In Defense of Girls

Anonymous Contributor

by Leila Panjvani

by Leila Panjvani

Note:  Pop culture piece critiquing racism (or not) – two of our writers had a debate about the role of mainstream media’s responsibility to portray more racialized people. This is one writer’s response to another’s piece (linked below)

**At this time, the linked article is unable to be accessed due to the website maintenance of The Africana.  We apologize for this inconvenience.

At our last meeting, Huda and I entered into a little debate about the hit HBO series Girls. Huda has written previously about her mixed feelings for the series in her article: http://www.the-africana.com/2012/04/hbos-the-girls-hipster-racism-and-other-things/], and the ultimate sense that the monochromatic Girls presents too insular a world to be relatable for her, as a woman of color. Of course, this reaction is fair. I’ve heard these criticisms before. But I had to rally in defense of Girls.

First, let me be clear in what I’m not saying. I’m not denying monochromatic representation exists – and is a big problem – in media. It does. It is also a big problem in advertising. And, as advertisers get savvier about accessing our social networking circles, the problem becomes offensive in new and different ways.

One-dimensional representations of race, and whiteness, are also pervasive in political discourse. They can structure not just how we view ourselves and our peer groups vis-à-vis popular culture, but vis-à-vis our nation and our location as citizens.

Also, let me be emphatically clear on a second point. White privilege exists. Whiteness as a force of social domination exists, though nebulous in its form and messy around its edges. Privilege most certainly exists, and in North America, it is quite often tied to whiteness (though not exclusively).

My goal here is not to deny the existence of white privilege, or media bias. My goal, rather, is to ask that we all take a closer, more critical look at Girls… behind the white veil, if you will. It is my belief that Girls offers a stronger critique of white privilege than it gets credit for.

And so, my defense of Girls, is in three parts. I take my cues from Huda’s original article, which presents a few themes I want to address. Of course, my comments are not directly aimed at Huda. They are more generally directed towards the criticisms of Girls. Here we go.

  1. Missing the irony. Girls is commenting on race – and class – boldly, but indirectly. And its comments are scathing.

Girls presents a white world, no doubt about it. While women of color pop up here and there, they arrive in the forms of the gossipy secretary or the nannies on the park bench. They are not presented as hip, urban, young, or chic.

I wholly disagree with the notion that Dunham doesn’t understand race relations or doesn’t “get” the criticisms launched her way, as Huda suggests. Though Dunham has released a series of tweets and photos that would seem to indicate that she is not exactly bridling her ‘creative license’ to be loose with culturally sensitive topics (one photo in a self-fashioned hijab comes to mind), I do not take this as evidence of her cluelessness. Rather, I take it as her empowerment to comment on race and ethnicity as many young people in her social-media driven generation do: as something that matters, as something that affects peoples’ lives, but not as something we have to be serious and police ourselves about. Every. Single. Second.

Social definitions for what is considered offensive are changing all the time. Comedians of all colors have long facilitated these transformations.

From Lena Dunham's Twitter

From Lena Dunham’s Twitter

I think Dunham does get it, and she is addressing “it” quite boldly in her renderings of her female cast (Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshana) and their world. Really, the lack of characters of color is a bolder comment on contemporary race relations than inclusivity would be.

Dunham is telling the truth: America might fancy itself liberal and forward – maybe even “colorblind” (gag) – but there are plenty of spaces (particularly spaces of privilege) where white is the only color on the spectrum. Showing one of these spaces, warts and all, does more to advance the conversation than a token inclusion of otherness.

Now on Huda’s riff to retitle the show White Girls. I’ve heard this before, spoken and written with varying degrees of contempt/humour. And I’d like for us all to think about what we’re saying when we’re calling women Girls, and then layering it with issues of race.

It is my strong contention that Dunham understands very well what the word ‘girl’ conjures up in the social imagination, and her titling is a clear comment on it. There is no need to qualify it by race as any sort of reparative action, because the writing is on the wall.

White women are, for the most part, granted full womanhood by North American society’s norms (i.e., respect as mothers, respect as ‘feminine,’ etcetera).

But a girl is not a woman. A girl is silly, self-indulgent, juvenile, and selfish.

Just like these women. Let me be clearer: just like these WHITE women. Calling Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshana as “girls” is making a clear statement: let’s start thinking about the things that society lets (rich) white adult females get away with.

Titling a multiracial – or non-white, mono-racial – show Girls would connote very different things. I imagine that many people (myself included) would be offended: it would seem aggressively sexist. It would infantilize and degrade women.  In this context of studying up (or perhaps just studying laterally), however, the title acts as an agent of derision: it coaches and coaxes the viewer to question who we take seriously. Certainly not the women on Girls.

Now we have to think about why. And if we do, and if we talk about it, it will lead to some fruitful reflections on gender, class, and race. And I think that’s always worth doing.

Pondering the meaning of life … or whatever ‘girls’ do while their legs are akimbo and they perfect their far-off gaze

Pondering the meaning of life … or whatever ‘girls’ do while their legs are akimbo and they perfect their far-off gaze

2. Conflating Lena Dunham with her character, Hannah Horvath

Lena Dunham  – the show’s director/ writer/ producer – acts as Hannah Horvath. It is generally understood that Hannah is loosely based on Dunham. Still, collapsing the two is both unfair to Dunham,  and to “Hannah.”  Some of the broader brushstrokes in Hannah’s character – such as the whining for money, inability to see how her actions hurt people, and blackmail based on a flight of whimsy –  are quite clearly an effort not simply to be reflective in an artistically-expanded way about the seedier parts of Dunham’s real-life character and interactional history, but also to make Hannah clearly flawed. Hannah is awkward, slovenly in words and dress, vaguely sociopathic, and definitely narcissistic. In some moments, she is practically vaudevillian.

The scene where Hannah sighs that she is the “voice of a generation” is a scathing critique of Hannah’s type: removed from hard reality, and suffering from mild (or serious?) delusions of grandeur.

These people exist. American private liberal arts colleges, like the one Hannah and her pals went to, are particularly good at producing them. In that “voice of a generation” moment, the audience is meant to collectively roll their eyes, not take her seriously or be seriously offended.

Her privilege is so obviously a barrier between her and her generation that the fanciful musing can only be meant to reveal her disconnect from reality.

It is not a directive to the audience that they should be inspired by Hannah, or by Dunham. With that said, is a 22-year-old’s endless ego or grandiosity limited or defined by race?

Screen grab: Hannah’s mom tells her 22-year-old daughter that enough is enough

Screen grab: Hannah’s mom tells her 22-year-old daughter that enough is enough

Hannah does not represent my generation, and it has nothing to do with color or privilege. Hannah does not speak to me, or for me, because between her and her pals, I could probably hand out diagnoses of every personality flaw on the spectrum.

But since we are on this topic, let’s talk a bit more about relatability. I have a hard time digesting criticisms of this show based on it being un-relatable. When did relatability become so important, and when did it become the direct barometer of a show’s worth, or a writer/producer’s social conscience?

What are we calling up when we ask that a show be relatable to us? How are we choosing to define ourselves as social actors when we dismiss a fictional composite based on its likeness to “me”? My favorite television characters are so compelling to me because they are not directly relatable. I have to twist around what I know and what I’ve experienced in order to make sense of their actions and re-actions. Isn’t that the pleasure in fictional television?

In one particularly unfortunate interview, Dunham called her show’s lack of otherness an ‘accident.’ Cringe-worthy? Definitely. But what makes me cringe more than a quotation that suggests her total sheltering and ignorance is the fact that I think it is a total lie, and the result of intense handling from HBO.

I don’t think it was an accident at all. I think it was very purposive and its purpose should be taken seriously. These Girls do not live in a colorful world. They are wealthy, spoiled, and insulated. But it’s okay to show women like this on TV: it doesn’t erase the work of all the other (although probably not enough) television that has presented more diverse casts.

In my opinion, the un/relatability of Girls is the crux of its genius.

For some reason, female viewers tune in to this show with heightened expectations of seeing themselves on the screen. Girls takes that expectation, and flings it back in their face.

The cast is relatable in some ways (they are not perfect looking, they don’t always communicate clearly, they struggle with weight but it doesn’t rule their lives), yet entirely un-relatable in others (their lifestyles seem too easy, they create problems in their own lives). Maybe for another viewer, the things I listed as un-relatable are relatable, and vice-versa. And for other viewers still, the fact that the cast is so predominantly white is an insurmountable barrier to relatability on any scale. We all have our own identity politics.

Hannah makes a lame attempt to give Adam the heave-ho. Most women I speak to think that her words here are pretty ‘relatable.’

Hannah makes a lame attempt to give Adam the heave-ho. Most women I speak to think that her words here are pretty ‘relatable.’

Still, Dunham’s cast is not comprised entirely of one-dimensional characters à la Sex and the City… à la any Jennifer Lopez movie… à la any Tyler Perry movie. They are complicated, white as they may be, and their contradictions can make for an uncomfortable viewing experience as their disconnect from reality is less cut and dry than with other series featuring young, ‘hip,’ urban (white) women.

3. More on conflation: blaming the artist for her buzz

I have heard a lot of vitriol directed towards Dunham that I would suggest be re-directed back to the media-machine that in fact sparked it. Many of these criticisms are based on the fact that Girls has been called ‘Sex and the City for a new generation.’ (Who would want that? That is beyond me).

Dunham never said that this is what her show was meant to be. In fact, I’ve heard her argue against her work being summarized in this way. This tagline is the creation of some jerks who think that all white women who live in New York City are the same people, and that all female-centric shows have the same aims.

My hardline stance here is that if you want another SATC, you shouldn’t be complaining about monochromatism – a clear and present issue in the first one. And if you don’t want another SATC, then don’t create one where it didn’t exist.

Of course, it’s okay to criticize Dunham. It’s always good to be critical. But, if we are to launch criticism at her, we should reflect upon where we are not aiming it. Let’s also be thoughtful about why some of the grievances that seem to explode towards Dunham are so rarely directed at young (or older) male comedians.

Dunham is the protégé of Judd Apatow, maker of many an all-white comedy and romance flicks. Who is calling Apatow a hipster racist, the very criticism regularly launched at Dunham?

Cassandra, our Editor-in-Chief, recently brought a quotation to my attention that deals with the type of comment I’m making here. Basically, the quotation (directly pertaining to Girls) asks if we must choose between sexism and racism, or why we often feel compelled to do so in defending this show. This is not what I’m doing here.

I’m not saying it’s okay for women to perpetrate psychological violence against other women based in some twisted notion of affirmative action. Rather, I’m asking that we pause to reflect on what made this monochromatic show – produced by this white person like so many before it – the locus of so much anger.

Buds. In a very white, very ‘girly’ room.

Buds. In a very white, very ‘girly’ room.

I hope that two things have come out of my discussion here.

First, I am asking that some of us who have found Dunham’s monochromatic casting troubling try to re-think it in the framework that I’ve put forward. But I didn’t just write this to advocate Girls as a learning tool, because anything can be a learning tool. Particularly the most oppressive things.

Beyond my sense of the show’s potential for teaching and learning, I really do believe that Dunham’s aims were to encourage some of this critical engagement. I do not believe that she is foolish, or naïve, or wrote this show without a moment’s thought to race relations. This is just my perspective, though: none of us can ever know what is in her head.

I think Dunham’s done an amazing job of representing a certain sect of society in a way that makes room for interesting debates and reflections about color and class, and I believe she’s done it with this very goal in mind. She has painted “white girls,” the long-time darling of film and TV, in a not-so-glamorous light and let the chips fall where they may. I think she’s done great work. Woman to woman.

Girls, season 2 began on January 13th, 2013 on HBO/TMN Canada.

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3 responses to “In Defense of Girls

  1. This is so beautifully and articulately written, Rachel – wonderful work!!
    I love this show and your article made me able to pinpoint from a media-critique angle exactly what it was that I thought was so intuitive about Dunham’s witty style and her subject matter. It plays so much on a type of wider endemic social arrogance that comes with being young, mostly clueless, and privileged as you say. If anything, this show is more aware of these realities than so many others that claim to address race and/or class issues (but do so only superficially, effectively not addressing them at all…)

    I love this part:

    “The scene where Hannah sighs that she is the “voice of a generation” is a scathing critique of Hannah’s type: removed from hard reality, and suffering from mild (or serious?) delusions of grandeur.”

    Yes! I always get frustrated with her character’s sense of self-importance but then I have to sit back and remind myself that it’s this ironic caricaturization that’s the message in her seemingly annoying lines and behaviour – exactly what I think you are meaning to point out and it’s a really interesting take on the series. Nicely done 🙂

    • Wholeheartedly agree – some of the commentary is quite subtle but definitely very clever and aware. I guess we live in a pretty reductionist culture where we try to compartmentalize complex personas and characters into one version or another of what we expect them to be, and we end up missing the whole point of what’s being communicated. What do you think about Shoshana? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on her – I feel like she is one of the only characters that isn’t really fleshed out and she seems a bit one-dimensional, I kind of find myself trying to figure out how she fits into the whole context and dynamics of the show… :/

  2. Alright, so I’m not the only one who thinks her purpose is just to be like an annoying prop in the background while the ‘real’ characters live their lives in all their complexity, lol. She is so … flat? I always hate that they give her no role or character development other than to be an awkward, ditzy and clueless sidekick type, one that you often feel strangely sorry for … Second season is looking to be good but nothing different in terms of Shoshana, she’s the only one of the group that doesn’t seem to be explored as anything more than something superficial. To be honest I don’t even know if she gives me any cheap laughs, just kind of a cringe-meets-nervous-chuckle……

    I guess I know more Shoshanas than Marnies or Hannahs, too… But that does not make me like her any less, like you mentioned which is such a great point. Maybe relatability is not even a good thing if people can only relate to characters that are painted in such broad brushstrokes (like Shoshana) that they can just be classified as ‘that annoying girl we all know’ since there is not much more to her that we can see as an audience. A relatability of that sort somehow takes away from people’s different personality dimensions and facets that, even though may be less relatable, are far more realistic and infinitely interesting 🙂

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