“Girls”: first HBO show that’s really about women since 2004, and the media terms it “racist”

28 April 2012

Does TV and film have a race problem? Hell yeah.

But would someone please tell me why it’s so important to have a shit fit about the fact that none of the four leads in HBO’s new celebrated show Girls is a woman of color, when no one made a peep about the all-white, all-dudes Entourage? (Melissa Silverstein, you stole that thought right out from under me.) Why does it get reduced to a women vs. people of color argument, when the relevant point is that white men dominate everywhere?

This is one of those unbelievably rare moments — when HBO actually throws its considerable resources toward a brilliant and celebrated show with nothing but a whole lot of women in the cast. Girls isn’t just the first show about women on the network since the finale of Sex and the City in 2004; it’s also written and directed by a woman, the preternaturally gifted Lena Dunham. As a result, it saves the network from being one of the most truly retrograde in existence with regard to gender balance.

(Apologies for slight hyperbole here: I realize that Enlightened features Laura Dern as its lead, and that Big Love had a lot of women at the center of the story. I still maintain that Girls, with its multiple female leads and female creator/director, is exceptional.)

In addition, the show appears to me to be deeply satirical, if not outright critical, of its self-centered, privileged, clueless leads. This is no Friends or Sex and the City.

The sidelining, ghettoization, and/or ignorance of people of color on TV and film in general is stunningly racist, especially when it comes to Latinos — but the enemy in that story isn’t Girls. Don’t make women have to face off against people of color… again. It’s one of those classic zero-sum games from the goddamn 19th century: who gets voting rights, women or Black people? When, in fact, any rational person can see that both groups should have received the right to vote, instead of fighting it out in the nastiest possible way about who was most worthy.

Let’s get outraged about the casting decisions by the makers of Two and A Half Men or the shameful tokenism of virtually every show you can think of. Better yet, let’s have a come-to-Jesus conversation about race on TV and in film more broadly. Let’s not make the women and the people of color battle amongst themselves.

I’m not singling out any one of the numerous articles on this subject, because the problem isn’t any one of them but rather the media pile-on that has occurred over the course of the past week. I firmly believe that individually, any given writer is entitled to write or post on whatever subject that moves them. But in total, this media firestorm makes it look as if Dunham has committed some kind of crime in casting the show the way she did — when there’s nothing unusual about it in the least except that it’s full of women.

Eyes on the prize, people. We’re together in this fight against the white male domination of the media — if we refuse to fall for that divide-and-conquer false consciousness.

… And as soon as I can catch up with all the episodes: more on why I think this show is so good.

20 Responses to ““Girls”: first HBO show that’s really about women since 2004, and the media terms it “racist””

  1. JustMeMike Says:

    I’ve not watched the show yet. But with Luck permanently shelved, and Smash winding down … I think I’ll give this a look. Thanks for bringing this out in the light of day.


    • Didion Says:

      Oh, JMM, the show is really, really good. The characters aren’t exactly likeable — it relies quite a bit on cringe humor — but the writing and plot development is so realistic. I’ve met these girls, and their sense of entitlement is chilling.

      • Steve Says:

        I agree with your take, Didion. As you already know, I’m as fine tuned to the issue of race as anyone else, and I don’t see the problem with four white women as leads in the context of today’s viewing. If there’s a problem, then perhaps someone like Shonda Rhimes will take a shot at trumping Scandal and cast 4 black female leads for her next show. Or Tyler Perry–oh! wait he’s done that. The problem really isn’t Hollywood as its still US, the general viewing public. We’re on our way to a colour blind society but we’re still a couple of parsecs away from that Nirvana

      • Didion Says:

        Hm. “Color blind” sounds to me like a very far away future. I’d be satisfied with reduced racial conflict and tension, and less government-mandated or -approved racial profiling (like a Supreme Court shutdown of the Arizona “papers please” law). At the same time, I’d like to see more complex and less stereotyped portrayals of men and women of color in TV & film.

        It would seem to me that this financial crisis has made race relations far worse. Surviving such a brutal few years has made a lot of people both more racist and more intolerant when people of color try to call out abuse. It’s been ugly.

        But I still stick to my guns: this is not a battle between women & people of color. When it comes to arguing about more and better representations of both figures, I’m going to fight the good fight.

  2. JE Says:

    “would someone please tell me why it’s so important to have a shit fit about the fact that none of the four leads in HBO’s new celebrated show Girls is a woman of color”

    Conveniently, I found online the transcript of a meeting of a secretive television critics group, which included this segment:

    -Christ, have you seen this new show “Girls”?
    -No. I was interested when I first saw the title. I thought it might be about chicks.
    -Ha! Showgirls, maybe.
    -Who wants to watch a bunch of girls whining about shit?
    -That’s basically what I’m writing in my review.
    -Are you crazy? You can’t say that. They’ll jump all over you for being “anti-woman” or some shit like that. From the press release pictures, they’re all white girls. Just complain that it’s racist. It saves you from having to watch the show, you’ll look like a saint, it’ll get EVERYONE talking about nothing else, and then we get to watch all the women squirming and apologizing and complaining and coming up with excuses. It’s a win-win-win-win.

    • Didion Says:

      I must admit, I do understand that since Girls seems to be the most-talked-about new show of the spring, I can maybe kind of understand why it’s subject to various kinds of hits from critics. But then I just kept seeing people piling on with the criticism about race. Girls is on people’s minds — it’s the thing to talk about. No one complained about the all-white lead cast of that series Pan Am because it obviously sucked.

      Now, as someone who files regular posts about how there aren’t enough women in TV and film, and how there aren’t enough female directors, I am fully aware that prominent shows are open to criticism on all scores. And I can be stunningly one-note when it comes to certain subjects, can’t I? That’s why I believe every individual writer/blogger has the right to voice his/her own opinion.

      It’s the cumulative media pile-on that disturbs me, as if the show’s all-white leads is the only thing to discuss. Especially considering that the show is so obviously satirical/ critical of its lead characters’ obliviousness and (white) privilege. Sigh.

  3. Didion, I always love the way you Speak Truth to Power!

  4. Well I liked your post earlier and since I’ve caught up on the two episodes. I had seen the intro trailers for the show and knew right away I would want to check it out. My first instictive thought was “girls” as an alone title could/would create easily a lot of connotations and assumptions. I like HBO productions exactly because they are not afraid to offend their audience, or their willingness to create unique shows with fringent characters.

    • Didion Says:

      Fanny, your comment about how they’re “girls” is something I’ve been thinking about, too — a brilliant choice, if you ask me. I’ll look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on the series as the season goes along!

  5. Angel H. Says:

    It isn’t the media that’s calling the show racist. It’s the Women of Color who are tired of tired of – once again – straining our voices to shout “Hey! We exist, too!” This isn’t a one-time thing, either. If you honestly can’t find any criticism of television’s lack of diversity, then you’re really not looking hard enough.

    One more thing, re: “Don’t make women have to face off against people of color… again.” That kind of thinking is part of the problem. Not all women are white, and not all POC are men.

    • Didion Says:

      Angel, we agree on many things – and bear with me a moment while I repeat a few of my own points from the original post. We agree that TV and film has a ridiculous race problem. We agree that the sidelining and stereotyping of people of color is near criminal. We agree that every single individual – you, me, Black women bloggers, writers of color – has the right to call out what we perceive as bullshit when we see it. Please, don’t accuse me of ignoring these points on which we agree, for I mention them throughout my post as well as in my responses to other readers’ comments.

      We also agree on a topic I should have brought up in my post, but which I make clear in so many of the hundreds of other posts on this blog I didn’t find it necessary to repeat: I believe firmly that the category of “women” includes people of all races, and that the category of “people of color” includes both men and women. These are not excusive categories in the least.

      I see one point where we seemingly don’t agree: whether people of color (broadly speaking) and women (broadly speaking) should fight it out amongst themselves over who gets to have a little air time in a TV and film world utterly dominated by white men. I argue that the real problem here is, in fact, domination by white men of the industry. You disagree on this point, suggesting that white women are part of the problem.

      I would never deny that white women can be clueless about the race privileges they enjoy. In fact, Girls satirizes precisely such over-privileged oblivion in its four leads. But I believe that if we’re going to speak about the ways that TV and film fails to represent people fairly, the overwhelmingly fundamental point is that women of all races are sidelined and stereotyped onscreen in ways that are both overtly and implicitly sexist. Women make up 51% of the US population but only 32.8% of speaking roles on TV and film; these numbers are even worse for the gender ratio in children’s TV and film, where there are 2½ males for every 1 female onscreen. Women are also sorely under-represented in directing and writing positions in Hollywood: only 5% of the top US films were directed by women, and only 17% were written by women. They represent negligible minorities in all other behind-the-camera positions, including the important and prestigious role of producer. I see this gender gap as so utterly stark that it requires active feminist discussion and action – not least because this gender gap affects women of all races, and it affects them in such overwhelming numbers that no one can deny the significance of these numbers, nor the obvious sexism behind them.

      It is for these reasons I’m so glad to see the exceptionally white male dominated HBO broadcast a show featuring four female leads – the first such show since 2004 – even if it’s a show about four white girls, at least one of whom, Shoshanna, is explicitly coded as Jewish (Dunham is Jewish too, but I’m not sure yet whether the show codes her character Hannah as such). It is for these reason I was chilled to discover not just some thoughtful, eloquent blog posts from women of color complaining about the show’s whiteness – which, as I’ve already stated, are exactly the kind of pieces I read AND write — but a whole media firestorm of stories that act as if the only relevant subject to discuss about Girls is that it’s The Exemplar Of TV’s Race Problem. As a result of that pile-on, the show’s groundbreaking gender portrayals have been lost in the shuffle. Why wasn’t there a similar firestorm over Entourage or Two and a Half Men? We see examples of TV’s race problem every single day; I don’t want the full brunt of blame for this to be placed on the shoulders of Girls – which, if you’ve been reading media criticism for the past week, you might presume to be the case.

      Am I saying that white women should be let off the hook if we’re going to criticize TV’s race problem? Absolutely not. And I should have made that explicit in my initial post. What I am saying is that it’s highly convenient for Hollywood to let all of us under-represented groups fight amongst ourselves, while shows about white men flourish without critical media firestorms. This is one of the many ways that white male privilege continues unabated.

      To repeat: I utterly uphold your right to disagree respectfully on the question of whether white women are part of the problem in lack of diversity onscreen. But I also hope you appreciate the larger point I’m trying to make: that white men’s domination of media is the deeper underlying problem. I would never attack you or any other individual blogger for advancing thoughtful critique. I hope it’s abundantly obvious that the basis of my critique is not you or any other blogger’s words; rather, what I find troubling is that apparently the only way the media at large will discover that TV has a race problem is when a show about women finally gets produced on HBO.

      Finally, you accuse me of not “looking hard enough” to find examples of the lack of diversity on TV. I can understand that if you read only this post you wouldn’t know my history of writing about the subject of the lack of diversity (one example here). I think with greater familiarity of my media criticism you’d see my mantra more clearly: my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit (thanks, Flavia Dzodan, for capturing so succinctly how feminism seeks to combat sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, class-ism, and transphobia, for these are all bound together inextricably).

      Angel, I completely understand and respect that this is a topic that moves you. I hope you also understand and respect my position. One of the problems with internet commentary is the tendency to refuse to find points of agreement – the refusal to converse about a topic. In writing such an extensive response to your comment I hope you see how much this subject matters to me, how much I refuse to be a cartoonish media critic who takes advantage of a sexy subject. My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

      • Angel H. Says:

        Didion, thank you for your response. I do realize that you do understand that the lack of racial diversity in the mainstream media is a problem, and I appreciate your enthusiasm for intersectional feminism. However, when you use phrases like “women vs. people of color” and “women or Black people”, despite your intentions, it’s exclusionary to women of color.

        Also, it seems to me that one of the main issues we disagree upon is that you see the show “Girls” as a step forward for women. My question is, why does the foot taking that step always have to be White? You note that “32.8% of speaking roles on TV and film” went to women. But the majority of those roles, even the ones written for Women of Color, went to White women. You want to put this problem squarely on the shoulders on White men, but White women must also claim some responsiblity. Because while more and more shows with all-White casts are greenlit for television and movies, talented Women and Men of Color are being left on the sidelines. “Girls” isn’t the genesis of this problem, but it is a symptom.

      • Didion Says:

        When I used those phrases “women vs. people of color” and “women or Black people,” I referred to the way the media was creating a false showdown by circulating dozens of stories about Girls being per se racist. I was complaining about that characterization, not upholding it.

        Yes, I do think that Girls is a good step forward for representations of women on TV. It’s not the only one. I think The Wire was a step forward for Black men, and even though all its female characters were relegated to being secondary figures to the show, they were awesome nevertheless. I was even willing to say that Shame was a step forward for Black directors, even though Steve McQueen cast only one Latina in a minor role. I completely agree that white women get the lion’s share of good roles for women, and that white women land in parts written for women of color.

        As I said earlier, I also completely agree that white women can be clueless about their race privilege. But I have a harder time with your statement that white women must claim some responsibility for the problem in Hollywood. As Hollywood executives and behind-the-camera people, white women make up teensy minorities; I’d still be happy to blame them, except that whenever those lists of the top 100 powerful people in Hollywood get published, it’s got a tiny number of women on it, most of whom are white. Can I blame them? Yes. But how much power do they have relative to all those white dudes? It’s minuscule.

        I’m with you on raging about these problems. I’m just reluctant to blame one show for all of them, particularly when that show does help diversify a mostly white male lineup on HBO.

        In thinking about these problems, I have to admit that as a film/TV fan, I often come back to the importance of quality. The Wire was (as I’ve said a million times) the best show on TV, ever. That matters. I’ve defended Girls so vocally because it’s really good. Above all, for me it’s important to have women & people of color in roles that matter, roles that break stereotypes — like Dee Rees’ amazing film Pariah. Whereas I’ve been seeing trailers for the new movie What To Expect When You’re Expecting, a show that clearly decided to feature an over-the-top racially diverse cast. That’s great, right? Except that the actual film looks like it trots out every single damn stereotype imaginable about men and women. Is this a step forward? I just want to beat my head against a wall.

  6. Angel H. Says:

    ~~”But how much power do they have relative to all those white dudes? It’s minuscule.”~~

    But it’s immense when compared to the power held by Women of Color.

    ~~”I’m with you on raging about these problems. I’m just reluctant to blame one show for all of them, particularly when that show does help diversify a mostly white male lineup on HBO.”~~

    As I said before, this show isn’t the first one that’s been criticized for a lack of diversity. And unforntunately, the way things are continuing, it probably won’t be the last. And I’m sorry, I just don’t see how adding more White people to an already White lineup is diversifying.

    I really do appreciate your patience with me. Maybe it’ll help you understnad where I’m coming from a little better if I tell you a little bit about my favorite TV character of all time: Elisa Maza. When I first saw her on screen, I spent almost the entire episode trying to adjust the picture on my TV and the lighting in the living room because it was too much for me to believe that a woman whose skin color was the same as mine would be a lead in a Disney cartoon. Later in the episode, the male lead is subdued by assailants while one of them tries to restrain her…Then she elbows the bad guy in the gut, knocks him unconscious, and rescues her friend. She was smart, kind, fierce…and she was a women of color.

    The Elisa Mazas on screen are so few and far between. With so many talented artists out there who are POC, to see yet another show about Pretty White People With Problems is a slap in the face. I can’t stand by something that doesn’t acknowledge my existence.

    Again, I appreciate your time and patience with me. Thanks for letting me post here.

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, cut it out with your appreciation of my “patience”! Good heavens, these are the conversations that matter. I’m not being patient — I’m utterly engaged!

      I’ll never forget watching the first episode of Dark Angel during grad school. The lead was a woman of color; the show was chockablock with mixed-race relationships and people of color; and Jessica Alba may have been a Major Hottie who displayed her hotness for us in each scene, but she regularly beat up men explicitly on behalf of her “sisters” — various abused women or prostitutes or little girls or whoever. My best friend and I looked at each other and said, oh my god, this is the best thing ever on TV. (So yeah, perhaps we were overly optimistic.) Exploitation? yes … but.

      Too right about Pretty White People With Problems. In defense of Girls I’ll just say it’s more like Average-Looking White People With Normal-Sized Bodies Portrayed As Babbling, Air-Headed Idiots Who Nevertheless Have Problems Other Women Have. (I mean, a show that takes abortion/ birth control as a given!) I guess in the end it’s my love of film and good narratives and my desire to see compelling, three-dimensional characters that leads me to want to celebrate when one of the crumbs of diversity I’m thrown turns out to be good and/or funny and contributing toward diversity. But it’s a glass half full/empty issue, isn’t it? I want to cheer when I get a crumb, even at the same time as my conversation on this blog is virtually always about the fact that I get nothing but crumbs. Angel, this conversation we’re having is the same conversation — and I’m loving having it.

  7. Hattie Says:

    John Updike once said that it is wrong to criticize things for not being what the creator never intended them to be. “Girls” is not a polemic about race. What “Girls” shows is serious but immature young women trying hard and being dumped on and treated as absolutely unimportant, which exactly parallels the experiences of my youth and which I immediately related to. I had buried most of that in shame, but seeing “Girls” brings it back and this is very “healing,” as the cant of the day would put it.

    • Didion Says:

      This is just a great perspective — but really, that sense of entitlement. I’m SO ambivalent about these girls. And find them hilarious.

  8. I absolutely love ‘Girls’ and find it incredibly refreshing and hilarious. Lena Dunham is ridiculously talented AND a feminist voice! We desperately need more of those on-screen.

    Some people denigrate the show because it depicts an incredibly privileged group of people, which of course is no different than almost all of the shows on TV. This is certainly not Girls’ fault but a larger problem of media in general to not depict various social classes.

    For a lot of people (myself included), the reason the series is facing a firestorm of criticism regarding race has to do with Girls’ staff writer Lesley Arfin’s incredibly racist, offensive and ignorant tweet that proves she doesn’t have a clue about white privilege.

    If a staff writer possesses racist opinions, those views could certainly seep into the plot and dialogue. Since there are no characters of color in the cast (something Dunham said in an interview she hopes to address in Season 2), I think people are concerned/angered/disappointed that yet another film/series erases people of color and perpetuates a white world.

    • Didion Says:

      We’re in agreement on everything except I’m less willing to believe that those views would seep into a plot and/or dialogue — I’ve seen no reason to believe such a thing (yet). The worst thing about Arfin’s comments (particularly about Precious), if I read them correctly, was that she thought she was being funny and astute, until forced to apologize and back off. Creating an all-white show is a very different thing than expressing racism onscreen — and I refuse to watch the show with my finger on a trigger, waiting to it to express racism overtly. This is Dunham’s show, not Arfin’s.

      Responding to these criticisms Dunham explained on NPR’s Fresh Air, “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.”

      My exasperation on this issue stems from the fact that this one show has been attacked from all sides, as if the US just discovered that TV & film has a race problem. I’m frustrated because this fact has been “discovered” solely for a show that jacked up HBO’s total gender content by 200%. Yes, let’s have a conversation about what happened to HBO once The Wire ended its final season. Let’s take a hard look at tokenism onscreen. The problem with class is exactly the same, and just as pernicious, as the ignorance of race onscreen. But let’s stop acting as if there’s this category of “women” who are pushing the category of “people of color” offscreen.

      • la redactora Says:

        But let’s stop acting as if there’s this category of “women” who are pushing the category of “people of color” offscreen.

        This. It is like living the Democratic primary all over again. The problem is *not* “women” vs. “people of color.” The problem (or part of the problem, anyway) is white women and their whiteness versus women of color. Dunham and team made a classic white artistic mistake. I can definitely see the thought process. They wanted to avoid stereotyping and tokenism, but they messed it up anyway. I don’t have HBO, and have not seen anything beyond clips, so I can’t really speak further on the matter.

        Though I will say I have been rolling my eyes at the people going “I don’t want to watch these vapid privileged girls yadda yadda.”

        I’m pretty sure the *whole point* of the show is that they are vapid and privileged, or were privileged and are now dealing in bad ways with reduced circumstances. Wasn’t the main character cut off by her parents?

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