At this year’s Golden Globes, women stole the show. It was Tina Fey with a moustache, it was Jodie Foster coming out and coming into her own, it was Hilary Clinton’s husband. Yet it wasn’t only the women who commanded the night. Girls took home some gold too. While the second season premiered, the show’s authoress and star, Lena Dunham, picked up the award for best actress in comedy series, just to find herself back up on the acceptance podium with the rest of her crew to take home the Globe for best comedy series. In a dark violet satin gown, tattoos busting out, high heels wobbling with genuine surprise, teary-eyed Dunham dedicated her award to “every woman who felt like there wasn’t a space for her.”
If you’ve read anything on Girls, you probably know that a lot of women of color have felt the all-white cast in an all-white Brooklyn did not exactly make space for them. Dunham’s show on 20-somethings sort-of making it through sort-of jobs and sort-of (not really) relationships was pegged as a breath of fresh air for (white) women on TV— here are the girls with real bodies and awkward sex, drowning in self-deprecating banter and sexual confusion, dancing on their own to Robyn and not feeling bad about it. Yes, for these girls there was no successful career to take comfort in, no mind blowing sex to ease the loneliness, no stilettos to stomp down Manhattan. Yes, they were unapologetic and unforgivable in their mistakes. They felt real. And, yes, they were all white.
A disclaimer: I really like this show. Sure, there are no Latinas that I can single out as one of my own, but I have never identified more with a group of characters in a TV show since I saw My So-Called Life’s Angela and Rayanne in middle school (and they were white too). However, I agree that Girls detractors have legitimate claims to be pissed off. Dunham didn’t make the show for those who felt they have no space, she made a space for her (white) self. I have to say though, I feel it’s slightly hypocritical for Dunham and the series to be singlehandedly written off as inexcusably and unpardonably racist because of her inability (or ignorant unwillingness) to fairly represent all people of color—and for that matter all people of all sexual identities, and all varying levels of economic, not to mention physical, ability. Yes, it is inexcusable that race hardly (if at all) shows up in Girls. The show is legitimately racist in its absence of race. But most (if not all?) TV shows are also racist to a certain extent. Lena Dunham is racist, if not just blind to an all white cast. Hey, sometimes, I am racist and ignorant (and human) too!
Now I am not trying to say that TV shows shouldn’t aim at presenting diversity in their casting; that because equal representation is rarely achieved, it should then become a goal not worth attaining. There are (few) TV shows that manage this pretty successfully. Take for example Grey’s Anatomy, created by Shonda Rhimes. As a woman of color herself, Rhimes did a pretty commendable job in casting a whole array of identities. And the show is better for it—in Grey’s we see the stories of Latin, Asian, African American, and white women. I stopped watching Grey’s after the third season (I couldn’t handle another car crash, steamboat crash, helicopter crash), but I recently saw an episode that featured Callie—a Latina, lesbian, millionaire heiress—and her partner Arizona —white and recently disabled (after an airplane crash, nonetheless). Point is: although I relate way less to the lives of surgeons than to the lives of 20 somethings in Brooklyn, I can see why shows like Grey’s deserve more commendation for their achievable authenticity than Girls. I don’t think Dunham should be held solely accountable for universally speaking for all girls in Girls (yes, I know, then why is her show called Girls and not White Girls, but no one’s said “Hey why is Friends called Friends if it doesn’t feature all types of friendships!?!”) I do think Dunham had an envious opportunity to make something truly new for young women on television, to not only show them as the perfectly imperfect humans that they are, but to show them in a space that was filled with the forces that shape their lives: sex, bodies, money, friendships, and yes, race. She wholly missed this in her first season.
What bothers me even more than the (regrettably) not-so-new “casual” racism of the show, is that it takes a show written by a woman to ignite this necessary conversation. I don’t recall similar uproar for shows like Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm or Friends or Sex and The City —all really great shows (in my opinion), all set in New York, all white cast, all created by men. No one’s calling Larry David an ignorant cracker, they just think he’s really funny (he is!).
So while Dunham’s casual racism is not to be overlooked, I like to give her the benefit of the doubt. I think the show’s whiteness isn’t symptomatic of an explicit silencing, but more of a marker of her privilege. It’s common knowledge that Dunham takes material from her own experiences, which is perhaps why her space lacks diversity. Dunham, and the rest of the girls of Girls for that matter, are daughters of Well Known White People—successful artists, playwrights, musicians, journalists—and went to Well Known White People Schools (as do I). Dunham was not hanging out with her friends of color in Brooklyn wondering how she would pay her rent once she got dropped from her unpaid internship. Instead she was hanging out with her (probably mostly white) friends from Oberlin—hence her character’s all white, mostly Oberlin alum Girls-friends. Does this excuse her omissions? No. Does it help explain why she writes from a primarily white-only perspective? I think so.
This is also why I find the show to be relatable despite its blinding whiteness, and why many other people simply don’t. I also have the privilege to go to a liberal college, to aspire to write for a living, and to live in a place that affords me to have friendships with people of all colors but is still, to a large extent, white. I completely understand that for other women of color, who don’t run in the same circles, Girls is not a space for them, despite Dunham’s intentions. I’m not trying to say all women of color out there should love this show, just trying to show why this woman of color does.
Now here is a confession: the root of my discontent with race in Girls isn’t necessarily that there aren’t any people of color in the first season. What really gets me is that as a women of color who will soon most likely be living in Brooklyn and be unemployed, I have no hopes of ever getting my own TV show and sharing with the world all of my hot curves, my commitment issues, my dick picks, my bad sex! In other words – my discontent is (let’s say it!) secretly, ashamedly, and most deeply rooted in jealously. I am less upset about Dunham’s racial blindness, and more jealous at the fact that HBO approached her to make a TV show. I guess then the real brunt of my resentment should be aimed at HBO for not giving the creative power to people of color.
And here is the thing that I have to remind myself: the fact that I don’t get to make a space for myself in cable television (or win a Golden Globe), doesn’t mean I have to tear down other women who, by undeniable forces of privilege and a heavy dose of witty talent, unapologetic courage, and tireless effort, get their own. Other womens’ successes (white or of color) don’t lessen my own forms of privilege, or make me entitled enough to point the “you’re so racist” finger at them, as if they are alone in this guilt—or worse, casually remain silent in instances when men are guilty of the same. And in the case of Dunham, it does not diminish her brilliance, or that of her show. So, despite the many qualms, I am a Girls fan, and hope that as a girl and cultural creator, Dunham heeds her critics in the second season and starts opening up space for the rest of us.
It takes her less then three minutes into the premiere to nail the criticism in the most deliciously inappropriate way possible, per Dunham’s style. There she is, getting fucked by Sandy, a black guy—played by Donald Glover, no less (can’t you see why I’m jealous!?!) “You wanted this?” Sandy asks her as she fucks him, “I wanted this so bad,” she dirties back. “And now you’re getting it.” In a cunning ecstasy, Hannah gasps, “I’m finally getting it, it’s about fucking time.” She gets to rub bodies with Glover while both admitting and rebutting her critics in the most cleverly titillating way possible. It’s about fucking time, but she finally got it. And boy did she get it. Damn girl.
Yes, I know what you’re saying—just because she fucked a black guy, doesn’t mean the show’s become instantly sensitive to race. And even though it was a filthy and witty way to sham her critics, it probably wasn’t the most productive form of addressing race in her show. For one, having the first scene featuring the first character of color be overtly sexual could be pandering to an unfortunate trend of hyper-sexualizing African American characters on television (to which I would say, I think this is less a comment on Sandy being black and therefore sexual and more a comment on Hannah enjoying sex). It would have been truly awesome to hear a woman of color speak. But, at least Sandy isn’t just some black guy for Hannah to fuck for the sake of color—he’s a cool Brooklynite, a law student, a conservative—i.e. he’s a person, multi-faceted, messy, conflicting, just like all the other characters, and he is also of color. Also, when we get a scan of Hannah’s party we see some women of color in attendance. So that’s a start.
The premiere drops us right in the mist of the shit storm it left off. When not getting it with Sandy, Hannah is canoodling with her ex-boyfriend, now new gay roommate Elijah. He’s hard, just not for her. There’s themed parties to be had, but their peaceful cohabitation comes off as too painfully sweet to be genuine—I can’t help but wonder if past resentments won’t flare up in this happy home. When Hannah’s not party planning she’s acting as Adam’s primary caretaker and “main hang.” It seems like Hannah has forgone her much acclaimed attachment to Adam and is instead only cleaning his bedpan and buying him granola bars at 3 a.m. because she feels pity over his broken leg. When Adam asks her why the change of heart, she gives a refreshingly irrational answer, one that speaks to many of my illogical “feelings”—“I am an individual. I feel what I feel when I feel it.” Amen! Temporary disability and dependency have made Adam an enlightened romantic—to an extent. He now acknowledges he loves Hannah, but because of this, continues to treat her like shit. Apparently you don’t have to be nice to the people you love. Oh, right, that’s how that works, got it.
The no longer virginal but always pure hearted Shoshana is bent on “finding her path,” even if she has to burn 50 batches of incense in the process. She walks into Hannah’s party looking like a soft pastel version of Holly Golightly. She is unadulterated without being vapid; she is hopelessly devoted without being helplessly desperate. She isn’t afraid to wear her “big girl pants” and demand what she wants. When confronted by Ray, her deflowerer, she defends two of the things I value most—not having to like someone just because of past sexual encounters, and nonsensical emoji texts. They still make out.
And then there’s Marnie, who takes the pity prize of the episode. What I love about Marnie’s character is that she represents all the pretty white girls who don’t get everything that they want. She’s got it tough; she is tossed from unsupportive boss, to unsupportive mom, to unsupportive best friend, sans steady sexual partner and steady income. On the one hand, its easy to write off Marnie’s woes as “white girl problems” and take her wallowing as whining, but I like to think her character shows that some struggles—finding who you are, constructing meaningful relationships—are to an extent universal. It also shows that being pretty isn’t always a free pass to a life of fulfillment and success. I am looking forward to see where Marnie ends up this season (if not in the bed of her ex).
I want to end this by relishing for a moment in my favorite scene of the episode, which incidentally, is also the most difficult to watch. After the party is over, Marnie and Elijah belt drunken karaoke on his couch. His gay-rich-older lover has thrown a fit; her ex-boyfriend is sadly taken. One minute Elijah is complementing her voice, the next he is into girls again! What follows is cringe-worthy imperfection at its best; in less than two minutes, they go from making out, to having sex, to definitely not having sex. Marnie tries to cover her boobs and rolls her eyes. Elijah is no longer hard. It’s awkward and awful and painfully real. And that’s why I will never miss an episode of this show. I love that, not only does its characters never attempt perfection, but they don’t even attempt to excuse their imperfections. There’s no moral message taught, no problem resolved for the sake of closure or tidiness. There’s no pretense at nobleness or wisdom to be gleaned. After their unfortunate sexual encounter, Marnie tells Elijah, “You don’t have to be something you are not.” That perhaps sums the intentions of the show, at least for me— trusting yourself, even the ugly, imperfect, awkward, parts; trusting yourself, even if you have no idea who that is, yet. For the girls of Girls, I will anxiously wait for the rest of this season to find out with them.
-Ana Alvarez, Managing Editor
Originally published on Feminspire.com