Saturday was a day-long Girls Marathon on HBO where I was able to catch up on every episode back to back without the week-long wait and resulting romanticizing of story lines. After the #Girlsathon, which show creator Lena Dunham live tweeted due to (what looked and sounded like) a contractual agreement, I started surfing for some of the none-hyped responses to Girls. I’m a big fan of Jezebel founder and award-winning journalist, Anna Holmes. I also have a hard time keeping up with the New Yorker which is why I’m just finding her wonderful piece on the show now. In it, Holmes tracks the internet coverage of Girls during the first three episodes, made viral thanks to staff writer Lesley Arfin’s racists remarks. In her piece, Holme’s hashes out the complexity of the show which, after re-watching episode by episode, got me thinking about the dynamics of the feminist (or just critical thinking) critique of popular culture narratives created by women. Here’s my favorite excerpt from Holmes’ piece followed by a brief analysis from yours truly.
But why so much agonizing over “Girls,” and how it positions itself on questions of race? “Girls” is certainly not the only TV show set in New York to feature an all-white cast with few or no people of color. “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Sex and the City,” and the current CBS hit “How I Met Your Mother”—not to mention most of the œuvre of Woody Allen—all give us a New York that appears strangely homogenous and insular. But that was then and this is 2012, and many of the arguments over how “Girls” approaches race are rooted in the expectations and anxieties of this particular moment. There is a disconnect between the rapidly changing demographics of the country (including the Oval Office) and the stories we see reflected back to us on the small and silver screens.
After all, Lena Dunham’s world—her Tribeca neighborhood; her Brooklyn Heights school, St. Ann’s; and her Midwestern liberal-arts college, Oberlin—are populated mostly by privileged white people. As the week of discussions wore on, I came to the wearying but clarifying conclusion, as others did, that perhaps our ire should be directed at the cultural gatekeepers, the studio executives who seem to have decided that stories about white people sell better. (As The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates put it on Friday, “It is not so wrong to craft an exclusively white world—certainly a significant portion of America lives in one. What is wrong is for power-brokers to pretend that no other worlds exist.”) In the end, I think that what Dunham owes her audience, first and foremost, is not the fully accurate representation of others’ experiences but the commitment to avoid offering up crass stereotypes of anyone who doesn’t look like her.
Girls represents an interesting dynamic: We don’t want to criticize Dunham because she’s made a good show, one that we’ve been longing to dig our teeth into since the “female heavy fall line –up” disappointed us with “New Girl” and “2 Broke Girls.” At the same time, there’s something deeply problematic about her work and her ego reflected back in it. Dunham’s ability to get away with creating a show for HBO based on her life experiences begs the question “should the artist have a life first?” To tell your story on a national stage despite limited experience is an opportunity that only age, class and white privilege allows. And yet, pre-Dunham, gender would have been on that list. How many stories have we seen about young white dudes? Dunham’s rookie status (in life and in art) means mistakes are bound to be made and she’s learning in public. And I suppose both are worth watching.
Television loves variations on a theme. From an industry standpoint, Girls is a cultural goldmine for HBO because it’s a variation on a proven theme for them: white women coming of age in New York City. As Dunham sets the stage for women-made narratives, she leaves some gaping holes in the process. One show can’t resolve all our issues with the lack of stories about women in the mainstream media. But it remains to be seen if other women will be able to fill these voids with shows that tell different stories, preferably complicated ones that deal with the socio-political aspects of our lives like race, class and gender that make it so complex. If Dunham does her job well, she’ll keep the door open for other women so that we no longer have to choose a winner in the Oppression Olympics. I’m not asking to her to be an activist, just a smart storyteller.