"Girls" still racist

The first season ended but the white privilege didn't

Published June 22, 2012 4:56PM (EDT)

Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet in "Girls"
Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet in "Girls"

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

The HBO series "Girls," written by 26-year-old Lena Dunham, has come to the end of its first season. Alas. For those of you who missed it, a brief prologue: Following its early April debut, weeks of discussion centered around the show’s blatant whiteness problem -- that in Brooklyn, the most statistically diverse city in the country, the show had not just an all-white starring cast, but also seemed to live in a nonexistent part of the borough where people of color were only sparsely scattered in the background.


On the Internet and in social media networks, it was nearly impossible to avoid at least some debate about the show's institutional whiteness -- or its class privilege, or its nepotism. (Aside from Dunham’s pedigree as the daughter of feminist artist Laurie Simmons, the cast included Allison Williams, daughter of Brian; Zosia Mamet, daughter of David; and Jemima Kirke, daughter of the drummer from Bad Company, which sounds anecdotal but is actually pretty cool.)

Some of these criticisms were rooted in misogyny -- by men who were likely appalled by the very idea of smart(ish) young women having a show. But others, such as Anna Holmes at the New Yorker and Kendra James at Racialicious, were incisive and salient, effectively encapsulating the controversy and television’s race issues at large. “Girls” staff writer Lesley Arfin tweeted her unfortunate “Precious” comment to a rightful firestorm. Dunham responded by saying that in the future she would “do better,” and that she was simply writing “people she knows.” This led some to speculate that for the “voice of a generation,” as New York magazine called her, Dunham managed to successfully exclude a large populace of said generation.

Even worse, when the show did cast people of color, they appeared in stereotypical and offensive form (Episode 1: homeless “magical negro” cameo). The first woman of color to appear on the show was an Indian-American gynecologist portrayed by Sakina Jaffrey, the daughter of celebrated actors Madhur and Saeed Jaffrey. Kind of rich, given the show’s rampant nepotism. Later, Dunham’s Hannah Horvath gets a job at an office with two plucky co-workers, one of them a stereotypical Long Island saucebox (played, ironically, by Lesley Arfin), the other a camped-up Puerto Rican (Selenis Leyva) who teaches Hannah how to properly pluck her brows.

Episode 7 -- “Welcome to Bushwick, aka The Crackcident” -- was a turning point. The title alone suggested a whole host of potential issues, not to mention a racist subplot. Bushwick is a historically Latino neighborhood in Brooklyn that is also among the most rapidly gentrifying in the nation. (One of my favorite online TV shows, East WillyB, deals with this deftly, from the perspective of lifetime Latino residents facing the encroachment.) Associating Bushwick with crack gave me pause, and throughout the first six episodes as pre-buzz escalated around Episode 7, I developed a sense of dread. Turns out, it was not as offensive as I expected it to be.

The cast attends a warehouse party in Bushwick (I’ve been to many) and aside from the show’s terrible music supervision, it was fairly believable. A band played, the crowd was diverse. (Ugh god, shame on those corny dudes playing the DJs, though.) The “crackcident” was, predictably, about naive character Shoshanna accidentally smoking crack she thought was marijuana. They didn’t reveal the fellows who gave it to her, dodging a giant bullet. From then on, through the series, there were barely any characters of color, whether in the forefront or background. It was a stark erasure, but with it came conflicted relief: If they weren’t showing any people of color, that also meant there were no more stereotypes of people of color.

In the season finale, which aired Sunday, the plot involved a different kind of party: a surprise, dress-up soiree thrown in broad daylight by Kirke's Jessa to celebrate a "surprise" she had for them. [Spoiler alert: her sudden marriage to a Wall Street skeezer, which was unbelievable despite her character's impulsiveness.] Apart from one great interaction between Shoshanna and a creepy suitor, along with the further development of Hannah’s boyfriend Adam as the show's most interesting character, the writing was typically uneven, its funny moments cut down by giant leaps of plot logic and groan-worthy one-liners.

In the final five minutes, Hannah falls asleep on the F train (on her way to the hospital, where Adam has been taken after being hit by a car and refusing to let her ride along in the ambulance). She wakes up at the end of the subway line in Coney Island, and her purse has been snatched. She’s in unfamiliar terrain on an open-air platform, across from a graffiti-laden rooftop. Hanna yells into the night, “Where am I?” A group of hardscrabble b-girls, airlifted right out of "The Warriors" or "Breakin’," yell back, and mock her for the “green belt" she's wearing.

Huh? This would have been offensive enough — their overdone Brooklyn accents, their faceless homegirlishness, their visual and emotional positioning as distinct yet unknowable antagonists — but earlier in the party scene, Hannah and all her white friends were dancing, badly, to rapper Lady’s lascivious Internet hit “Yankin.” The combined subtext was that brown people are vessels: not fully developed humans, but channels for this privileged white 20-something’s sexual empowerment, and for her fear and insecurity.

So after watching the full season, which I sometimes hate-watched and sometimes like-watched, the ultimate message was clear: Despite all its frank talk about abortion and HPV and sex, this show's advances in the realm of progressive womanist television are very nearly undermined by its oblivious, exclusionist and unknowingly racist (the worst kind, no?) aspects. One would hope that younger people know better — that we have learned from the institutional racism and privilege of older generations, and that we’re all working toward something freer and more just. But even with all the race critiques of “Girls,” the conversation seemed to die off as the season progressed (and headed out to pasture with the rest of the race critiques of "Sex and the City," "Friends," "Seinfeld," etc.). Next season, the African-American comedian Donald Glover has a role. Yay. Either way, no matter what, “Girls” — and white privilege, and class privilege — will keep on keepin’ on. It’s what Lena Dunham knows.

By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

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