The backlash against HBO’s “Girls” has been immense. While an overall critical success, many educated, urban-centered women of my age (the show’s target audience) have been incredibly outspoken about the show’s lack of diversity and its portrayal of life for women in New York City. The discussion exploded even before the show’s premiere date, with many compared the “white-washed” cast to those of the 90’s favorite shows set in NYC, like “Friends” and “Sex and the City.” (Shoshanna has a SATC poster, but its an ironic gesture and not an homage). Now, I can’t find a single one of my friends (whom I would say fit the target audience) who watch the show, and many refuse to for moral reasons.
Now, I DO find the discussions about the show extremely important and many of them have opened my eyes to the responsibilities of releasing a cultural product to the masses. I particularly find the non-diversity of the cast troubling and I’ve had many a gchat conversation with friends far more knowledgeable on the issue than me. I will address my titular demand of “Girls,” which addresses a diversification of the cast, at the end of this post so PLEASE STAY TUNED.
But I can’t help feeling that this backlash against the show is misguided and, at worst, quite gendered. For example, let’s take the claim that “Girls” glamorizes an irresponsible, self-victimizing, and emotionally dependent way of life. I’ve seen a couple of articles where writers have argued that the girls on “Girls” are bad role models for the girls watching it. I’ve also heard people talk about how despicable the characters are, that they couldn’t find anything positive about them and thus have no reason for liking the show. My usual response is along the lines of “Well, yeah. That’s the point. No?” Is Hannah privileged? YES. Is she dependent on others for her emotional stability in infantile, immature ways? Yes. Does she flirt with self-victimhood to feel morally superior to others? Yes. I’d even go as far as to say that she exhibits all of the above tendencies and more in each and every episode. She’s a wreck and God help me if I ever turn into her. There are moments in the show where I really despise her and/or give up hope for her. Take the ending of season 1, episode 4. After seeing in the preceding episodes how Hannah’s boyfriend Adam emotionally manipulates her and obviously doesn’t care about her, Hannah finally gains the confidence to go to his apartment and break-up with him. Standing in the doorway of his apartment, she makes a stand. If not eloquent, it’s definitely empowering.
AND THEN THEY MAKE OUT AND SHE APOLOGIZES AND I’M ALL YELLING AT TV NOOOOOOOO!!!!
Hannah makes mistakes. A lot. But is Lena Dunham glorifying this behavior? NO. In fact, in the scene, we’re made to glorify in her growth and self-realization. And we really our own praise of her self-realization when it all plummets and she apologizes for her glorious self-realization. Will I be letting it all go like Hannah did? No, because when I see her make stupid choices, or elitist remarks, or ridiculous assumptions, the writing criticizes rather than glorifies these actions.
And since when has moral goodness implied likeability? Or for that matter, since when has likeability influenced whether a show is watchable? Don’t we all thrive on “Breaking Bad’s” masterfully evil ways? (We know there ain’t no redemption there) Is there a single likeable character on “Mad Men”? Is Don Draper teaching us how to be misogynist? Do the Lannisters teach us to be cruel and conniving? So why does “Girls” suddenly need to be a center of moral goodness?
In some ways, this relates back to the diversity issue. Back when the show first aired, I was having a conversation about the lack of diversity with a friend online. My friend, herself a woman of color, made statements along the line of “The show misrepresents New York” and “How could someone living in Brooklyn have no friends of color.: Later that day, I went to a birthday party. The party was for a classmate, one of the sweetest and most understanding, insightful people I know. She completed her B.A. at a prestigious women’s college in NYC so she was educated, middle-class, and most likely well-versed in feminist theory. When I arrived, I was somewhat surprised to find that there was not a single person of color at this party. Here was a a young woman who had done her undergrad studies in New York, and who now went to a public college for her M.A. And no people of color. Now, I would definitely refrain from drawing any similarities between this classmate’s personality and Hannah’s. In fact, she may find a lot of Lena Dunham’s online antics upsetting (as I do as well… I will not defend those.) But they certainly come from similar positions of privilege. And both have a certain understanding or representation of their lives/position in NYC that is not necessarily wrong and most certainly not universal
Then, about two months ago, I went to a concert in Williamsburg. I hardly ever go to concerts, much less Williamsburg, so it was kind of a new experience. When I entered the performance space/bar, my glasses got foggy, the music was blasting, and I had a shot in one hand and a beer in another. And yes, my reaction was that it felt like an episode of “Girls.” And I counted one black person in the entire bar.
So is the reality of “Girls” a narrow one? Yes. But that doesn’t make it an illegitimate or wrong one. And in fact, I believe that the script lets viewers know that it is a reality from a position of privilege and that these girls are self-centered, woefully naive, and terribly unaware of a whole range of urban experience.
But again, since when has this dictated the “watchability” or value of a television show. Can we return to my whipping post, “Mad Men.” For nearly four seasons, “Mad Men” virtually ignored the experiences of black people, you know, besides the occasional nanny or hotel elevator operator. Never mind the experiences of the lower classes. And we’re in New York City. In the 1960’s. And it takes 5 seasons for a black character to have her own story line? Really?
I once went to a workshop on global citizenship in the classroom, particularly on the issue of religious tolerance. I filled out a questionnaire entitled, “Are you privileged?” It caused a bit of hesitation in me at first but I learned a lot from it. One question was something along the lines of “Do you feel that what you say or do stands as a representation of what everyone from your race or creed says and does?” In other words, does your identity never stand apart from those you’ve been lumped together with? Here are some examples:
-a Hispanic or Black girl might feel more pressure in school to do well because if she does badly, people will assume that all Hispanic or Black children do poorly in school.
-in an effort to learn about Asian culture, someone turns to an Asian person and says, “How do you do ___ in your culture?”
-an Indian actor feels guilt about playing a stereotype because he feels like he is accountable to his countrymen (see this)
Basically, the gist is that minorities are torn between their personal identity and their national identity, resulting in a fragmenting of selfhood and representation of self. Often they must downplay their own individualities for the sake of abstract, sometimes ridiculous, notions of unity or accountability. Has “Mad Men” been held accountable for its lack of diversity? NOPE. But then again, it doesn’t advertise itself as a show about women. No one would even think about saying that “Mad Men” needs to be more universally representational. Everyone understand that Don is rich, lives in suburbia, has a sheltered life, and would not associate with black people (though that doesn’t mean black people can’t get a plot line if the writers wanted to give one). “Girls,” on the other hand, has been criticized for its lack of diversity and non-universal depiction of NYC even before it aired. I believes this reiterates the continued minority status of women on television, because any expression of ours must be one that represents ALL women and not just some.
But what keeps me most thrilled with the show is its phenomenal writing and its persevering hope. At the end of each episode, I am always feeling some kind of strong feeling, be it anger, frustration, spite, excitement, even serenity. Bad writing makes you say, meh, don’t care. This doesn’t. And, the way I understand it is that these emotions mean I actually care about these terrible characters in some way, shape, or form, and that there may actually be hope for them in the near future.
AND NOW THE DEMAND.
Give us that growth. “Girls” can only wave their “carte blanche” and claims of critical distance so many times*. It’s time to stop the enamourment with this narrow point of reference and expand its territory. Since “Girls” has proven itself to be a cultural force, it needs to recognize the power it holds and carefully begin to widen the experiences of its characters. And then, of course, we get the question: Can we hold cultural products accountable for the “progress” of a culture or a responsible attitude towards the representation of a culture?
The answer is … Yes. Yes we can. And that’s why despite all my defense of Girls, they need to responsibly and creatively diversify their portrait of NYC life.
So please, for the growth and greatness of the show, give us an alternate experience of New York. A woman of color. An independent, thriving, stable woman, but of course, not perfect because no one is. Someone through whom these characters can learn and grow. And explore the complexities of city life. Put the narrow mindedness of our characters in contention. It’ll make for some great drama, a better drama, and an important act of cultural production.
*I must attribute the use of the phrase “carte blanche” to someone else. It wasn’t me. But I googled the definition and it worked better than anything I’d ever say instead.