Why I’m not looking for the missing Black folks on HBO’s “Girls”

lena dunham and donald gloverBefore I start: I did not see any of the second season yet, so NO SPOILERS!

Anyway…Almost everybody loves HBO’s Girls–even black girls like me who don’t have a TV and have to make arrangements to go watch it at someone else’s place (hence the reason I haven’t seen season 2). I say “almost” because we’re only two episodes into the new season and Lena Dunham is already back on the chopping block for her portrayal of people of color in the show. In season 1, the controversy was about the fact there were not enough people of color in a show about four white women living in one of the most diverse cities in the country, New York. We talked a little about it here.

But I’d like to stop for a moment to share a little bit about my experience living in another one of the most–if not the most–diverse city in the country, Chicago. I was born and raised on the city’s Southside, in communities predominantly of color  all Black neighborhoods. With the exception of a couple handfuls of police officers, I never had to encounter white people. In fact, the only other people I saw on a daily basis that weren’t Black were the Koreans who worked in the nail shop, the Chinese family that ran the beauty supply store, and the Middle Eastern men who worked in the somewhat-fast food restaurants and corner stores. And we could only find them in those places, not riding down our streets, sitting in our park, or living among us. And when I finally began to venture outside of the confines of my own neighborhoods in high school, I was most surprised to discover parts of the city where there are no Black folks to be found.

This was a curious discovery to me, just as it is to the critics of Girls, but it speaks volumes to the fact that housing discrimination and inequity are still very much race-based. The intersections of race and class are real in our society and often result in the segregation of races in large metropolitan cities like Chicago and New York. So please, let us not act like the entertainment business is really that “behind the times” with their non-diverse settings. 

According to Judy Berman in the article above:

“Responding last year to viewers who denounced the lack of racial diversity on HBO’s Girls, its creator and star, Lena Dunham, told NPR, ‘I take that criticism very seriously… As much as I can say [writing four white main characters] was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, “I hear this and I want to respond to it.” She did just that in Sunday night’s episode, choosing not only to cast African-American Community star Donald Glover as her character Hannah Horvath’s new boyfriend, but also to address the issue of race as it manifests itself in their relationship.'”

Berman credits the scene for its insightfulness on the topic of race and privilege, but goes on to say:

Unfortunately, one great exchange does not a truly diverse TV show (or authentic portrait of New York City) make. And while there do seem to be more non-white faces in Girls’ party scenes this year, Sandy is still the only character of color who plays a substantial part in any of the season’s first four episodes. As she did with the controversial nannies Jessa attempts to liberate in Season 1, and despite the fact that Sandy at least occupies a similar social milieu to the characters, Dunham continues to cast non-white actors only when race defines their character—which is to say, she still doesn’t get it.”

And I find myself back at the same place I was when Maya and I talked about Beyonce. No, Dunham’s attempt to introduce racial discourse into her show doesn’t suddenly make it diverse, but I think she still deserves some credit. If it sounds like I’m saying: the white girl gets a pass for not painting an accurate portrait of Blackness because she doesn’t have lived context/experience, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Why do we expect “all or nothing” from anyone who dares to align themselves with a few feminist values, even if they don’t call themselves feminists? When will we begin the process of meeting people where they are?

And, as Samhita wrote on this topic, maybe we should spend less time “scrutinizing [Dunham's] personal behavior instead of looking at the real problem–the lack of diverse representations of women in popular culture.” Do we need to see realistic representations of Black girlhood on television? Yes, that’s why we need more Black girls writing shows. *raises hand* Do we need examples of diversity in film? Yes, that’s why we need more people from diverse backgrounds writing them. Truthfully, I’d rather not leave that task up to a white girl with “no Black friends.”

Image via.

Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/laberry/ Alexandria

    I would like to state a disclaimer that I have never seen Girls. It just doesn’t interest me. I did suffer through Tiny Furniture and while I agree that Dunham is a talented writer, driector and even actress I for one find her subject matter and content to be nauseating. That being said I do feel that without seeing the show I can vocalize my thoughts on the arguement regarding the lack of diversity on her show. While I have no idea why it suddenly became a problem with her show, as its been the norm for lots of shows, I don’t think anything she’s done or said really convinces me that she gets its. And honestly I don’t think you do either.
    For one, comparing the south side of Chicago which is kind of known for being a predominately black neighboorhood to frankly any neighborhood in Brooklyn misses the point by a mile. Yes, its true that housing inequalites breed very segregated areas. Brooklyn, however is NOT one of those places. And I think it speaks volumes that Dunhams orginal defense was that she didn’t realize her show had only white people. It didn’t even occur to her to include people of color because that’s how little she was concerned with realism or inclusion. Frankly I’m tired of television consistently protraying this magical world where people of color don’t exist.
    And to your point, well counterpoint, that she gets a pass for not being able to accurately portray “blackness” or whatever, holy cow. So many things wrong with that point of view! First I reject the notion that being black means my experience is so vastly different from a white girls that she can’t even begin to comprehend it. Yes, I have expereinced racism and discrimination but it’s not my everyday. I far more relate to the world as a woman than I do as a black person. Further more while yes there are many things I will have a different persepective on because of my race they do not dominate my personality so much that it’s all I am, which is what that suggest. It’s also what Berman is refuting. The difference between Donald Glovers character and say, the guy on “The New Girl” is that one is the black character and the other is a character thats black. Theres a difference. If we keep letting out race be what defines us then its all that people will see. It’s all she sees, you’re basically defending her only seeing people as characteristics and not for their character. And that’s the problem.

    • http://feministing.com/members/kiuyoha/ Alex

      “And to your point, well counterpoint, that she gets a pass for not being able to accurately portray “blackness” or whatever, holy cow. So many things wrong with that point of view! First I reject the notion that being black means my experience is so vastly different from a white girls that she can’t even begin to comprehend it. Yes, I have expereinced racism and discrimination but it’s not my everyday.”

      This is exactly the problem that I have with Lena Dunham. This is a show that is critically lauded for being “universal” and is essentially about problems that can apply to anyone, irregardless of race. Yet Lena seems to believe that my race would somehow make my reaction to getting HPV or having a bad breakup vastly different than hers. And, as the commenter I’m replying to also mentioned, it is damn near impossible to find an all anything neighborhood anywhere in New York city.

    • honeybee

      The only response I would have is that the show is based on large part on her life and her experiences. If her actual *lived* experiences did not include much interaction with black people, it would be inauthentic and forced to try and include it.

      There are many people who live lives with very little exposure to certain cultures and groups. Myself (Asian) grew up in a city with almost no black people. I never had a black person in any class until university and even then they were rare. Where I live now is racially diverse – but only to certain races. Others I never see. So if I wrote a story about my life and my experiences how would I suddenly create racial diversities that didn’t exist? How would I even know how to write such stories?

      What bugs me is that we aren’t letting people tell THEIR story. Everyone has different lives and different stories and that’s what they want to share. They don’t want to tell *your* story they want to tell their story. Which by definition, can’t possibly include everyone’s else s experiences.

      A better approach is to have more diverse writers and shows period. So that every show doesn’t have to be everything. Better is that ALL SHOWS TOGETHER cover everything – while individual shows may only span a small fraction of our diverse world.

  • http://feministing.com/members/watsonforthewin/ Lizzy

    I bring a different perspective to your idea about segregation in Chicago. I worked in Chicago as a legal intern and I thought there was quite a bit of diversity. I mean, Black people don’t own downtown, but there are a good number of Black professionals there. I disagree with the idea that it is ok to portray a major city like New York, Chicago, LA, etc as if it was all White because, in reality, if you live in a city like that and never see a person of color you are probably actively avoiding them.

  • http://feministing.com/members/fltc/ F.Toth

    I will NEVER watch a show about women that has “girls” as or in the title. Never.

  • http://feministing.com/members/chicfeminista/ Stella B.

    “Yes, its true that housing inequalites breed very segregated areas. Brooklyn however, is NOT one of those places.”

    As a Brooklyn native, I have to say this statement is not true. It is easy to think Brooklyn is this amazing diverse place with every shade and ethnicity coexisting amiably. Brooklyn is amazing and the borough holds many ethnicities but they do not live in the same neighborhood. The segregation is very calculated and subtle to the outsider but not to someone who lived most of his or her life here.
    But back to Girls…

    I happen to really like Girls. I relate to the characters and I really feel like the scenarios are universal. You can easily replace most” of the female roles with women of color. So why aren’t they?! I want to tell myself that it is because they are transplants, and they were friends before, etc. etc. But I know that’s me trying to rationalize.

    I do believe Lena listened to the criticism and is “trying” to diversify the show and I really like Donald Glover’s character. I’m just afraid that she’s going to try too hard to create this diversity and its going to feel forced, therefore taking away from the relatable aspect of the series. I think she is doing the right thing by easing diversity into the show. I’m curious to see her next move.

  • http://feministing.com/members/juliannyg/ Julianny Gomez

    There is still a community in NYC that is all people of color – THE SOUTH BRONX! It’s so segregated that white people on bikes take early morning “hood tours” of infamous project complexes.

    Also, even in communities that are perceived to be diverse/mixed, white people as a whole do actively ignore the POC in their community and in general distrust them. Whenever myself, my friends or my boyfriend walk close to a white person/group of white people they tend to avoid all eye contact, put their heads down and shuffle along as quickly as possible.

    And don’t even get me started on stop and frisk.