12:51 pm - 04/16/2012

Girls In White

Since no one else seems to be saying it or feeling it, I guess I'll just come out and say it, because I feel it: I have a problem with Lena Dunham.

Dunham, you may have heard, is the 25-year-old New York filmmaker, producer and actress behind the much-hyped HBO comedy Girls, which premieres this Sunday. The series chronicles the slackerish adventures, awkward hook-ups and studied self-deprecation of four 20-something friends in New York City, and as many a glowing review has pointed out, these are not women strutting Manhattan sidewalks in Manolos or battling to earn $2-a-word at Vogue. These are the anti-Sex and the City girls, perpetually and almost professionally adrift, their characters drawn with the same wry humor and specificity that made Dunham's first feature film, Tiny Furniture, a huge success.

With Girls, Dunham has been catapulted from indie-film darling to Hollywood It-girl, heralded by culture critics as a fearless visionary capturing the zeitgeist of young cosmopolitan womanhood in a post-Carrie-Bradshaw age. But the problem I have with Dunham is that the vision of New York City she's offering us in 2012 -- like Sex and the City in 1998 and for that matter Friends in 1994 -- is almost entirely devoid of the people who make up the large majority of New Yorkers, and have for some time now: Latinos, Asians and blacks.

Fictional "Girls," daughters of privilege: From left Allison Williams (daughter of NBC anchor Brian Williams), Jemima Kirke (daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke), Lena Dunham (daughter of art photographer Laurie Simmons) and Zosia Mamet (daughter of playwright David Mamet) play four 20-somethings in a statistically impossible New York City.

It's a zeitgeist so glaring and grounded in statistical reality that Hollywood has to will itself not to see it: America is transforming into a majority-minority nation faster than experts could have predicted, yet the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in America is delivered to us again and again on the small screen as a virtual sea of white. The census may tell us that blacks, Latinos and Asians together make up 64.4 percent of New York City's population. But if you watch CSI: NY on a regular basis, you'd think the only person of color you're likely to meet in Manhattan is a forensic scientist who works in a high-tech basement. (God bless you, Harper Hill).

Much of Girls is actually set in Brooklyn, a borough where just one-third of the population is white. Yet as Dunham's character, 24-year-old unemployed writer Hannah Horvath, and her friends fumble through life with cutting wit and low self-esteem, they do it in a virtually all-white bubble.

That brings me to the thing that bothers me even more about Dunham: Earlier this week, when the question of the show's lack of diversity and "white-girl-problems" focus was put to her directly, this bold visionary now running her own HBO show suddenly lost all her agency. The fearless and fearlessly honest auteur blazing a new trail in television could barely bring herself to own her own series.

"When I get a tweet from a girl who's like, 'I'd love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color,' " Dunham told the Huffington Post, "You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I'll address that."

In other words: Who, me? This isn't actually my show! I'm just the intern who gets coffee for the guy who's really making all the calls, Judd Apatow!

Dunham has wished some bold wishes in the past couple years: that she might land a deal with the king of cable, that HBO might give a 25-year-old almost total creative control over her first-ever series for television, that she might rise to the top of the entertainment heap as a woman without being blond, thin, tall or alluring in the way almost all women who make it in Hollywood are.

It's a testament to Dunham that she's made these wishes come true. But it's also a testament to the hollowness and hypocrisy of her words when she says she wished her series had more women of color, but was somehow powerless to do anything about it. While I doubt luck has had much to do with Dunham's meteoric rise, it sounds like we will now be waiting for her to get "lucky" to address the fact that her bold vision for young womanhood in New York doesn't actually look anything like New York.

Much has been written about the persistence of tokenism in Hollywood, and especially the token black female BFF (always sassy, never with real lives of their own). But even among these ghettoized roles, there is an especially absurd and disturbing category of tokenism of shows that are set in cities and neighborhoods where you'd normally encounter people of color all the time. Blair Underwood, who played the rare black love interest on Sex and the City, knows this pain. So does Aisha Tyler, who did it on Friends. So did Alicia Keys in The Nanny Diaries, and Tracie Thoms in The Devil Wears Prada, also set in New York.

I'm not sure what Dunham means when she says she plans to address the near non-existence of people of color on her Brooklyn-based show. But if it follows the well-worn path Hollywood has traveled time and time again, there's a large and growing swath of 21st century American women who won't see her hit series as remotely bold or anything approaching new. To us, it will be as visionary as vanilla.

decadent_chains 16th-Apr-2012 07:57 pm (UTC)
Her off Mad Men is David Mamet's daughter? Wow. I really don't like the plays of his that I've seen.

Also, what's annoying about this discussion is that some people seem to be going 'just be glad some women are getting representation'. OK, but we're got Girls, Two Broke Girls and New Girl and none of them have as the title 'girl' someone non-white. We can't be superhappy about the positive steps in these shows if those steps aren't for all of us, including POC.
hetairai 16th-Apr-2012 08:01 pm (UTC)
hera_bearrra 16th-Apr-2012 08:02 pm (UTC)
Ugh, people always expect WOC to be happy being sidelined in favor of white women. There would be no third-wave of feminism without WOC speaking out.
rollogreb 16th-Apr-2012 08:02 pm (UTC)

ugh do not get me started on two broke girls and their racist ignorant bullshit
indie_annie 16th-Apr-2012 08:07 pm (UTC)
There are 0 shows representing Latinas on tv. We are only maids/uneducated cleaning ladies. There's a larger (and not by much) representation on POC on tv.
These shows are written and catered towards white people.
megisthesex 16th-Apr-2012 08:32 pm (UTC)
i might get some flack from others for saying this but i'm gonna put it out there. latinas are the most misunderstood minority in the us. what you said is pretty accurate people think: maids, gardeners or sofia vegera.

i encountered people's stupidity soooooo many times with my ex (half mexican/half spanish) since many couldn't tell he was latina (because he was probably "white washed" in their eyes). people also don't grasp how culturally rich latinas are and how many amazing things they contribute besides great food.

Edited at 2012-04-16 08:33 pm (UTC)
dawnybee 16th-Apr-2012 08:33 pm (UTC)
Which is why it kills me that Eva Longoria is one of the executive producers of the pilot "Devious Maids". A series starring Latinas and the best they can do is a show about maids? It's regressive.
hateistoodark 16th-Apr-2012 08:57 pm (UTC)
It's infuriating tbh.
I mean i don't live in the US so it's not my place~ but most of latinos on american shows are insulting stereotypes.
beaddddddsss 16th-Apr-2012 09:27 pm (UTC)
And when we are represented, and not as maids or criminals, we're interchangeable for each other like our different nationalities and heritages mean nothing. I always see someone Puerto Rican playing Cuban or an Argentinian playing Mexican and I'm like, "...do people not realize that this is NOT a realistic accent and how insulting it is?"

Don't even get me started on that time I saw a Law & Order:SVU episode where the guy playing Chinese was actually Korean. Who had lines in Chinese. Who sounded so not Chinese.

No puedo.
youbeboy 16th-Apr-2012 08:07 pm (UTC)
We should be just be happy she'll address us imo tbh.
xo_prettywords 16th-Apr-2012 08:12 pm (UTC)
ia. cool that more opportinites for women are opening up but it's only for pretty white "quirky" brunette women, soooo
treebraids 16th-Apr-2012 08:18 pm (UTC)
I agree, feminist sites are the worst for stuff like this.
beatlesluv 16th-Apr-2012 08:19 pm (UTC)
MTE What a fucking joke. Who is being represented though? It's bad enough that these shows show the same type of woman...or sorry two.
1. The Sex Pot
2. The anti-sex pot.

And it's always a WHITE A or B. So where is the representation they are crying about? I'm not happy b/c there is no representation, yea I'm going say that. There is nothing for me out there.

Edited at 2012-04-16 08:19 pm (UTC)
dives 16th-Apr-2012 09:27 pm (UTC)
IA w/this, but to me, I'd much rather just see HBO greenlight a show made by and about WOC in the first place rather than hope that at some point in time someone might figure out a way to shoehorn my experiences into their show or something. If Girls wants to be a show about sheltered upper middle class young white women, I don't really care, that's what the show is about. (That particular subset has, in my admittedly small experience, very few nonwhite friends anyway, so it's not like the show is inaccurate in that sense.) I just want to see a wider range of shows, period.

I also am not a Mamet fan.
beaddddddsss 16th-Apr-2012 09:31 pm (UTC)
People who do the whole, "at least girls are being represented!11!!!!!!!111!" argument are imbeciles. Truly, unfathomably imbecilic human beings.

A black woman or Latina can easily represent women on TV. We had more POC and minorities in general on tv being represented positively in the 1990s than we do now in the 2010s. Until white people and minorities don't just nonchalantly allow most of their favorite shows to be filled with pretty white people and a few token POCs, the condition of ethnicities and all races being accurately portrayed on TV, by quantity of population and realistic lifestyles, is going to remain dire.

/tl;dr maybe, but it's sickening to my stomach and pisses me the fuck off.
she_rockstar 16th-Apr-2012 11:07 pm (UTC)
slutdrunkmystag 16th-Apr-2012 11:29 pm (UTC)
I do wonder, though, why it seems that female-centered shows like this are singled out for the discussion on the lack of POC in the media when it's a problem across the board?
stellar_ball 17th-Apr-2012 06:30 pm (UTC)
I knew she looked familiar!
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