White Girls

4 May

For the past few months Lena Dunham and her “Girls” have been everywhere: full-page NYTimes advertisements, jezebel.com, slate.com, thehuffingtonpost.com, mid-level culture rags combining their resources and praise to generate so much buzz that a crash could only be expected.

And though the new HBO series is a 30-minute fictional comedy, the degree to which the majority of the critical conversation hinged on its “realness” (one of the Slate podcasts opined that Hannah/Dunham would never say that in real life…), inserted a major dose of dubiousness into the “realness” of the reviewing.

So, as can only be expected following an enthusiasm onslaught, in the past few weeks the critical, feminist, and all-around ecstatic frenzy that is the Girls zeitgeist began to deteriorate. Now, instead of reading excited reviewers gushing over how great it was to see young women in bland Brooklyn apartments with regular bodies and bad boyfriends, the conversation turned to race, and a general bewilderment concerning the lack thereof in a show made in New York City.

All the principal ladies are white, as are their boyfriends, friends, hook-ups and acquaintances. The likelihood of living in an all-white enclave of New York City seemed nill; and therefore, the likelihood of Girls being as radical as originally interpreted began to seem so too. After the bewilderment came anger: if Dunham is as feminist and broad-minded as originally suggested, why does she want to depict and/or live in white-out?

Last week, the NYTimes published a forum in its Room for Debate section devoted to these questions:


Nine writers, actors and scholars discussed their differing responses to the Girls backlash, a few of whom wondering as to why this one 30-minute show–that has only aired 3 episodes as of Sunday, April 29–has produced such a passionate and divergent series of responses. Considering its placement on a premium cable network, at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night, not even halfway through its first season, how can its failings already be so established? How can a single, short story only in its infancy be blamed so loudly for issues that are rampant in the mediums of film and television? And, why are these questions being addressed to quite such a degree now? Where have they been?

Arguably, to some degree, Dunham had hit so many notes so high and well, that her failings surrounding the depictions of race and the choices of characterization made began to be seen in relief. How could she see so well and be so blind at the same time? However, given Dunham’s relentless focus on her character’s privileged background and outsized sense of entitlement, it does not seem too far-fetched to argue that her microcosm of interns and Antioch graduates would consist largely of white kids. For this whiteness to go unnoticed, for its characterizations and homogeneity to be depicted as universal, would serve as massive failings on a show so intuitive, incisive and brutal in other ways. I think the verdict’s still out. Granted, Girls  overwhelming whiteness is inarguable; but what remains arguable is the universality of the standards being applied to it. I say we take these same savvy, insightful and humanist standards and apply them to measure, critique and understand all the other pop culture products rotating around us as well.


Today’s “Fresh Air” episode was composed of a long interview between Terri Gross and Lena Dunham.


Titled “Lena Dunham addresses criticism aimed at ‘Girls,'” the episode was clearly an attempt at both marketing and mea culpa. After a few minutes of banter, Gross asks Dunham directly for her response to the onslaught of media criticism concerning the show’s white universe. Dunham chose her answers carefully, hewing closely to the show’s auto-biographical roots and narrative inspiration, going so far as to state that the 4 characters were all parts of her half-Jew, half WASP self: 2 Jews, 2 WASPS. Problematically, Dunham states that she did not realize the “Girls” near-total whiteness until after she had created it; she did not see its lack of diversity until it was singled out by dozens of critics.

As I listened to the interview, Dunham’s reasoning initially angered me: how could someone  so smart, so heavily educated in the humanities and the liberal arts,  so grounded in the cosmopolis that is New York City be so myopic?

I thought about it for awhile. And then I realized: Dunham’s reasoning provides the penultimate foundation for both the accusation against the all-white world of Hollywood, and the justification for a grounding in affirmative action, and the vehement defense towards the creation and installation of opportunity, education, and inspiration for students and budding artistic creators of all types. What I mean is this: Dunham’s “Girls” world would not exist without Dunham, its implicit and explicit femaleness being directly related to Dunham’s femaleness. The world of American television is slowly changing, with the gradual inclusion of female creators, writers, directors and producers. This very same world will not become more racially diverse until it is invaded by the inclusion of non-white creators, writers, directors and producers.


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