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Revisiting Lena Dunham, ‘Girls,’ and Race

It’s time to talk about race on Girls. Of course, it’s already been discussed endlessly, but the bulk of the conversation happened when most writers had only viewed the show’s first three episodes — or, in some cases, hadn’t seen anything more than its ads and trailers, which showcased the four white women in their early 20s who form the core cast. It seemed unfair to pick on the series for omissions when it was still establishing its tone and developing the main characters. But now that we’re halfway through the first season, Lena Dunham has begun to answer some questions about the backlash around the show’s lack of diversity, and the past few episodes have introduced characters of color, I finally feel like I’ve seen enough to say something about my concerns with Girls.

From the outset, I’ve believed that the show’s race problem is more realistically a larger problem with representation on TV, and that it’s somewhat bizarre to see Dunham — who, unlike most showrunners, actually is expanding the range of experiences we see on television — singled out amid a sea of whitewashed casts. For the most part, I stand by that assessment. But in the past few weeks, I’ve still noticed a worrisome pattern emerging.

In the fourth episode, which aired last Sunday, we meet the first woman of color slated to become a recurring character on Girls: Chastity, a Latina coworker of Hannah’s. She seems like a reasonable addition to the cast, as one-third of a mini-clique of work friends who tolerate their male boss’s inappropriate touching because he’s never upset when they come in late and pays for their sisters to go to camp. Perhaps she isn’t a paragon of good judgment, but neither is anyone else on this show. While I don’t think Chastity is a stereotype in the finished episode, I can’t help but wince at a casting call for the part that Kendra James at Racialicious pointed out, which specified a “pleasantly plump” 23-year-old Latina character who hates “measly portions,” is annoyed by Hannah’s “brattiness,” and likes to call out rude commuters and lose herself in “movies where the women have no real problems.” The implication is that, solely as a result of her race, this character is more assertive than Hannah and has more “real problems” to escape by watching chick flicks.

James also reproduces a slew of other Girls casting calls for non-white actors, including a trio of nannies who appear on the same episode. One is an overweight, 40-something African-American woman who “MUST DO A JAMAICAN ACCENT”; another is a sexy Salvadoran in her late teens; the third is a grandmotherly lady in her 60s, from Tibet. In the episode itself, the Salvadoran nanny seems a bit older and isn’t overtly sexualized — which seems like a smart decision — and there’s a fourth member of the group, a young, redheaded Irish guy. We meet Jessa’s fellow childcare workers when she plops herself down on the table where they’re sitting at the playground. Learning that they’re earning far less than she is, Jessa launches into a self-righteous rant about unionization, declaring that she’s willing to take a pay cut if it means setting a fair rate for everyone. To her credit, Dunham clearly understands the inequality at play here, and she’s poking fun at Jessa’s naïveté. When the Jamaican nanny stops her mid-rant to inform her that her charges have gone missing and then finds them while Jessa panics, the pay disparity seems even more unjust.

I would classify this story line as about racism – on the part of both the non-white nannies’ employers and Jessa, who inserts herself as a white savior figure and then proceeds to demonstrate her own incompetence — rather than racist in itself. The problem, again, is with the script and the casting calls. It seems that when Dunham writes a character of color, it’s because race will be central to that character’s personality or story. Anyone whose race isn’t an issue (aside from a “weirdo bartender” with three lines) ends up white.

Five episodes in, what feels unrealistic and exclusionary to me isn’t that Hannah is a white woman with two white best friends, one of whom has a slightly younger white cousin. And the accusations that Girls takes place in an entirely whitewashed version of New York are clearly overblown. What’s disconcerting is the apparently huge gulf between the show’s central clique and the characters of color we’ve seen, as though all white people and all non-white people inhabit hugely different worlds. As Roxane Gay writes at The Rumpus, “I wonder why Hannah and her friends don’t have at least one blipster friend or why Hannah’s boss at the publishing house or one or more of the girls’ love interests couldn’t be an actor of color.” It’s ridiculous when Jessa proclaims to the nannies in the park, “I’m just like all of you,” for reasons that have at least as much to do with class as race or ethnicity, but it’s not hard to imagine her truly relating to a black, Asian-American, or Latina friend she’s been close with since childhood or even college.

What’s clear is that Girls – more than any other current TV show with the exception of Louie, which critics have rightfully likened Girls to and Dunham has cited as an inspiration — is the result of a single creator’s vision. Addressing the diversity debate in a recent interview with NPR, Dunham explained, “I wrote the first season primarily by myself, and I co-wrote a few episodes. But I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. 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.”

As a result of Dunham’s determination to write what she knows with very little help from the writers’ room, Girls feels as much like a young author’s first novel as a TV show, with all the quirks, limitations, and flashes of brilliant generational insight that implies. It isn’t just Dunham’s depiction of non-white characters that is imperfect; in the same episode as the Latina co-worker and the nannies, we spend a scene alone with Marnie’s boyfriend, Charlie, and his friend, Ray. Unlike the “girls,” who are silly but also complex, they veer towards caricature — Charlie is so sensitive he unironically refers to the apartment as a “community” and Marnie’s vibrator as a “shared tool,” while Ray is your classic mouthy jerk, snooping through diaries, calling his sister a “fattie,” and talking about “hate-fucks.” One is pathetic and the other is bereft of a single redeeming quality.

Despite having created a smart and funny show that’s struck a chord with many fans — including me — Dunham is still best at writing characters who are very similar to her. In my mind, this doesn’t make her a racist man-hater; it makes her young, and prone to the mistakes of a precocious artist. The good news is that, as the NPR interview suggests, Dunham is acutely aware of her own limitations and is taking the criticism to heart. Perhaps this means she’ll come to the conclusion that she needs to fill in the gaps by expanding her writing staff to include contributors from a broader range of backgrounds.

Whatever happens, unless my belief in Dunham is misplaced, Girls’ evolution promises to be more authentic than the typical response to criticism about racial representation (see: Ashton Kutcher’s silence on his brownface Popchips ad or 2 Broke Girls‘ addition of an attractive Asian character to make up for the mess of stereotypes that is Han Lee). I know that some have already made up their minds to condemn or ignore everything Lena Dunham ever does based on three episodes of a TV show she created at age 25, and I’ll share their disappointment if Season 2 is no different from Season 1. But if the goal of the Girls backlash is promoting more and better diversity on TV, then we all have something to gain from watching her learn this vital lesson in public.

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