It’s A Love-Hate Relationship: My Problem With “GIRLS”

January 28, 2013  |  

Girls is a perfect example of how complicated television viewing can be for black folks.

I will admit to liking the show. In fact, I have watched it faithfully since giving in to my curiosity, somewhere through the first season. It’s a good show, one I almost missed by feeding in exclusively to all the criticism. This is not to suggest that the critics aren’t right: calling itself the voice of a new generation is basically challenge-accepted from the blogosphere to find out ways in which it is not. And anyone with a Netflix account and a modest knowledge of Sex and the City, Golden Girls, Designing Women, Girlfriends and a whole host of shows largely centered on the intimate lives of four women, will already cite that this “voice” has long been inter-generational. But at least it is set in Brooklyn – Oh wait, so was Living Single

Although Girls’ overworked concept is as fresh as day-old orange juice and bagels, the show is not without its charming originality. First and foremost, Hannah, the title character played by the show’s own writer/producer Lena Dunham, is short, frumpy, has a double chin and has more gut than butt. These television anomalies not only challenge how we define Hollywood beauty, but also make Hannah in some ways, a pioneering figure. In addition to being the atypical protagonist of a show centered around the dating and sex lives of women, Dunham takes it to another magnitude by filming her uncharacteristic television body in the buff, appearing, at the very least, topless in just about every episode I’ve seen. When asked in an interview why she filmed so often without any clothing on, Dunham poignantly said that she wanted the world to, “Look at us until you see us.”

But despite Dunham’s aim to expand the range of women on television, one troupe which she, and the other members of the creative team behind Girls perpetuate, is this whitewashed and insular world where race doesn’t exist – even in Brooklyn. This is not in the sense of the common criticism about the lack of characters of color, which has been levied upon the show. While I understand how frustrating it is to have countless television shows centered around the lives of white folks’ ratchetness be labeled as revolutionary, and more specifically voices of a new generation, a story doesn’t necessarily have to have a central character of color to have some value. And while not the epitome-voice of the new generation, like it has been marketed, I think the clever writing and story lines does, in my opinion, warrant it being listed as one of many interesting and atypical contemporary voices.

Despite not being the sole onus of either the contemporary voice or television’s diversity problem, I still find it quite interesting how cued in the show’s creators are in wanting to challenging one-ism while being totally tone-deaf to the desire to see equal representation on the screen.  For me, those two concepts go hand and hand. However I am a black woman. And Dunham is not.

In the second season opener, we see Hannah straddling Sandy, her new black Republican lover, topless and having at it. Sandy, who is played by Donald Glover. This is what you wanted, this is what you get? While clearly a middle-finger to her critics, it is not all that daring a nod to the race discussion she might have been hoping for. At this point in television history, what’s so shocking about a white girl having sex with a black dude? Miranda did it for an entire season on Sex and the City. One could mistakenly interpret this scene as an attempt, albeit lame, to be both dismissive and antagonistic to the critics. However, in the second episode, we are treated to more interactions with Sandy, some of which occurs outside of the bedroom. During one such occasion, Sandy and Hannah are discussing an essay of hers she had asked him to read. Sandy didn’t like it; Hannah is upset, but instead of coming at him for his dislike of her essay, she goes in on him about how irresponsible it is for him to be a black Republican, especially considering that “two out of three people on death row are black men.” The end of the scene involves the two breaking up and Hannah walking away from Sandy. This is the last time we see Sandy, and I suspect, the “race” issue.

Through this exchange, we see Dunham take a much more poetic response to critics, presenting to us the difficulties and awkwardness, which some folks, particularly white folks, might feel when race is interjected into the conversation. On one hand we have Sandy, whom outside of knowing his name and that he is black and republican, we really don’t know much about. However, that might be the point. Perhaps Hannah is so clueless and self-absorbed that she honestly doesn’t know that using statistics about the incarceration rate of black men as a weapon in an argument is just a tad bit racist. In a sense, Hannah could be one of those white girls who just doesn’t “get it.” And despite how irksome the real life Hannahs are, there is something very honest about seeing her (their) portrayals on television.

Or as Judy Berman, editor of FlavorPill, who penned this piece for the Atlantic, writes:

What Dunham’s latest well-intentioned disappointment makes clear is that it will never be enough for white writers to simply try harder in their depictions of non-white characters. Some may produce keenly observed, authentic-feeling portrayals, but even those who have spent their whole lives surrounded by people of diverse backgrounds will never know first-hand what it’s like to be a person of color in America. They will never respond to Django Unchained in quite the same way as Haitian-American writer Roxane Gay. Those who don’t get it will, for the most part, continue to not get it. The truth, distasteful as it may be to those who imagine that we live in a “post-racial” era or believe it’s small-minded to apply identity politics to art, is that we still haven’t reached a point in our history at which the discrepancies between the way people of different races (or genders or religions or sexual orientations) experience life are negligible.”

But while Hannah may not “get it,” I’m not sure that I can say the same for Dunham. Sometimes some folks are keenly aware of what they do and say and are just really sophistic in caring about the effect that it has on people. Some folks, in fact, are very comfortable in their privilege, which doesn’t require them to answer or even be responsive specifically to race, gender or where they might intersect. For instance, in an interview with Alec Baldwin on his podcast, Dunham criticized Rihanna for her relationship with Chris Brown and smoking weed, and then said that she is not a good role model for young women. According to US Weekly, Dunham also says that she “had to become more conscious about what I say and what I promote, not in a way that stifles me, but just in a way where I realize now that there are 17-year-old girls who come up to me and tell me that the show means a lot to them.”

In the matter of a season and half of Girls, I have seen a character accidentally smoke crack; intentionally sleep with a gay dude; almost have a threesome; do coke for the sheer experience of writing about it; and affectionately be peed on in the shower by a boyfriend. It’s hard to play the role model card when your entire representation of a new generation hinges on women, who are one bad decision away from being crack w***es. Likewise, I find it highly unlikely that Dunham cannot recognize, or even find some commonality with, Rihanna’s own growing pains, and that experienced by characters of her hit television series, which is said to be based upon her life and the lives of friends in her social circle.  On television, fictional Hannah deserves our empathy or at least understanding. In real life, Rihanna does not. That’s why it is almost laughable when Dunham speaks of looking, “…at us until you see us.” Like, what version of “us” does she truly believe the television viewing audience has yet to accept and acknowledge?

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  • Really?

    I don’t normally post on here but I think a lot of you are overlooking the deeper issues of the show, which I feel are issues that most young 20 something women (who have gone to college) can relate to regardless of color. Many of you saw 4 white women having lots of sex and doing a lot of partying and immediately labeled it as a show about white privilege, self-absorption, and meaningless banter. I won’t deny that there are aspects of the aforementioned in the show but this show has a lot to offer on a deeper level. I’m a 25 year old black women who grew up lower middle class in a single parent home (raised all by my mom in the hood) and attended a large public, mainly White university and I can relate to nearly every part of the show: The difficulty in finding a stable job without much experience in a (now recovering) recession, the difficulty in finding love and knowing when to walk away from a relationship that you outgrew, trying to come into yourself as an adult woman in a big city but still finding yourself faced with situations that you thought you wouldn’t have to after college (roommate drama, lack of money, living on a ramen noodle budget), moments where you feel so insecure about yourself that you aren’t sure what to do, and having an idealistically view of the world, only for reality to come barreling at you like a ton of bricks.

    For those women who can’t relate, good for you! I am glad that you all were able to be so financially and romantically successfully in your 20s without ever making any stupid mistakes. For the other 95% of 20-somethings, I think this show has something to offer to everyone and I don’t really give a damn if black women are in the show or not. I actually didn’t even notice the lack of diversity bc the issues hit home for me so much that I didn’t see color. I bet you if there were a couple of black women on the show, these same people on hear saying “they don’t get the show” bc of the lack of diversity would automatically be raving about it. How many black women in here can say they can relate to Scandal or Deception just bc the main characters are black? But that doesn’t stop you from enjoying the show. I think many women’s lives probably mirror “Girls” much more than a show like Scandal anyway. Quit whining and give it a chance.

  • UmmYeahOK

    While I’m not a fan necessarily, I do like the show, but as a black woman I can’t relate. Maybe that’s why I like it, it provides me with the opportunity to peer into the lives of a bunch of Gen Y hispsters who manage to find themselves in a lily white Brooklyn – does that actually exist? Their everyday “struggles” are laughable at best and insulting at its worst, even still it’s somewhat intriguing to see how these socially oblivious girls relate to the world.

    • hollyw

      Yes, it does exist; it’s called Williamsburg 🙂

  • anonymous

    So I feel lame, but I’m a black woman in my early twenties and I kind of do relate to the show. Not in the drug way, but in many other ones like Hannah’s seeming to get everything wrong, over-thinking (like that gyno visit reasoning about the stuff on the sides, that is so the way I reason), having a great amount of fear, having issues maintaining long friendships (according to Marnie), honest struggles with the way I look and not perfect size. It’s nice to have a character whose sense of hair and makeup and style is wrong sometimes. I’m so bad at that too. Even its discussion of views of virgins. I like it because these are things I struggle with and I don’t see many shows talking about them.

  • scandalous7

    Issa Rae on “Girls”…hmmmmmm, idk just a thought .

    • hollyw

      YES!! She is a friend that they’d be likely to have!

  • scandalous7

    Yes this issue kinda irked me a bit , but I luv the show . Besides, I dont see black people on the show at all. We will always …always have something to say. If they cast a black actor/ress and if they act “black” (yal know what Im talking about ) we will have something to say about it being a stereotype. If they act like the rest of the cast, we will have something to say about “oh why he/she gotta act white washed?”..Dunham will never win with us, very few people do. Why we always got somethin ta say?

    • I agree. While I understand our qualms about our race never being represented in TV shows or popular movies no matter what someone will always find fault with it, whether it’s a white person telling the story or a black person there will always be an issue. Lena is telling her story as she see’s it which is no different than a black person telling their story as they see it.

      • scandalous7

        Completely Agree

    • Guest360

      IA. To me, it’s not so important to see a black face on any old television show and I hate that it always comes back down to race for some people. Although if you’re going to take the role of how “this generation” acts, “this generation” includes more than just rich white girls. Which is why I dislike this show so much. You can’t attribute this show to how this generation acts yet only include a small portion of it.

  • hollyw

    First, what a well-written article. Second, I had the same qualm w/ Girls last season. In fact, I was so disappointed that I hadn’t seen a person of color (I mean, not a one, Asian, Hispanic, biracial, NOTHING. IN NYC???) introduced by episode 6 after hyping myself up about it’s premiere that I literally tweeted Lena Dunham and HBO telling them that I loved the show but if they didn’t work color SOMEWHERE into the scheme for me (I mean, even as extras!) that I’d boycott out of principle…lol.

    All that to say, literally one day later, a casting call went out over NYC for color-coated character-types for the show (pretty sure MN posted on it). I think Donald Glover was a perfect fit for his role, and I can get how a group of White chicks in Brooklyn can go their entire lives w/o making a friend of color, but it’d just be nice if the show could make some effort in throwing in one or two background characters…that’s all I’m sayin!

  • Guest

    I watched the last season, it was ok, she had a hustle and she did her
    thing. I tried to watch this season, and I have to admit this is not for
    me. The girls especially the lead actress has no redeeming qualities
    and she is rough to look at , its true. And lets let go of the lack of
    black people on the show we don’t need to be on that show at all. Donald
    Glover was on as her love interest and it was like a throw in just so
    that we can shut up. Not everything is for everybody let her do her
    thing. But I am done, I will watch Scandal , I’m good. I think the show “Girls” is highly , highly overrated. But whatever.

    • lol. I am laughing at you saying she is rough to look at. true!

  • Guest

    I watched the last season, it was ok, she had a hustle and she did her thing. I tried to watch this season, and I have to admit this is not for me. The girls especially the lead actress has no redeeming qualities and she is rough to look at , its true. And lets let go of the lack of black people on the show we don’t need to be on that show at all. Donald Glover was on as her love interest and it was like a throw in just so that we can shut up. Not everything is for everybody let her do her thing. But I am done, I will watch Scandal , I’m good

  • ok_dayumm

    I like the show…. and I think we (Black people) need to look at how many of us there are in respect to the the total population and stop expecting to be represented in every movie or television show. Cause really, in real life we all know we don’t have a rep from each race in our circle of friends. I often wonder why you don’t hear Asians, Latinos, Indians, etc. lodging the same complaints as we do. I think the need of some Blacks to always be recognized by Whites needs to be deeply analyzed.

    • Actually, Asians, Latinos, Indians, etc., have complained. You’re just not listening because you’re too busy complaining about blacks complaining.

      • ok_dayumm

        Really I’m not busy trying to hear what Black people complain about…maybe the media is busy putting it out there ……..and seriously show me these complaints from these other races….SERIOUSLY!

      • ok_dayumm

        I am soo ticked off that I took the time to post a decent response to Latanya, but my comment so-called went to the “moderators”. Hmmph! I thought MN was above that. Actually, I appreciated it more when the actual writer of the article would come on and reply to comments and belittle anyone who didn’t share their opinion (yall remember that?). That would have actually been more fun than typing an entire long response and having it deleted. Okay MN I’ll leave you and you 10 commentors to converse amongst yourselves. Bye.

    • DCgirlygirl

      Asians and Indians are too busy getting an education and making money.

  • thatonegirl

    I really tried to watch Girls I really did but after one episode I found myself confused. Like do white chicks actually act like that?

    • Love it

      Black chicks act like that too… We all know a pretty girl with no real talent, a free spirit that is impulsive, a prude that is ditzy, and a girl who sleeps with people then decides if they want a relationship with that person. This show is the EXACT mirror of Girlfriend.. But since it’s white there’s a problem…

      • thatonegirl

        No disrespect but I didn’t see myself or any of my girlfriends in any of the girls. I think that’s what makes shows like Girlfriends and Sex and the City good is that we can see ourselves in the characters. The girls, that are represented on Girls just come off elitist and snobbish. Not to say that there isn’t girls out there like that just not the world I come from (kanyeshrug).

        • hollyw

          This show is distinguishable frm SATC/Girlfriends b/c the largest factor is these chicks are in their 20s and have no money. Idk about you, but though SATC was a lot lighter and more fun to watch (hello, Christian Dior), I personally could not relate to most of their lifestyles. This show much better depicts the 20-somethings of this generation who’ve been cut off by parents, working for nothing, and chasing delusional dreams in the big city.

          More than elitist or snobbish, I think the writer purposely wrote them as consumed by White privilege, which just makes their failures more brutal (yet entertaining) to watch…imho 🙂

      • scandalous7

        im the prude..but im not a ditz!

      • hollyw

        I agree, I’m a Black 20-something who lives in NYC, and while I think the show best depicts 20-something White NYers (who moved to Bk), I 1. know tons of White chicks just like this and 2. I can also relate to the 20-something existential work/relationship crises (though not nearly as brutal).

    • YES!

  • Guest360

    My problem with the show isn’t the lack of diversity (or the lame attempt at being “diverse”). Its the show itself. I tried. I really did try to get into this show but after watching the first season, I just don’t get it. Its a bunch of upper middle-class white kids thinking their self-importance is the be all, end all who wallow in self-pity, horrible moments of degradation, and laziness when they don’t get what they want from the world. Thats it lol. Why this show is being attributed to how “my generation” acts is a travesty and I absolutely hate it. It doesn’t reflect me as a young, 20 something woman trying to find herself and it sure as hell doesn’t reflect what I experience as a black woman. Idk. Its just not my cup of tea on more than one level

    • hollyw

      No. But it does depict Williamsburg pretty well lol…

    • Lauren

      It does portray what may be the majority of our generation. Just look up the stats on recreational drug use and STDs among our generation. This show depicts almost exactly what I’ve seen among my peers during, and after college…. I get what you’re saying though. It may not be the reality of a lot of black people, but you can’t deny that it is the reality of the majority more than it is not… I guess it just depends on where you grew up, and your circle of friends…

      I grew up upper middle class, I’m a 25 year old black woman, and I like the show. It’s funny and it is almost like a reality show involving a lot of people I know… sadly, I have a friend who smoked crack by accident SMH

      • Guest360

        Well of course it’s true for some people but I guess what I’m trying to say is, its not true for me, my friends, and the people I go to school with and I HATE that people think we all live this way. Idk. I tried to give the show a chance but I just could not relate to any of it.

        And your friend is weird lol.

  • Ms_Sunshine9898

    Girls is fine, the way it is. As hilarious as it is (it takes about 3 – 4 episodes before the funny stuffy really starts happening), they really should call the show “White Girls” because let’s be honest, how many white people knowingly surround themselves with people of other races in their daily lives?

  • Toya Sharee

    I was actually about to blog about this very subject. I tried giving Girls a shot when the first episode debuted…twice. And what I witnessed were a few naked white girls having a bunch of sex and then what I guess was supposed to be some clever commentary thrown in between. I just didn’t get the appeal…at all. I felt like HBO had been desperately seeking another “Sex and the City” and giving up prematurely on shows like “How to Make it in America” (which I thorougly enjoyed). How many times do I have to hear about the sex lives of four white women? Maybe there has been more to the show since I’ve watched, but honestly I’m not intrigued enough to care. But mad respect to Lena Dunham, I definitely admire her hustle.

  • IllyPhilly

    I’m done with the foursome friends looking for love shows.

  • Nia

    I’ve watched Girls and I don’t see the big deal. The show isn’t even hella good. Who cares if there are no black folks? Why does it even matter? Hannah is an effed up stupid arse white girl and her friends are idiots. What? We need a dumb black girl to round it out? No thank you.

  • GeekMommaRants

    The issue here is self-representation. Most TV and Media writers are NOT us. So we can expect what crumbs and nothing more. BET does speak to the majority of our community. So, how can those who are outside know more than AA—not possible. As always it is up to us, and NO ONE ELSE!!

    • Kenedy

      You are so right! Girls is an okay show, it doesn’t bother me that there’s no black people. The show reflects the writer’s persective, who happens to be Lena, who maybe doesn’t have alot of black friends. I don’t see why this is being made into an issue

  • Hollander

    I have never seen the show even though I have HBO. I probably still wont watch it , because at 30 years old, despite what we see on television, will never be an accurate litmus as to how I live my life, view artwork, read literature, or televised media. Their depiction of us will always be skewed due to the negating fodder we promote as a community. No caucasians male or female has to brainstorm over the shows that were based on their generational storylines. We can literally count the sparse amount of shows that has “spoken” to “our youth/lives”. Racial biased all across this nation exists because “we” still perpetuate stereotypes and despise unity, not shows. Change the way we live and unify.

    • scandalous7

      Please Preach on it , Please! You articulated my sentiments exactly . Every time I turn around ,somebody of color is being the “stereotype”.

    • hollyw

      I’m sorry, but I think that’s a tad unfair and letting others off the hook by saying Black youth aren’t represented just b/c we exude stereotypes. Every ethnicity has them, and will never cease to stop having them, so to tell ‘us’ to change the way we live by not perpetuating them is 1. unrealistic, and 2. not conscious of the fact that stereotypes are only ever exhibited by a representative of the population; ours have just been capitalized on ($$$).

      I think a more attainable solution would be for blacks to make their own shows again, like Girlfriends. If BET (or TBS, or even CBS) came out w/ a show about four 20-something Black chicks, I’d support. Scandal and Deception are making history, now’s the time to make a move.

      • Hollander

        I respect your opinion and you should respect mine. My entire comment was based on the fact that my life doesn’t revolve around television and I still won’t allow it to dictate my views on life as a black woman because I have yet to see anything that I relate to. You can watch or fantasize about any network making shows about whomever. I never stated that all stereotypes could,would,or should be destroyed. The mess that we support is the reason for images that we see because there is marketablility because “we” watch it.

        • hollyw

          I have no trouble respecting others’ opinions; I just respectfully disagreed. I specifically disagreed with the blaming of Blacks’ negative media depictions on what “we as a community” support, implying that all those in the ‘Black community’ support ratchet, stereotypical fodder, and also that these depictions would simply change if we’d stop supporting. I thought the first implication was unfair (and inaccurate), and the latter, not representative of the reality of the situation. It was a gross generalization that completely removed all culpability from the majority population, and placed all responsibility on the minority population. I agreed w/ your statement, just not the generalizations.