Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The problem with Girls is really a problem with HBO

There has been a lot written lately about Lena Dunham's new show "Girls" on HBO. The main topic of concern, aside from the fact that the characters are "whiny" and "narcissistic", is that the show is very white. Like pretty much all white.

Dunham addressed the criticism for NPR:
"I take that criticism very seriously. ... This show isn't supposed to feel exclusionary. It's supposed to feel honest, and it's supposed to feel true to many aspects of my experience. But for me to ignore that criticism and not to take it in would really go against my beliefs and my education in so many things. And I think the liberal-arts student in me really wants to engage in a dialogue about it, but as I learn about engaging with the media, I realize it's not the same as sitting in a seminar talking things through at Oberlin. Every quote is sort of used and misused and placed and misplaced, and I really wanted to make sure I spoke sensitively to this issue.
"I wrote the first season primarily by myself, and I co-wrote a few episodes. But I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. 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."
A lot of people have made the claim that this isn't a good enough excuse and while that's valid, there's something about Dunham's explanation that rings true to me. "Girls" is a show that I don't want to relate to (or admit that I relate to) but I can't help it. So I have trouble faulting her completely for the lack of diversity on the show, because I can understand where the four characters she has written came from.

Dunham and I have a lot in common - I am also a white woman, who grew up outside of NYC and went to a liberal arts college. I didn't have the most diverse group of friends growing up, not necessarily by choice, mostly due to the circumstances of where I lived, what schools I went to, etc. If I was to write something authentic and honest and raw based on myself and my closest/oldest friends, it might look a lot like "Girls" (perhaps with fewer tattoos, but unfortunately almost just as white). 

So while I definitely see and acknowledge the problems with the show's lack of diversity, it's easy for me to sympathize with Dunham and understand how she ended up with the four main characters that she did. Now, just because I can relate to her or sympathize with her, doesn't mean I feel there's no issue here. There definitely is. But it's a much larger issue that Dunham shouldn't be entirely blamed for.

I agree that it's better to have more inclusive and diverse representation on TV, but I just have a hard time faulting Dunham alone for the lack thereof. I think that her experience, her voice, her story is worthy of being told... (As Alyssa Rosenberg put it, at Think Progress: "People are different when they’re in homogeneous settings, and there are interesting stories to be told there"). The real problem is that there are plenty of other stories that are also worth being told, even more so perhaps, but for whatever reason aren't being told. At least not on HBO. 

Consider some of HBO's other shows and you'll notice a pattern... "Veep" (our actual White House is a lot more diverse than the cast of this show); "Life's Too Short" (although the show focuses on another type of "minority" - a dwarf - the cast is pretty white); "Enlightened" (this show is the epitome of  #whitepeopleproblems); "Boardwalk Empire" (mostly white, although that can be explained by the time period); "The Ricky Gervais Show" (animated white people); "True Blood" (has a diverse cast but is often problematic in the way it handles race) and "Treme" (one of these things is not like the others...).  Most of the networks show a similar pattern, but since "Girls" is on HBO, for the sake of my sanity, let's just focus on them for now.

It's not just that her show is so white; it's the fact that her show is one of many shows that is so white. "Keeping the show authentic means reflecting one woman’s white, privileged, sexually awkward reality," wrote Nona Willis Aronowitz, for Good, "This is only a problem because there are so few shows starring complicated, authentic young female characters. Girls ends up having to stand in for everybody." If there was more diversity on television in general, there might be more room for a show based on Dunham's uber-specific perspective. But there just isn't enough diversity on TV right now, which puts "Girls" in the category of just another show about white people. But that's a problem that goes way beyond Dunham. 

There's the question of why HBO chose to air this show - and, more importantly - not air some other shows. HBO cancelled the much more diverse "How to Make it in America" this past December, after only two seasons. Now, that show wasn't perfect. Although it was much more racially diverse, it was also more focused on the male characters. But it showed a completely different view of struggling 20-somethings living in New York and a completely different New York, at that - one that was less monochromatic.

The guys of "How to Make it in America"

The girls of "Girls"  

Rosenberg wrote at Think Progress, "I’d suggest that we need two broad categories of diversity on television: broad shows that include broadly diverse casts, and shows that take deep dives into necessarily narrow settings. While we’ve made some progress on making the former kind of show diverse, we’ve done worse at making sure that those deep dives don’t just explore white settings and the perspectives of white auteurs who have created them." It's not necessarily that Dunhman's perspective isn't worth exploring; it's that her perspective shouldn't be given more importance on TV than most others - but for some reason it is. 

I wonder what would have happened if Dunham had written one of the four main characters a black woman. Would the character have been criticized as being a token or a stereotype or a caricature? It's possible, because when you're writing from what you know - and all you really know is white people - you run the risk of falling into stereotypical portrayals when you try to write something (or someone) else. The fact that she doesn't seem to have enough experience with people of color to include them in her story, is problematic, but it's a different problem altogether. (Salamishah Tillet addresses this over at The Nation.)

And oddly enough, in that way, the self-segregation of the show's characters almost works because it rings so true. As annoying as it may be to watch "Girls" and see the vast whiteness of the characters, it makes sense to me that these characters would have self-segregated themselves in this way. I don't find it admirable (because it certainly isn't) but I do find it wholly believable. 

I think Todd VanDerWerff of AV Club explained this really well:
Honestly, I don’t buy the “the show should be more diverse” critiques of the series, even as I think they are completely valid. Let me explain. The thing is, I don’t find it that hard to believe that Hannah Horvath and her friends mostly hang out with white people. I can totally see their social circle consisting of mostly their own race. So when there’s hue and cry for the show to add characters of different races, simply because they’re of different races, it edges uncomfortably close to tokenism for me. (If there was an actress of a different race on the show, but she never had any lines and was written with less alacrity than the other characters, would that somehow be a huge step up?) Where I think the criticism makes sense—kind of—is in the idea that the world these women live in should be filled with people of all races, religions, and sexualities, and in the first few episodes, it just wasn’t. Brooklyn’s a big, diverse place; the show should be, too. [...] Yet already tonight, we’re seeing the series expand the scope of its diversity. Hannah’s workplace has people of other races in it, and that makes sense. Our workplaces are often where we encounter the most diversity, simply because they ostensibly don’t care about race, religion, gender, or sexuality, so long as the job gets done. (Sometimes they do care, but that’s another show, most likely.)

Honestly, I find it hard to see what any of the four main characters have in common with each other, other than their past shared experiences. I think the fact that they're even still hanging out together and living together - says a lot about the characters. If these four women met each other later in life, they probably wouldn't be friends at all. But it's hard to let go of old friends, even when you've seemingly outgrown each other, especially when you're afraid of being on your own. (I've certainly been there.) And that's really the central theme of the series - they want to be independent and successful adults, yet they're still mooching off their parents and clinging to past relationships. (To paraphrase one of the characters, you can't really consider yourself an independent adult if your parents are still paying for your Blackberry). They've each led such privileged and sheltered lives, that it's believable that they haven't really stepped out of their little "bubbles" yet to fully experience the diverse melting pot that is NYC.

None of the characters seem intended to be "role models"; they are each unlikeable and flawed in their own ways. This is part of what makes my ability to relate with them so unnerving. I want to believe I'm better than they are, but yet, I've made a lot of the same mistakes that they've made, I've grown up with a lot of the same privileges they have, and I have been guilty of a lot of the same narcissism and irresponsibility and self-destructive behavior. So many of the scenes are so cringe-worthy, in completely genuine, real ways. (Note: I'm not saying I relate to them in every way. Definitely not. But in enough ways that I feel embarrassed when I watch.)

Even though Dunham claims it was an "accident" that she wrote and cast four white women, she can potentially use (and remedy) this accident in future storylines. Not only should she gradually add people of color to the cast (not just as stereotypical nannies in the park, but fully-formed supporting characters) but the characters can start to break away from their comfortable but sheltered lives and branch out and grow up. 
She may have written the basis of the show by herself, but she does have a staff of co-writers. (Including, Lesley Arfin, whose response to the criticism was not as respectful as Dunham's, to put it lightly.) Maybe she should add some more people of color to that staff and then she can add more minority characters without feeling that she's being inauthentic in their portrayal. Because let's face it, a big part of why there's not enough diversity on TV is because there's not enough diversity behind the scenes. 

Dodai Stewart made this argument on Jezebel, "The biggest problem is that some people seem to think that we live in two worlds. Separate but equal. That Girls is fine the way it is because Tyler Perry movies and shows exist."
Tyler Perry is one man, a droplet of water in an ocean of filmmakers, who are predominately white. I am a black woman, but I find more in common with characters in Seinfeld than I do with the ones in House of Payne. My world is neither all black nor all white, but a mix — whether it be race, gender, socio-economics, weight or age. And for those who say, well, create your own show, then: If it were only that easy! Being black puts you at a huge disadvantage in the industry.
I won't pretend I have all the answers, because I don't. (And I have to acknowledge my own privilege here, obviously.) I'm really disappointed that "Girls" isn't better, because I want there to be more women on television that aren't merely props or sex objects or supporting characters on the arms of the male leads. I want to see real women on TV - not caricatures, not stereotypes, not idealizations - and so I really wanted "Girls" to succeed. Even though it makes sense to me that Dunham's lead character would only associate herself with other white women (at least for now),  it's not okay that it's one of the only decent stories about young women being told right now. So I applaud Dunham for writing something that's arguably "better" than a lot of the shows out there (even if it's not as good as it should've been), I appreciate her desire to address and respond to the criticisms presented to her, and I hope that she actually does learn from it and do something about it. 

But what I really want, is for the criticism to extend beyond Dunham to the execs at HBO (and every other channel for that matter) because they're the ones with the real power here so they're the ones who really need to get the message if we want to see more diversity on TV.

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