My friends and I, in true post-hipster fashion, recently launched into a "what does it all mean?" conversation about the new HBO show Girls. There are a lot of critical narratives coming out of what we're talking about when we talk about Girls, like race, privilege, representation, money, the prodigy Lena Dunham and the problematic Lesley Arfin, New York, sexual insecurity, exoticism and the value of making this kind of television.
Girls rounds out the trilogy of shows launched in the last year, which also includes New Girl and Two Broke Girls. The titles might suggest that these shows are about children or students, but everyone here is in their mid- to late-twenties. I have a fondness for New Girl, because it's transformed itself from an "adorkable" (sigh) vehicle for MPDG Zooey Deschanel into a strong ensemble comedy; I have a neutral feeling about Two Broke Girls, because while I like Kat Dennings's deadpan delivery and real-girl body, I'm much less excited about sitcom tropes, like a laugh track and a secondary cast full of ethnic caricatures.
But Girls, with its indie/HBO pedigree, was purporting to be something different. Not a sitcom, exactly, although some of the scenes are painfully funny (awkward sex = comedy!), but a snapshot into the lives of single, underemployed, urban-dwelling young women. We are legion.
The conversations that have sprung out of Girls have mostly focused on three things: whether or not we are the kind of girls that Girls is about; the representations of race in the show's universe; and the responsibilities of the writers, network, and showrunners to identify and correct discrepancies between the real world and the show's world on both those points.
There is no question that I'm the kind of person who could easily go down a Girls rabbit-hole. Like the main character Hannah, I'm a small-town transplant to a much larger and diverse city. I came for school and stayed for work, which I hoped would be as a famous and well-respected writer. There's a scene in the first episode where Hannah, who has been writing her memoirs, produces the half-way-done product for her parents. She hands them about twenty pages of computer paper, which provoked a knowing guffaw from me. I have totally done stuff like that. My parents, like Hannah's, were generous; they also knew when to cut off the flow, which was much more recent than I'm proud to admit.
But Hannah is naive in other ways. She's convinced she's going to get AIDS, and she was working at an unpaid internship for two years - a mind-boggling length of time that led to a summary dismissal when she had the gall to ask for a paycheck. Like me, Hannah is not the prodigy she wants to be (Lena Dunham, at 25, is a different matter altogether). If the writing is good - and so far it is - this could be good TV. But there's nothing new here. Good TV requires that viewer learn something about the world - good, evil, man, woman, rich, poor, child, adult - that we didn't already know before. I'm not totally sure how Girls is going to accomplish that.
And then there's the race thing. Following a post on The Hairpin, in which the author lamented the lack of diversity in the cast of Girls, the outcry on the internet has gone something like, "What kind of cracker-ass New York are these girls living in, anyway?"There's the contingent of folks who say that Dunham is just writing her experiences, and if she's not tight with ladies of colour, she has no obligation to just, like, stick 'em in. There's the other side, that points out that cities are filled with all kinds of people, and someone who's "finding herself" the way Hannah is might bump against women who aren't exactly like her. But in the Girls universe, the characters of colour are bartenders and nannies, homeless men and receptionists - certainly not positions of respect or authority, and I doubt that Hannah would aspire to emulate them.
So what? Dunham, who is the show's writer, producer, director and star, has no obligation to represent women of colour onscreen. It hasn't been her experience!
Here's the thing: the show is presented as a work of fiction. Dunham and Hannah aren't the same person - for example, Dunham is a lifelong New Yorker, while Hannah is a relatively recent transplant. And since Dunham and Hannah aren't the same person, there's an opportunity for the show to branch out from Dunham's microcosm and talk about what it means to be a girl, in Brooklyn (where the majority of the population is not white), right now.
There's an excellent blog post by Kendra James explaining that she and Dunham have had the same background (raised in New York, Oberlin liberal-arts education, same kinda-money background), but James is Black and Dunham is white. The argument that Dunham is just "writing what she knows" doesn't hold water when she should be aware of the women of colour who populate her universe, going to the same small schools and running in similar social circles. The fact that Dunham's show ignores them completely - and that one her staff writers has actively and obnoxiously engages in "ironic racism" on the side - well, then, you have the makings of An Actual Problem.
So what? I'm a white girl. I have no horse in this race (ha ha, horrible puns). Well, here's the thing: not-on-purpose racism can be blamed on ignorance, and forgiven when corrected. It's not awesome, but it happens.
But if you are explicitly told - repeatedly, and in public - that the content that you're producing is hurting people by pretending that they are not part of your universe and their stories (so similar to your stories!) don't exist or don't need to be told, you hurt them. You send a message that you do not value you their narratives, or that their stories don't need to be told alongside your own - Girls at 8 PM, Black Girls at 8:30 - and that is damaging. And it's my place, as a critical consumer of media, and you know, as a human being, to say it's not okay.