Puerto Rican Day”). Hell, Veep is only four episodes into its first season and it’s tackled race twice (Ep.2: “Frozen Yohgurt” and Ep. 4: “Chung”).
But Girls, on the other hand, won’t even touch it. And it bends over backwards to do so. You could be forgiven for not realizing that Brooklyn is only 40% white, given how it’s portrayed in Lena Dunham’s television show.
And let’s be clear: the women behind the show have not exactly reacted with grace and quality in response to the criticisms. Yes, some criticisms are less valid than others (I, for one, had never heard the stereotype that Asians are proficient at Photoshop) and don’t warrant a response. But when NYTimes Jenna Wortham writes that she wishes she “saw a little more of [her]self on screen, right alongside” the characters in the show, it’s not okay to tweet “What really bothered me most about Precious, was that there was no representation of ME” as Girls writer Lesley Arfin did. What a fucking asinine response.
Chicky points out that society is to blame, and I totally agree with him on that. The society in which Millennials like myself, Chicky, and Ms. Dunham were born and raised in is the most segregated in US history since the time of Jim Crow, done without any of the intentional discrimination. And white people of our generation are quickly becoming defined by their categorical opposition to dealing with racial inequity. Nearly 60% of white Millennials (laughably) believe discrimination against whites is at a level comparable to that of blacks and Latinos. Just ask George Zimmerman, amirite? Where my disgruntled whiteys at?
Now, despite the above image, I’m not calling what Lena Dunham and her writers are doing comparable to the cross burning, murder, and intimidation of non-whites that the Klan was guilty of during the height of institutionally segregated America (although, she is lynching comedy). But I do believe she’s helping perpetuate an idea of an All-White America that shouldn’t exist. And I don’t buy her dismissive hand-wave argument that Girls‘ race problem is unintentional. Yes, I can understand how an all-white group of writers would not think to include characters who weren’t white. And how a bunch of white execs would approve that show. But here’s the thing: writing and casting, those are two things you just can’t do without intent and without making intentional choices. They were certainly made white because someone decided to do that, even if no one decided that they shouldn’t be black or Latino (those might seem to go hand in hand, but believe me, they don’t). And you can’t say you don’t see color when doing those things, but that’s bullshit when Stephen Colbert says it, and it’s just as much bullshit when someone says it sincerely.
Now, I’m heading towards 1500 words, which is way too long for Hipster Jew, so I’ll wrap this shit up. Lena Dunham’s show is not any more racist than 90% of television. Hell, every CBS comedy is a walking poster child for whites-only television. As Chicky touched on, there are plenty of places to take your entertainment needs that don’t have nearly the same problem (off the top of my head: Community or Happy Endings could always use more viewers). Girls shouldn’t attempt to correct itself and get more diverse. It’s got its strata of gentrified white children of privilege that it’s portraying and that’s fine. Also, it sucks at portraying people who aren’t white, such as the stereotype nannies in Episode 4 “Hannah’s Diary” who are surprised to learn one lead character isn’t a movie star (Read my lips: Fuuuuuck Yoooou), so I’m not sure I’d even want to see what crazy hijinks Dunham and her writers would get up to in that department.
But the problem with art is that it both reflects and reshapes the society that produces it. It’s a mirror that changes you slightly every time you look into it. I could wax poetic about the doll experiments and other sociological studies that demonstrate the serious detriment the false portrayal of a disproportionately white America in media has on people of color. So, when a show like Girls is made that mishandles race and then wildly mishandles the fallout to their mishandling, of course people should holler and raise a fuss. This is America, damn it. We deserve art that reflects who we are as a society, not art that reflects what our white coddled liberal arts minds perceive to be who we are as a society. Some white critics have criticized white people who criticize the white writers of Girls for being white (threatening the creation of a critical white mass that finds Tyler Perry trite and knows the lyrics to “Bohemian Rhapsody” by heart–don’t even pretend like that doesn’t describe you), but I think it’s great. We live in a prejudiced society; maybe enough white people saying they’re tired of lily-white TV will get some attention from white execs that hasn’t been paid to the people of color who’ve been saying it for decades.
I just wish somebody had raised a fuss about the CBS comedies as well, because they too have overlooked the central tenet of comedy: humor. And now, because one critic said you should listen to him if you were gonna write about race in television, here’s white boy Phil Ochs to show how funny is done: