The Trouble with GirlsBy Cynthia Hawkins
May 09, 2012
This week, Girls’ writer/director/actress Lena Dunham went on NPR’s Fresh Air to address criticisms that the show is a particularly whitewashed view of entitled twenty-something women emotionally adrift in New York City. Even before the show aired on HBO, Girls had garnered a tremendous amount of buzz as a series helmed, for a change, by a woman. Just a few episodes in, the buzz erupted in debate on Girls’ representations of gender, class, and race as well as its worthiness of being the focus of so much debate to begin with.
To date, the non-white characters on Girls have been the scant flat or stereotypical characters largely relegated to the periphery of the story, and the descriptions on the casting call for nannies and receptionists certainly haven’t helped the perception of Girls as a series that lacks depth and diversity. On this issue of race, Dunham told NPR:
Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls. As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, ‘I hear this and I want to respond to it.’ And this is a hard issue to speak to because all I want to do is sound sensitive and not say anything that will horrify anyone or make them feel more isolated, but I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately.
It’s problematic if Dunham’s own insularity as a writer is such that she feels she “can’t speak accurately” to characters unlike herself or unlike the people she’s closest to. Write what you know, sure, but maybe work on knowing a little bit more. At the same time, there’s much that Girls does well. It puts a woman in control of stories about women in a major forum. It gives voice to the sort of woman we haven’t often seen depicted front and center elsewhere on television – a more realistic, more relatable sort of woman driven by something other than shopping and diets and Mr. Right. And it’s as funny in its exploration of contemporary twenty-something existence as it is painful.
One of the most thorough and thoughtful responses I’ve read to Girls, the hype, the backlash, the expectations of women writers making inroads, and issues of representation across the board came last week from Roxane Gay at The Rumpus:
We put a lot of responsibility on popular culture, particularly when some pop artifact somehow distinguishes itself as not terrible. In the months and weeks leading up to the release of Bridesmaids, for example, there was a great deal of breathless talk about the new ground the movie was breaking, how yes, indeed, women are funny. Can you believe it? There was a lot of pressure on that movie. Bridesmaids had to be good if any other women-driven comedies had any hope of being produced. This is the state of affairs for women in entertainment—everything hangs in the balance all the time.
Do yourself a favor and read Gay’s “Girls Girls Girls” here.
Not wanting to cater to tokenism is one thing. But I have a hard time believing that at no point during the writing, casting, filming, editing, and promotion did ANYONE notice that this is a really, really white show. If so, not only is Dunham’s particular creative field of vision insular, but so is that of the production staff she’s surround herself with.
Gay’s piece is stellar.
I don’t know what would be sadder — if no one else had noticed or if they’d noticed and said, “meh, no matter.” Also depressing, the number of really, really white shows.
The “tokenism” is apparently not an issue when characters you see for 30 seconds with one or two lines on the show are concerned. Ironic that she was simultaneously trying to “avoid tokenism” and didn’t realize that there were only white characters. Both can’t really be true.
I really do appreciate seeing a show where the main character isn’t skinny and gorgeous, though. I’m pretty sure this has some basis, in terms of characters, in Sex in the City — they all correlate with “personality types” on that show.
I find Lena incredibly gorgeous, but then I’ve always been attracted to what lies between a woman’s ears: her eyebrows. Seriously though, I’m tired of looking at attractive people with glowing white teeth as well. That’s why COPS will always be my favorite show. Diversity, insanity, toothlessness, stupidity, the occasional tazer deployment. Talk about a show that hits all the right notes.
Yes, I appreciate that Dunham’s the central character, eyebrows and all. The night the show aired, she posted a photo of herself dressed for the big premiere — in pajamas and towel-wrapped head alone in her apartment. I loved that.
Hey, Phat B, COPS is still on?!
You betcha. In glorious HD no less.
I watched my first episode a few weeks ago, after watching the indie movie around which the series is based, and I was left with mixed feelings. I thought much of the writing was astoundingly good, but I just found the characters unsympathetic in a way I haven’t experienced in a long time. The main girl was being cut off from her allowance two years after graduating from college, and whining about it, and I just couldn’t make myself care about her. I also was blaming her for not getting away from that guy she was seeing. As opposed to responding to the characters’ travails, I felt my buttons being pushed, which is always a red flag with me.
Thanks for the insight, C.
I’m not really connecting to the characters yet either. I’d wondered if that might be new-show-ness — you know, that period in which it takes awhile for the cast to gel as an ensemble and for the actors to really get a handle on their characters. But for now, the characters often seem inconsistent, particularly Jessa, and I don’t always get their motivations. It’ll be interesting to see how it evolves and develops.
Thank you, Art!
Eh, I dunno about all the backlash. Seinfeld was a show about 4 thirty-something white jewish people, and I don’t recall a whole lot of backlash about that aside from a couple stand up comedy routines. I think part of racial harmony is not noticing or caring that all the characters on the show are white. Like that South Park episode where everyone was up in arms about the flag with the black guy on it, and only the kids were the ones who couldn’t see it, cuz all they saw was a human being on a flag. It’s just a show about 4 female human beings cutting their teeth in New York who show their boobs a lot.
I wholeheartedly agree. If we want to reduce the issues people have with racial equality, we need to stop pointing out everything that’s “different.” There are shows that exist in the US with considerably more diverse characters – so if that is what you are looking for, watch them! Or go out and make a multi-racial Girls. Or just watch the show and move on with your life.
It is well established that Girls was initially “refreshing” because it featured ‘real,’ well-written, strong(-ish) women. Now we look for the flaws and race is the next societal issue to tackle. I don’t think Girls was trying to identify with every person who could ever happen upon the show; very few television shows attempt this, much less those who manage it.
If you’re going to watch Girls, great! If not, stop complaining and change the channel.
I also agree. One wouldn’t go up to Toni Morrison and say, hey, you have a really myopic view of white people, why don’t you work on knowing a little bit more. There is room for all voices and experiences in the world. If one’s experience is limited, then it is important to be honest about that and work on changing it. (Maybe the characters will wake up one episode and realize their relative isolation in one of the most diverse cities in the world.) I was really prepared to hate this show, but in the end I have to appreciate that this chick did not use her money and connections to pitch and produce another Sex and the City, or better yet, a reality show claiming to be the “real” Sex and the City.
There must have been some boob-showing quota instituted by the HBO big-wigs for all of its shows. Have you seen Game of Thrones? All boobs! Interrupted by the occasional beheading.
Yes, I think one of the most curious aspects of this whole brouhaha is how Girls gets ripped for what has been true of many, many, many other shows, past and present, that exist/have existed with little to no criticism on the matter. I think Gay’s essay really nails it on the reasons for why that is.
This reminds me a Kurt Vonnegut short story that I read in the 7th grade about a world in which everyone is legally “equal”, so any differences in intelligence, attractiveness, or physical ability is “handicapped” so others won’t feel lesser than others. Attractive people have to wear masks. Ballerinas have to wear weights. Intelligent people have to wear devices that interrupt thought processes.
No one criticizes shows that focus on the African American experience as being “too black”, or the Jewish American experience as being “too Jewish”. What is wrong with depicting children of white privilege? I went through 12 years of private schools, a private women’s college, and then a fairly prestigious graduate school. I am older than these girls now, but watching this show is sometimes funny and uncomfortable for me, because I do see myself and my friends in the some of the characters. It is, actually (and sometimes awkwardly), my experience in many ways (albeit, a generation earlier).
When the act of creativity is watered down to the point that it pleases everyone and offends no one, we are stuck with mediocrity. We watch movies and television shows, and read books, and listen to music, to understand different perspectives and to understand different points of view. Some of which mirror our own experience, and some of which do not. Whether you like them or not, these girls exist and are part of the American tapestry. There is nothing wrong with this. I don’t want to live in that Kurt Vonnegut world.
Yes, that is the short story, Equilibrium.
I tend to be facinated with characters that I dislike the most. I am always interested in how that person came to be like that. I tend to like reading or watching stories about whiny or cruel characters who successfully got into touch with his or her inner douchiness. I think it is a mixture of Black’s Philosophy and because it is usually funny to me.
Hey hey, thanks all for weighing in!
Patrick, now you have me thinking of all the characters I dislike, even loathe, that I still find intriguing. The guy who plays Adam on Girls is a good example of that. I think with every episode I dislike that guy all the more — but his jackassery is so very compelling. Oh! And Van Alden better be back in the next season of Boardwalk Empire so I have someone to yell at. He is most definitely, as my mother would say, “a real piece of work.”
I DO NOT agree with this criticism. Is getting old. In fact, I don’t even know if this was an article at all. I remember when Sofia Coppola was questioned about the same thing –after the release of ‘Somewhere’–. She answered something along the same lines: this is the world i live in; experimenting w/ other stratus would be disingenuous. Cinthya says Lenna can work on knowing a little bit more; please give examples. I bet that representing the experiences of other ethnic groups successfully (when you don’t belong to them), would end up in a stagnant production process. There is one thing I agree on, the series is in fact a bit overrated. It is an OK show, just like Coppola’s movies are fine, and just fine. Nothing over the top. However, I bet everyone here likes the show a lot, and wouldn’t have even think of this typical –almost envious– critique, if it wouldn’t have been approached as such a reproduced-cliche from someone at the NY Times (something that even Terry Gross fell for). SMH.
Hi Henry! Thanks for taking the time to read my clichéd non-article and offer your perspective!
I think that line stood out for me as a writer because I felt that’d be creatively prohibitive even in more general ways – say, writing a drug-addicted former astronaut living in a hovel in the Appalachian mountains wouldn’t happen because she’s not, nor does she know in her closest circle, a drug-addicted former astronaut living in a hovel in the Appalachian mountains. And don’t we all need that story to be told?
True, the criticism is overmuch. True, it’s overly focused on one show. Interesting note about Sofia Coppola as well. Lost in Translation is one of my faves. I haven’t seen her recapture that kind of magic since, but I’m hopeful! One of these days ….
It’s just the ethnicity thing. More and more feels like either a writer’s antidote, or a subliminal (abused but effective) publicity tactic. Your note has the least of these ingredients (not backpedaling), is that snowball from the NYTimes and alikes i mentioned above… Sure it would be revealing to explore the apathy of a honduran exile towards sex, after his/her arrival to NY. Ironically the city of the same government –and country–, that backed the coup in his/her native home (twice). But that won’t be one of the original ideas of a typical 25 year old rookie producer for a show.
Where i will definitely backpedal is on Coppola’s Lost in Translation. I agree with you there: it was marvelous.
Not just a fine movie. And to recap on both issues, here is one of Coppola’s answers on the topic; like i said, on the eve of Somewhere (coincidental article-title by the way, coinsidental also, an easily seen link to an article on Dunham on the righ), check out question #4: Sofia Coppola: Not just for girls .
(…) a “writer’s-block antidote” i meant to say. xD
Thanks for the link! Checking it out now …
Oh and if anyone is looking for another show created by white chicks, but with less boobs and weird sex, check out Best Friends Forever. Created and written by a couple of UCB’s finest, and they happen to be best friends in real life so the chemistry is amazing. Improv actors are just perfect for sitcoms. I think the eps are up on Hulu and on demand or what have you, but it’s on NBC so they’ll undoubtedly cancel it soon.
Righto you are! Canceled: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/showtracker/2012/05/nbc-axes-bent-awake-chelsea-best-friends-forever.html
NBC has its head up its peacock ass. If they didn’t renew Community I was gonna go down there and be very upset with the receptionist cuz they probably have great security.
Just read that article you referenced, Cynthia, the one in Racialicious by Kendra James. So if Brooklyn is 2/3rds non-white, then perhaps it could be argued that Dunham is actually writing from the point of view of a minority. And if so, then does she get a pass, like the way minority shows like “Roc” and “Living Single” can display only one specific race and ignore the rest? (I know there have been African-American sitcoms later than these, but alas, my TV knowledge is dated and limited!)
I’m certainly not supporting Dunham’s limited view of the city, but it does seem like she’s getting bashed when what she was doing is what young writers are told to do — write what they know. And I’m not sure if Kendra James is leading the readers somewhat regarding her alma mater, Oberlin, which is pretty white-bread — according to http://www.cappex.com/colleges/Oberlin-College-204501, it’s 74% white. Compare that to NYU (http://education-portal.com/directory/school/New_York_University.html), which is 48% white. So not exactly difficult to graduate from Oberlin, if you are a white girl, with only white friends.
Thanks Sung! That’s an interesting take on it, re. the statistics, etc. I appreciate that Girls is a milestone for at least one underrepresented group in the industry — women producers, directors, and writers — as well as a step for an underrepresented kind of lead character — a woman who isn’t skinny and pretty by Hollywood standards (I happen to think she’s just fine, for the record). So I’m willing to wait it out and see how the series develops from here. I’m also very interested to see how Dunham evolves as a writer as her world opens up around her. Really, she is a young writer, as you note, just getting started (and getting started in a huge and amazing spotlight, no less).
I don’t know that I think “Girls” is brilliant–it’s very interesting the way it catches a certain set of people–but I think the chatter about lack of diversity is silly, in this case. That’s not the story Dunham is writing. She would be disingenuous if she acted as if she were capable of doing that in this particular show, set where it is, with its particular group of fancy friends. That said, the shirtless, zitty guy sofa sex scene was so skeevy, I still have not recovered. Girls acting stupid who will eventually know better. That’s basically what I thought of the show, but I only saw one episode. I do want to see more.
You’ve only seen the skeevy guy in the first episode? Believe it or not, he gets worse!
I’m pretty sure that he is shirtless in every scene, and the button on his pants is always undone.
I have nothing intelligent to contribute, but I love this show.
Robby, the two things I know about you are that you write awesomely astute book reviews and that you are a young guy. And I’m very interested that you love this show, because a friend of mine who is some sort of media studies specialist once suggested that youngish people wouldn’t like Girls as much as oldish people because youngish people would be too uncomfortable with some of the familiar realities it presents. I wasn’t so sure about that. Now I’m going to tell her, “I’ve now heard from a young person! He loves it!” And somehow this means I win. Thank you!
Thank you for the compliment! Those familiar realities are precisely why I’m drawn to it. It’s raw and “awkward” and vulgar, but human, and beautiful. It’s difficult to see some of the characters act as they do, especially Hannah, but we all have a bit of her in ourselves, which is from where the discomfort stems. I think. Also, it’s hilarious.
As a companion to Kendra’s piece, I’d recommend reading by our editor, Latoya Peterson, on why stories of people like Lena Dunham – 20-something white cis-women – get prioritized over those of, say, Issa Rae, an award-winning webseries showrunner.
I also wanted to respond to a couple of comments made earlier in the thread:
* Re: Seinfeld. It’s important to remember that that show existed during a time when a) social media did not exist and b) safe spaces online for people of color weren’t as prevalent, if they were around at all. But Girls fits perfectly in line with a number of shows – Sex & The City being another one – set in New York and promoted/reviewed as “America’s Best _______.” Here, again, an all-white experience is defined as being “universal.” To suggest that shows like Roc “get a pass” is questionable, if not outright distasteful, in that context.
* Re: The argument that people should “stop complaining” and “make their own Girls.” They do, and they have, and they continue to do so – this post shows us that there are people like Issa Rae creating their own alternative content – but, again, in a TV industry that has largely been getting less diverse behind the camera over the years, those experience apparently aren’t seen as “valuable” to a market geared almost exclusively toward white people. Thanks for hosting this discussion, Cynthia!
Arturo R. García
Thanks for stopping by to add to the conversation, Arturo! You make some really important points. Yes, I think the stop-complaining-and-write-your-own-series kinds of comments on this issue, as if people aren’t already doing just that to no avail, are a bit naive. I’m glad you included the info on Issa Rae as well as on diversity behind the camera being increasingly less so in television. Much appreciated!