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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