Ever since the latest HBO series “GIRLS” — conceived of, wrote, directed and starring erstwhile filmmaker Lena Dunham — premiered, there’s been an interesting backlash about the show’s near-offensive “whiteness.” While the show has been lauded with praise, “Lena Dunham just may be the future of television. If not, she comes thrillingly close” said David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle, and just as equally derided, “The central character is an unsympathetic victim of First World Problems who mumbles her way through a Brooklynite’s perdition of unpaid internships and missed orgasms. In its first three episodes, the comedy series establishes a new low for the premium cable network, even surpassing “John From Cincinnati” in its level of sheer unwatchability” excoriated Asawin Suebsaeng in Mother Jones.
There’s even been rants about the fact that main cast (the eponymous girls) are all nepotism hirers (as playwrights, screenwriter, director David Mamet’s daughter is in the cast, so is NBC News stalwart Brian Williams’ daughter; I take a little umbrage in this, because Mamet’s daughter has been popping up in episodes of “Mad Men” the last couple of seasons and Hollywood is a bastion of nepotism, so hate the system, not the byproducts), but what makes the extra whiteness of its cast, the situations they find themselves in and the places they haunt brow-crunching is that the series set in New York City.
Ever since Rudy Giuliani was mayor of the Big Apple and did a massive clean-up and crime crackdown, NYC has approached a halcyon level of melting pot status – Harlem and huge swaths of Brooklyn have become gentrified (thus bringing in rich whites and other well-off people of color); also, one could argue all the “hot shit” is happening in those new zones. The glaring lack of diversity (outside of the African American homeless man) in the first episode was one of the many things that turned me off from the show (I can’t identify with any of the characters either and their plights seem, aside from their quirkiness, hopelessly mundane; but the quirkiness is, no doubt, what people love/find fascination with… I bet Diablo Cody is smiling!).
However, “Girls” isn’t “Downton Abbey” and its on HBO, not the BBC (and even the BBC is progressive enough to produce “Luther” with Idris Elba in the titular role), so one would expect a different configuration in the whole storytelling process – and casting is definitely part of the storytelling process. Consider the fact that “The Wire” is one of the most talked about shows ever on HBO, and it was the most diverse thing on TV (outside of “Oz”); and remember, as wildly successful as “Sex and the City” was, its lack of diversity among cast, situations and locations was always irksome for too many as well. Lessons aren’t always learned, I guess or just conveniently ignored.
And yet with “Girls” being about 20-somethings in NYC in the 2nd decade of the 21st century, one would have thought the HBO execs and the creators would have discussed this point in any one of a dozen development meetings… but they were obviously dismissed. Suebsaeng’s barb about First World Problems is a little off the mark, because… duh, America is the paragon of the First World (didn’t we coin the phrase?) even if we’re just using that would-be status as a veneer these days. Maybe it should have been “1%er Problems”? That’s probably too far the other way, isn’t it?
Dunham, to her credit, has stated in interviews that she plans to address the lack of diversity in the second season (there was always going to be a second season, unless the show dismally failed on premiere night); but why does it seem like an afterthought at this point. No one said anything during any of the earlier stages of the show? That I find hard to believe. If you read her response, she seems disconnected to the world outside of her sphere and she trivializes the controversy to a certain extent. One could say, “that’s the new face of White Privilege”, and how inaccurate would one be if one made that statement? We think/hope that media has an obligation to be non-malignant because it is so Goddamn powerful, but that’s exactly why it isn’t benign, is controlled (for the most part) by large corporations with an agenda (overt or covert, who is to say).
On a side note, what’s a little more interesting is that while TV dramas tend to cast more multi-ethnically, many sitcoms seem to have a harder time breaking down the barrier (yes, there are exceptions, I didn’t say ALL sitcoms; hats off to “Community”, “Modern Family”, “Parks & Recreation, et al.). I know some great sitcom writers who are African American and who write on so-called “white” shows, and what they say is, “what’s funny is funny”, and I believe that. Richard Pryor could make any one laugh, so can Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin and Chris Rock.
However, why do we care if the show is diverse in cast or not? Is TV supposed to be representative of the nation’s citizenry as a whole? Since when has it ever done that? (As much as we like to want TV to do that.) TV is more about projecting an image. I caught an episode of some late ‘60s/early ‘70s cop show on TV at Pep Boys the other and I had to laugh at the blatant propaganda that the show was (granted this show was made a time when Miranda Rights were new or not around yet, so it was important for cops to be seen as a trusting force in the neighborhood). TV has an agenda, a social agenda? Perhaps, but who really knows?
I’ve read Internet comments where people have trashed Dunham for “only writing what she knows [so how can we blame her for creating an extra white show]”; this statement – whenever I hear it – makes me want to vomit then hit someone with a bat. It’s a bullshit statement that basically says writers can ONLY write authentic stories is they have lived that experience. That’s horseshit. Not everyone is going to be Ernest Hemingway or James Jones. Did Steven Zaillian survive the purging of a ghetto in NAZI occupied Poland? Has George Lucas ever been to a galaxy far, far away? Has Robert Kirkman survived a zombie apocalypse? Has Frank Darabont spent time in jail in the 1950s? No, No, Hell No, and impossible No.
The creative choices that writers make are what determine the quality of a written story, and if you don’t “know” about a subject, doing research is pretty fucking easy. Authenticity can be co-opted… in fact it has to be for most stories, because writers can’t live every life that their characters live. A writer’s job is to portray “the truth” about the human condition on the page. So a skilled writer knows about to emulate that… and make you, the audience, believe what’s happening. It’s not hard, but it’s not easy either (by a long shot).
“Girls” will continue to gather potent positive and notoriously negative reviews, and on a certain level that’s exactly what Dunham wants; in fact, she couldn’t have hoped for better (universal praise is typically fake), as she’s part of the national conversation, and what artist wouldn’t want that?