The Responsibility of ‘Girls’

Season two of the HBO series Girls is set to air January 13th but its trailer has already been released on Youtube. The popular series is based on the trials and tribulations of millennial Brooklynites, profiling the many Brooklyn tropes one can expect to find throughout the borough. The Lena Dunham/Judd Apatow creation will no doubt carry some of its controversy into its sophomore year, meaning inquiring minds will want to know if either the creator or writers have done much to alleviate its problems; namely in regards to race.

Admittedly, Girls is not the first show to portray an all-white version of New York (see Seinfeld) or even the first HBO show (Sex and the City). However,whether or not all of the media attention for the show is justified is not the question.  Questions and critique have followed the show regardless  and simply because it isn’t the first does not negate the fact that the conversation needs to be had, or that the creators somehow get out of addressing the problems at all.

What about the grey area between artistic expression and ‘truth’?  Don’t the creators and writers for television shows have the right to put their versions and stories on screen? Absolutely. The truth is that while people of color make up two thirds of Brooklyn residents, it is completely possible and extraordinarily likely that neighborhoods and friend-groups remain homogeneous.  Speaking as someone who perpetually fulfills the the role of the “only black friend” to many people, I feel comfortable verifying the fact that the Girls narrative isn’t exactly false. Yet falsification isn’t what’s up for debate . The television show is only part of a constellation of examples which extend beyond the media: that of the power and privilege to construct the narrative. What one does or doesn’t do with that power underscores the controversy of a white-washed shows like Girls. The show acts as one example of the way we envision and actually ‘perform’ integration.

Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women — in the face of tremendous resistance — as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.

                           Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

 

Consider, for instance, the oft repeated study of ‘black names’ versus ‘white names’ in the job application process. Numerous studies have shown how ‘black’ names may hinder applicants’ chances of landing an interview. What’s been the solution? Naming, or sometimes even changing names, to more average middle-class ‘white’ sounding names. I’m a living example of this trend. My parents named me Lauren Taylor and have always told me they arrived at the decision to do so by thinking about my name on an application or business card. The correlation between name choice and economic access is at once universal and disheartening. Yet, it is only a concern  with people (usually marginalized groups) who are directly affected by discriminatory practices. One could ask why, given this trend, people who would typically name their children ‘white’ sounding names haven’t started naming their children something more ethnically ambiguous. The answer is obvious; no one wants to willingly limit their agency. Therein lies the problem. Some of us have the choice to not have to make any radical changes (like changing a name) and come through relatively unscathed. It’s the psychological privilege and freedom to ignore systemic issues.

A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

 

Others of us not only are denied this ability,we are made to always become the spokespeople for politically correct behavior. Not only is this pigeonholing inaccurate (everyone has the ability to be politically incorrect despite demography) it silences legitimate issues and concerns that people voice. Voices of dissent often become voices of ‘the race card’. We are made to be the sticks in the mud, ruining everyone’s lighthearted entertainment. Hegemony creates the ‘Other’ and in many cases, us ‘Others’ are the ones who are ‘too sensitive’ and therefore our concerns must be shrugged off and dismissed. Evidence of this can be seen again via Girls and one of their writers, Lesley Arfin’s tweets during the maelstrom of Girls critique last year:

 

 

Arfin had clearly had enough of all the touchy viewers getting all mad at a show that clearly wasn’t meant to include them in the first place.

Further complicating this silencing is the  idea of ‘progressive entertainment’ that has made the show (and others like it) trendy. Dunham and company have been rightfully praised for their depiction of complex, honest characters who buck the status quo and challenge traditional ideas of femininity and sex. However the idea that the show is ‘progressive’ for women or otherwise will be hard to swallow if their show decides to ignore their critics. Furthermore, those who did speak up and were subsequently shouted down or dismissed would be less likely be involved in constructing something positive in a show (or a movement or  political party) that has silenced or ignored them, no matter how badly Dunham feels about her faux-pas and promises to change. The ones who create the language create the playing field. They and their narrative define alterity, create access, and construct the “Other”. Shouldn’t  those who want to level the field, include marginalized people, and deconstruct difference be comprised of those people as well? Does integration have to be exclusively the oppressed’s cross to bear? If not, what are the responsibilities and obligations of those with power? Of course, it would be incorrect to create a promote a binary where people of color are always powerless and white people are always represented. However, the chance that you will see accurate and equal representation of a minority group (racial or otherwise) on your television soon is still slim.

I’m still unsure as to whether I’ll tune into Season two of Girls. I’m sure I’d be able to suspend my judgments on accuracy as I have done with many other programs. However it’s the show’s privilege to ignore my discomfort without any responsibility to its viewership that still may prevent me from tuning in. The next season will not answer the question of whether it’s ‘integrated’ or not, it may instead pose another of how much ‘integration’ is necessary to satiate critics, just as universities and workplaces have. Whether or not the show will succeed at doing either remains to be seen.

Comments

  1. Lauren, this is awesome. Thanks for saying what you say.