Tuesday, July 17, 2012

No free pass for HBO's "Girls"

This may seem like belaboring a point, but even with all of the coverage it’s been given, I would like to discuss a few things. The fact that the "Girls" controversy centers on the representation of women, race, and class makes it a topic of great interest to me. And being a white twenty-something recent college graduate, I’m pretty sure I was part of the show’s target demographic.

Anyway, "Girls" got heat for a couple of reasons: for not including a woman of color as one of its main characters, for portraying the few minor characters of color it does have in stereotypical, other-izing ways, and for having a hipster ethos and whiny, entitled characters. The last two points are less important to me, although personally, I can’t stand whiny, entitled white people (and I’m sure I’ve been one at various points in my life, but that doesn’t make it less annoying). My main point is that TV shows, movies, videogames, and comics need to be more racially diverse. Period. More diverse in general, from class to race to sexuality. It isn’t a matter of numbers, the ethnic break-down of the country, or some strict (but convenient) adherence to “realism”.  It’s about representation, belonging, and exclusion. It will not be solved by stereotypical portrayals or tokenism. I’m not naive; I know how entrenched white American power is in this country. I know why there hasn’t been an honest effort to have diversity in the media or promote and invest in work by people of color. But none of it is a good reason. There isn’t a good reason for “Girls” lack of diversity either.

Nevertheless, some excuses people are making for it:

1. It’s only the first season! OMG, lay off poor Lena Dunham!
2. You weren’t saying this shit about shows like “Sex and the City” or “Freaks and Geeks”, so you can’t say it about this show.
3. If you’re a man criticizing it: it's only because the show is made for women, by a woman. You’re a sexist! If you’re a woman criticizing it: you need to support this show, because there are so few shows out there that privilege a woman’s perspective.
4. It’s realistic--- some white people only hang out with other white people. Can’t we make a show about that? Also, other races hang out with people of their own race too. If this is racist, then so are they.
5. Wait, HOW is this racist? It’s not openly hateful to black people or anything...
6. Lena Dunham is white--- how is she supposed to know how to portray people of color?
7. Blame the system/the industry, not Lena Dunham.

I would like to address each of these.

(Note: You can criticize a show on one level and praise it for others. You can be aware of a show’s failings, and still enjoy other aspects of it. Being aware of problematic representations of marginalized peoples, and not silencing anyone by dismissing their importance, is the key thing. “Girls” may be valuable for other reasons, but discussing those is not the purpose of this post. It is also not the purpose of the post to attack Lena Dunham, rather to address the arguments that people have made in defense of her/the show and its lack of diversity.)

Moving on:

1. It’s only the first season! OMG, lay off poor Lena Dunham!

I think it’s fair to judge a show on its first season. Can anyone think of a show that had an all-white or mostly white cast the first season and then came back the second season with non-tokenizing, meaningful, multiple characters of color? Because I can’t. And since there was such a poor showing this season, it’s obviously not a priority to Dunham. The casting calls for the first season were made available by the time the first episode aired, and there were only minor characters of color requested and it was obvious they would be stereotypes and/or flat, menial extras. At that point, we knew what to expect from the entire first season. If we do see more diversity next season, it will be because of how much shit the show got, not because it was the intention all along or Dunham had some independent epiphany about race representation.

2. You weren’t saying this shit about shows like “Sex and the City” or “Freaks and Geeks”, so you can’t say it about this show.

Actually, I bitch about the lack of diversity or problematic representations in many shows, even the ones I like. Many people do this, it’s just usually not listened to or taken seriously. The blogging scene, which has democratized the propagation of news and opinion beyond the established media, wasn’t as big back when “Freaks and Geeks” aired, but I’m sure that many people, especially people of color, were aware of how white the cast was. And with “Sex and the City”... do socially-conscious people even watch that? (just kidding).

Also, you could just as easily say “we” (whoever this *we* is) “didn’t criticize the lack of diversity in other shows, BUT WE SHOULD HAVE.” To say instead that "we didn’t do the right thing back then, so we shouldn’t now"  is fucked up, cowardly, and not a good argument. It’s a deflection and an avoidance of the real issue at hand. I’m not sure why “Girls” is getting more heat when other shows aren’t, but I have a couple theories:

a. Annoyance with hipster culture and the whiny entitlement mentioned earlier.
b. We’re used to seeing white female characters on TV but they’re usually movie-star white: tan, thin, polished, expert make-up, impeccably dressed. These girls aren’t tan. They’re pale. They’re white-bread, urban-chic, real white people white. Culturally white. Maybe this flagged people’s attention more than the usual depiction of whiteness. These girls look more like “normal” white girls you might see on the street, which is what Dunham was going for. There’s nothing wrong with this; in fact, it’s a good thing to have characters look more like real people. But I think it might’ve drawn attention to their race more.
c. It’s set in present day, in Brooklyn. Whites are the minority in Brooklyn, and Brooklynites (obviously many of them POC) know this. Thus, the show doesn’t ring true and seemed to go out of its way to be exclusionary.
d. The show has been marketed as fresh, unique, and truly representative of our generation. But to the point where it’s excluding so much of that generation, and therefore not providing anything ground-breaking in that real sense... yeah, expect it to get more heat than a fluffy show like “Sex and the City”.
e. It’s written by a woman, for women. Yes, I do recognize that the ensuing storm of criticism could have had some opportunistic sexists jumping on the band-wagon. But they were probably going to diss the show anyway, and I doubt they care much about the race issue. I also don’t think they formed the majority of critics in any sense. However, if anyone is cloaking their sexist contempt for the show in the racial representation argument, that’s wrong and insincere. In a way, though, does it really matter WHY people are talking about this? The point is, they’re right, and this is something we should be talking about. No, “Girls” certainly should not be the only show getting heat for this, and anyone who zeroes in on it and no other shows is a hypocrite.

3. If you’re a man criticizing it: it's only because the show is made for women, by a woman. You’re a sexist! If you’re a woman criticizing it: you’re aiding and abetting sexism, and you need to support this show, because there are so few shows out there that privilege a woman’s perspective.

Yes, this show is one of the few that is trying to represent (young, white) women’s experience and is actually written by a (young, white) woman, but we can’t give it carte blanche just for that. It has a problem that’s endemic to mainstream art and media in this country that should be addressed wherever it arises. It should also be acknowledged that the show is only about young, white, middle-class women and not every woman writ large.

Furthermore, it’s unfair to label all men who would critique the show as necessarily sexist, and again, it’s a deflection. In addition, most of the race-based criticism I read was written by women. But even if we address that claim directly, the implication is that you can’t criticize a show about (white) women without being sexist. As though the only reason you could find fault with the show or want to is because you don’t like women, or you want to bring other women down. Or that even if this wasn’t your intention, you are essentially betraying “the cause” if you critique something created by women for women, regardless of racial politics. Women of color’s opinions, unique racial experience, and valid criticism are being rendered totally invisible in this equation (uh, they’re women too, so don’t they deserve to be supported by white women? You rarely hear that one). You can be both pro-racial equality and pro-feminism, and situate both at the center of your political ideology. In fact, the more recent Feminist theory is integrated with examining the intersectionality of identity based on gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, nationality, coloniality, religion. Feminism isn’t some zero-sum game where you either support any endeavor of (white) women or you’re a sexist. It’s more nuanced. And to pressure women of color to support any white woman regardless of differences, as though their identification as women mattered more than their racial identification, implies that white cis-hetero women are the universal embodiment of all women, and assumes a unity between women that doesn’t exist. It erases both the privilege of white women and the unique struggles that women of color face. Telling all women they need to blindly support this show because it’s a measly crumb of female authorship that mainstream TV has allowed us is not only a lazy, disingenuous attempt at unity, but also a way to silence dissent from marginalized voices that we already hear from the least. That’s never a good thing for Feminism. We can have solidarity, certainly, but we also must be free to criticize eachother.

But solidarity can’t be genuine when there’s such a double-standard and no acknowledgement of inequality between white and non-white women. We need to encourage debate and discussion among all women, from every community, if we can ever hope to unite in a meaningful way, not stifle it. Solidarity needs to flow from both directions, not just one. As African-American Feminist poet Audre Lorde said: “the oppression of women knows no ethnic or racial boundaries, true, but that does not mean that it is identical within those differences”. Lorde writes of how, throughout the history of the women’s movement, it has been all too common for white women to expect women of color to support their endeavors, while not supporting women of color in turn, continuing to marginalize and stereotype them, and not acknowledging their own privilege vis a vis race. 

In this case, stories about white women are posited as stories for all women to support and enjoy equally despite unequal representation. In a telling way, the show is just called “Girls”, not “White Girls”. 

4. It’s realistic--- some white people only hang out with other white people. Can’t we make a show about that? Also, other races hang out with people of their own race too.

 Whites who only hang out with other whites get represented much more frequently than Asians who hang out with Asians, Arabs who hang out with Arabs, Native Americans who only hang out with Native Americans... you get my point. Where are the shows about them, by the way? Nonexistent. Even shows that simply feature a mainly non-white cast or non-white protagonist are often purposefully not funded or given a chance to air. For example: when Issa Rae, creator of the popular web-show “Awkward Black Girl” met with TV executives to discuss bringing ABG to TV, they made it clear that she would not be given full creative control the way Dunham has over “Girls”, despite Rae’s level of success and accolades.

Also, even if something happens in reality, that doesn’t necessarily justify its existence in art. The artist’s representation of the world has the potential to be anything, so when they choose to make it an exclusionary, white-bread world, we can say something about it, because it was their deliberate decision.

5. Wait, HOW is this racist? It’s not openly hateful to black people or anything...

True, but this is a more subtle, insidious but prevalent form of racism; exclusion. Marginalization. Being either absent from the popular narratives that shape and drive American culture or only available in stereotypical or inessential capacities. And anyone who denies the importance of this is taking it for granted.

6. Lena Dunham is white--- how is she supposed to know how to portray people of color?

To me, this is by far the most legitimate excuse for not having a diverse cast. Given the stereotypical POC side-characters in season one, it’s obvious that this was a stumbling block for Dunham. Some claim that it would have been better at that point if the POC side characters didn’t exist on the show, because they only perpetuate stereotypes and serve to reinforce the white character’s realness and depth next to their flatness. I understand this position completely. Yet I’m torn between pointing out that on the one hand, non-white people are people too, so you can write them as you would any other character rather than treat them as “Other”, and on the other hand, not wanting a non-white character to be white-washed, removed of cultural markers and unique experiences they’ve had as a result of their race. I understand that it’s a tough balancing act for a white writer and entails straying from the “write what you know” maxim, but if it really mattered to Dunham, couldn’t she at least consult or collaborate with someone who could help her there? It’s worth going out on a limb for. Also, shouldn’t the fact that white writers have such trouble conceptualizing characters of color show us how racially stratified our apparently post-racial society still is? It’s pretty troubling....

7. Blame the system/the industry, not Lena Dunham.

We can do both. Lena Dunham has been influenced by the system/the industry, but she has her own agency and could resist if she wanted to (and has resisted tropes of the industry, on other fronts). Yes, we do need to take issue with the entire industry, but Lena Dunham is part of the industry now--- it’s made up of individuals. Again, she doesn’t get a free pass because she’s an indie writer or a woman. We need to be firm about what kinds of worlds we want to see portrayed on TV; we need to insist upon inclusive, diverse worlds. “Girls” takes its place alongside the majority of TV shows in which characters of color, as blogger Jen Wang puts it, “function as props, plot devices, foils... for the white leads. [They’re] one-dimensional, which only [throw the white lead’s] three-dimensionality in starker relief... their stereotypical un-realness only makes the white lead’s ‘realness’ seem all the more staggering, [a] realness for which [“Girls”] has been endlessly lauded for thus far by its admirers”.

For so many, “Girls” is not the first show that they have criticized for its race problem. But even with those for whom it was, I hope they don’t stop here. I hope they don’t ever stop, even with art and media that they love.

EDIT: It looks like what I predicted might happen, (i.e., Lena Dunham back-pedals and tries to make the next season more racially diverse because of all the heat the show got) is exactly what happened. I’m glad she got the message and is working to remedy it. More people should be this receptive in the industry. However, it remains to be seen how these characters of color will be portrayed; note that the casting call is not for any specific race, and in fact, is open for "Caucasians" as well. Also, it asks for “hipster-types” of all ethnicities, which could lead to white-washing over their identities in favor of emphasizing their hipster-ness. They might only be side-characters as well. I don’t think we should close the book on this and stop scrutinizing. And oh, in response to the tweet by The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum at the end in that article (“Who is more entitled, the character of Hannah [on "Girls"] or the young bloggers who feel Lena Dunham owes them everything?”): Yes, how entitled of people to want equality. The nerve of some people.


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