The media and tons of critics have taken HBO and Lena Dunham to task for its new series “Girls” which is essentially a younger, broker 2012 “Sex and the City,” for its lack of diversity, or as Slate contributor and cultural critic Debra Dickerson put it, having “an abundance of chicks with normal bodies, but somehow no negroes.” The issue is that the plot centers on four white main characters who are surrounded by white people in the midst of the melting pot mecca of New York City. I get the absurdity of women being in NYC (and in their residence of Brooklyn) and not ever coming into contact with any people of color—or the three that one writer counted in one episode—but I also think we’re grasping for straws by making a big deal out of the so-called whitewashing of this show.
We live in the world of niche media and though the broad use of the term girls would suggest you could turn the show on and see the girl you are on-screen, that’s not the case as far as skin tone, although interestingly everything else seems to be there. Rebecca Carroll, wrote on The Daily Beast:
“As relatable as I find ‘Girls,’ I can’t also help feeling, well, left out. There are no black girls in ‘Girls.’ I feel somewhat cheated. While I have decided that the show is for me, it has decided that I am not for the show.”
I wouldn’t take the omission of black characters quite so personally, although having seen the backlash the series has created, I wouldn’t be surprised if the show did try to ignore race altogether to avoid the inevitable criticism it would still receive. If this show were to throw in the token black girlfriend we’d still be having a fit about her skin tone, her hair texture, the lack of a developed storyline, etc., and I actually respect the fact that the network didn’t even go there if they weren’t going to execute it well. Furthermore, I find the mention of the women in the series having “normal” bodies as evidence that this show aimed to be sort of the anti-thesis to the “Gossip Girl” type of NYC shows we see on-air and everyone knows there’s just as much work to be done on the representation of healthy bodies as there is black women, this just isn’t the show that will break down the latter barrier and that’s OK. We can’t expect every show to be all things to all people.
Furthermore, it’s not our job to say what’s real to some people and not to others. I’m pretty sure the white circle of acquaintances shown in “Girls” is the reality for the creator Lena Dunham. If these girls were black, the immediate people around them would be black as well, despite whatever multiculturalism is in their backdrop. Yes, diverse cultures are all around you in NYC but that doesn’t mean everyone lives them. That’s not the focus of this show and I would venture to say that that’s not inherently problematic.
Others have argued that a simple change in the name could have made all the difference; that had the show been named “Some girls” or even “White girls” then there would be nothing to argue with. By the very appearance of four white women and the obvious realization that all girls are not a monolith, we know this depiction is only some girls. And calling the show white girls would place unnecessary emphasis on the women’s race much like the criticism against it has.
I’m fully in agreement with Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic when he suggests we shouldn’t be asking for inclusion on this show but to be represented on our own version of ‘Girls’” because after all, the response from the series’ writer, Lesley Arfin, to the criticism on Twitter was “What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.” As he states:
“I think it’s only right to ask whether you really want black characters rendered by the same hands that rendered that tweet. Invisibility is problematic. Caricature is worse.”
Maybe HBO missed an opportunity with “Girls” and maybe it didn’t. Diversity isn’t on everyone’s agenda and that’s because white people simply don’t have to think about it. I’m sure if we were coming up with a series we wouldn’t think to throw in a token white character; the same is true for the other side. And while I know the history of exclusion is far deeper for us, I don’t think it runs that deep for this show. Debating “Girls” is a lost cause and a battle that really doesn’t need to be fought. The bigger picture is to create our own narratives and find a place for them on television not be threaded into a white one.
Do you take issue with the lack of black characters on “Girls?”
Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.
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