Great Expectations

Developed by and starring Lena Dunham, “Girls” is a Judd Apatow-produced show about the trials and tribulations of four twentysomething women and their post-college lives in New York City.   The comedy-drama premiered on HBO April, 15 to positive press and then criticism for its lack of diversity (in both the main cast, and, in the pilot, just about every character except two fleeting ones).  A week earlier, Dunham was asked about this aspect of the show in an interview with the Huffington Post:

“The world’s getting more and more full. Our generation is not just white girls. It’s guys. Women of color. Gay people. The idea that I could speak for everyone is so absurd. But what is nice is if I could speak for me and it’s resonant for people, then that’s about as much as I could hope for.”

I find Dunham’s reference to ‘the world’ interesting, because, beyond obvious population increases in the world-at-large, to some extent she can also only speak to her own world–a world I can only speculate on as relayed through its intersections with the world of Kendra James, whom did a piece on the show’s lack of diversity for Racialicious:

Despite our similarities in background, our views of life in New York city seem to be radically different. An article in The New Yorker tells me that our circles of friends come from the same pools: Oberlin Students and high school friends that more often than not come from the same group of New York City day schools and New England boarding schools. Not only do I work with a WOC who attended high school with her, I have friends who went to high school with both her and her younger sister and, because my friends consist of Latin@s, Asians, Blacks, and whites, I know her life couldn’t possibly have looked as white as the posters for Girls (which is semi-true to life; she calls her character Hannah “another version of herself”) would have you believe.

Yet Girls,set in Brooklyn,where only one-third of the population is white, somehow exists in a New York where minorities are only called to cast for one liners and nanny roles.

With those relatively privileged experiences, I probably shouldn’t be surprised that James seems taken aback by the lack of diversity in Dunham’s storytelling.  But I was.  I’ve not had any long-term experiences with that kind of world, but it’s all a lot more transparent the less you want/need to be a part of it.   Because a commitment to diversity is a hallmark of enlightenment, many privileged institutions tout it.  But it’s very hard to not be a side-dish, so to speak, to what’s been primary for so long–the vast majority of media is surely reflective of this.  Essentially, because so much media is built on privileged networks, there may always  be a bastion for the kind of sensibility that is used to minorities complimenting it–mostly the second definition, not “Hey, you look fantastic in those jeans” (even if you do, get over yourself)–rather than really connecting with people for whom common ground can be challenging (And “the bedroom,” as the great Robert Deane Pharr surmised, “does not count.).

Oddly enough, one of the most interesting opinions I’ve read on the matter I found in a link to a piece at–not because of any insight it had to offer, but because of its insensitive honesty:

“Most wealthy white girls in America are surrounded by other wealthy white girls, so that’s who they choose to be friends with. So what? Are we so immature that we need to throw in a token African-American or Asian to make us better about the fact that some white people have zero exposure to diversity? That doesn’t help bring races together or heal inequality,” pop culture writer Jenn Hoffman told FOX411’s Pop Tarts column. “That’s an idealistic liberal media driven band-aid at best or completely unrealistic PC garbage at worst.”

While I hate the phrase ‘liberal media’ relayed from an organization that calls itself ‘fair and balanced,’ Hoffman’s statement does have a large element of truth to it.  But on a different kind of show, one where they at least have meaningful common ground across a few different templates, maybe that ‘band-aid’ does matter a little.  NBC’s ‘Community’ has tried to live it up to its name.  ‘Troy Barnes,’ who’s black, started out as much more confrontational and angry than who he’s become, though ‘Chang’ has devolved from an arguably one-dimensional place to begin with.  And ‘Shirley,’ well, she’s something of a miracle.  For anyone like her, that’s got to be something.  But, yeah, it’s also a quarter in a big, old empty bucket.  And beyond political correctness, the genuine interest from the powers-that-be in addressing that is ridiculously disheartening; that’s reality.

Before I get back to work anyway, one aspect of the “Girls” criticism that I think is hard to ignore is how venemous some of it has been, like one review at Gawker; it’s like the show’s gift to some esoteric organizations is something that seems even more esoteric to not just criticize, but righteously tear apart.

Dunham told reporters at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour earlier this year (via The Hollywood Reporter):

Gossip Girl was teens duking it out on the Upper East Side and Sex and the City was women who figured out work and friends and now want to nail family life. There was this whole in between space that hadn’t really been addressed.”

Which is why I have zero interest in this show beyond not being blind to some of the upswell around it.

As for “Girls” existing in a Brooklyn that is only one-third white, that only feels like it matters because of the way gentrification marginalizes the ‘minorities’ that most great cities are built on.  Spotlight on who’s bankable, however dull or vapid they might be.  Little light on who’s not.


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