This week, Girls’ writer/director/actress Lena Dunham went on NPR’s Fresh Air to address criticisms that the show is a particularly whitewashed view of entitled twenty-something women emotionally adrift in New York City. Even before the show aired on HBO, Girls had garnered a tremendous amount of buzz as a series helmed, for a change, by a woman. Just a few episodes in, the buzz erupted in debate on Girls’ representations of gender, class, and race as well as its worthiness of being the focus of so much debate to begin with.
To date, the non-white characters on Girls have been the scant flat or stereotypical characters largely relegated to the periphery of the story, and the descriptions on the casting call for nannies and receptionists certainly haven’t helped the perception of Girls as a series that lacks depth and diversity. On this issue of race, Dunham told NPR:
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.
It’s problematic if Dunham’s own insularity as a writer is such that she feels she “can’t speak accurately” to characters unlike herself or unlike the people she’s closest to. Write what you know, sure, but maybe work on knowing a little bit more. At the same time, there’s much that Girls does well. It puts a woman in control of stories about women in a major forum. It gives voice to the sort of woman we haven’t often seen depicted front and center elsewhere on television – a more realistic, more relatable sort of woman driven by something other than shopping and diets and Mr. Right. And it’s as funny in its exploration of contemporary twenty-something existence as it is painful.
One of the most thorough and thoughtful responses I’ve read to Girls, the hype, the backlash, the expectations of women writers making inroads, and issues of representation across the board came last week from Roxane Gay at The Rumpus:
We put a lot of responsibility on popular culture, particularly when some pop artifact somehow distinguishes itself as not terrible. In the months and weeks leading up to the release of Bridesmaids, for example, there was a great deal of breathless talk about the new ground the movie was breaking, how yes, indeed, women are funny. Can you believe it? There was a lot of pressure on that movie. Bridesmaids had to be good if any other women-driven comedies had any hope of being produced. This is the state of affairs for women in entertainment—everything hangs in the balance all the time.
Do yourself a favor and read Gay’s “Girls Girls Girls” here.