The media chose to elevate “Girls” into being Generation Y’s de-facto feminist television tent-pole — though the interviews with star and showrunner Lena Dunham, as well as the pilot‘s explicit references to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and being “a voice of a generation” certainly added gas to that inferno — and that’s where the race problem really started. A lot of art is completely devoid of people of color, but when a work proclaims to be or is presented as emblematic of an age group, its accuracy is then scrutinized quite closely.
Flash back to 2009. Remember the numerous pieces about “The Social Network” and its “woman problem“? Stepping aside from those criticisms, which I agree were warranted, those tomatoes were probably a lot easier and more justifiable to lob at a film that received reviews lauding it for “defin[ing] the dark irony of the past decade” and coming “damn close” to defining a generation.
Snap back to the present and now people are vilifying “Girls,” praised as “a bold defense (and a searing critique) of the so-called Millennial Generation” for depicting an almost entirely white world in one of America’s most ethnically diverse cities.
Tonight, the second episode of “Girls” will air on HBO. And God willing, there won’t be a black face (or blackface, for that matter) anywhere in sight.
I was one of those Millennials who found “Girls” veering dangerously close to documentary, even though I’m not the daughter of famous parents and I’m decidedly nonwhite. “Girls” struck a personal nerve because in its whitewashedness, it’s a perfect representation of my social circle. I have a lot of wonderful, well-educated and socially aware friends. And then I have my Girls, the gal pals who are exclusively white and blindly entitled. These ladies anticipated the premiere of “Girls” because they were eager to see themselves represented each week in all their televisual glory.
As I say to my Girls, both to amuse myself and to test their self absorption, “What’s it like to have a black friend? I wouldn’t know.”
When “Girls” writer Lesley Arfin (who is white, just so you know) used a tone-deaf, obvious and not terribly funny tweet to respond to the legitimate criticisms about the show’s lack of diversity, I wasn’t surprised either. That’s how a lot of my Girls talk about race: by making it about themselves and the headaches that come with balancing political correctness and their stunning “comedic sensibilities.”
If I received a royalty for every time I had to apologize for pointing out one of my Girls’ inherent privilege, or for having to retract a statement that acknowledged their bigotry, or for suggesting that having one black friend doesn’t exactly make you a civil rights crusader, I would have enough money to support Dunham’s lead character Hannah Horvath for the rest of her life, in lieu of her parents’ contributions.
I was right there with my Girls, ignorant and self-centered as they may be, counting down the days until “Girls” aired. I enjoyed Dunham’s feature “Tiny Furniture” in all of its alternately inscrutable and insufferable nature. I’m a year younger than Dunham and wanted to see someone, particularly a woman, create a lady-centric narrative about my generation for my generation. Even before I’d watched “Tiny Furniture,” the series’ trailer seemed cutting, funny and authentic.
But make no mistake about it; I didn’t ever expect to see myself or my experience on “Girls.” That’s what being the token black friend of Girls is about. You’re behind the camera taking the picture; you’re by no means ever included in it. You’re there to provide laughs and bring the spinach-artichoke dip; you’re not part of the clique. No matter how much your Girls like you; they don’t relate to you and can’t be bothered to. They expect you, however, to empathize, sympathize and then fix their problems. Bonus points if they can ignore your advice only to later claim it as their own. The Token Girl is the new Magical Negro.
I’d never bring up issues of race or class to one of my Girls. It’d be such a bummer. Plus, OMG Hannah’s parents aren’t giving her money anymore! Who has time to worry about my black bullshit? Hello, there’s a black president! Racism is, like, totally cured.
This is why I don’t want to see Zoë Kravitz, or any other beautiful nonewhite female celebrity progeny, shoehorned into the cast of “Girls.” At best it would be a noble but inaccurate move and at worst would be the laziest form of tokenism. Sure, Dunham could have pulled a Shonda Rhimes and cast any of the principles with an actress of color — but it would’ve been dishonest.
I fit in with my Girls because a lot of us grew up in neighboring cities. As a result, we have very similar backstories, goals and interests. When it comes to snarking over a plate of cheese curds or a night of drinks downtown, my Girls are great. But we are different. I’m spending a Sunday afternoon blogging about race. I spent last night watching “Malcolm X” (and it wasn’t the first time). I overtip at restaurants out of a compulsive fear that servers assume I’m cheap. I walk into every social situation trying to read someone else’s mind in order to know just which front to wear so that I don’t tarnish their next encounter with a person of color. I know that no matter how hard my best friends try to understand, I’ll never fully relate to them the way the cast of “Girls” and my Girls all seem to understand each other.
Those feelings and that inward isolation can’t be replicated by handing Zosia Mamet‘s dialogue to some black up-and-comer, just like how my friendship hasn’t instantly transformed my Girls into paragons of progressive racial politics.
I don’t know Dunham or have any clue what her feelings about race are. I don’t know if she’s a racist and I’m inclined to say she isn’t one, if for no other reason than that I honestly haven’t seen any behavior from her that indicates prejudice. It’s entirely possible that she’s writing her own experiences and those don’t include close friends of color. I wouldn’t blame her if that’s the case. After all, it’s what I’m doing on this blog.
I may have never lived on the East Coast and my parents aren’t famous artists, but I’m Midwest educated just like Dunham. I’m one year younger than her and after almost a quarter century of life, I have one friend of color. And she’s a recent addition. You don’t have to be a bigot to end up only having white friends. You just have to not actively seek friends of color, preferring to form bonds the way most people do; by finding peers who seem to share your interests.
If Dunham and I have that approach to our social lives in common, and I’m not saying that we definitely do, it would be a real shame for her to try and rectify it via “Girls.” Long before the blacklash, Dunham told the Huffington Post that she will address the lack of diversity if the show gets a second season. That seems reactionary, inorganic and ultimately rings false though heartfelt.
I don’t think that my friends, both the Girls and the socially aware goddesses who affirm and accept me (and they watch “Girls” too), were meeting a quota by welcoming me into their cliques. They weren’t preforming a public service. We just happened to get along and I happened to be black. The way all four leads on “Girls” just happen to be white, like so many other people on television.
For the record, the “Girls” character I most relate to is Allison Williams’ Marnie Michaels. She may not be black, but she’s got the responsibility, the voice of reason and disgust with cuteness that are hallmarks of my role in female friendships. I’m hoping Dunham gives Williams more to do as the season progresses. That would be more of a triumph for me as a viewer than seeing Williams inexplicably replaced by Mavis Spencer next season.
As a token black viewer, whose opinions can’t be heard or asked for by the cast, I’m the ultimate person of color on “Girls.” Watching the show is just like hanging out with my Girls. Maybe Dunham knew this all along.
So no, I didn’t flinch when I noticed no women of color would be included in the cast of “Girls” because it just seemed normal; a mix of classic Hollywood exclusion, nepotism and a perfect portrayal of the often unintentional social segregation in which me and my fellow Millennials engage. And no, I don’t think “Girls” has a race problem in need of being solved.
As for my Girls, well … no one asked what I thought.