I came to Lena Dunham, Judd Apatow and HBO’s new sitcom Girls through the controversy that surrounded it and not vice versa. I read an article on Overland’s website, then followed the various critiques around the internet for hours. Then I downloaded the show.
If you haven’t watched Girls it’s premise is basically this – four Generation Y twenty-something white girls living in NYC, trying to make it in ‘creative industries’ such as publishing and the fine art market and having cringy, twenty-something sexual encounters and relationships. If you haven’t read the backlash, it has variation but hangs on this premise – why, in Girls is everyone white?
Because I consumed the critique before I watched the show, I had a pre-politicised view. I was already scrutinising the show for racism before the title screen. Having discovered that, despite the show’s great writing and comedy, the criticism levelled at it is mostly founded, I now have to wonder if I would have noticed if I’d simply stumbled on it on a late night TV binge.
While I often read texts with my feminist glasses on, I hardly ever scrutinise representations in pop texts for whitewash. This is a shit thing to admit. I’m a white girl and I only notice racism if it’s obtuse, not if race is simply omitted.
As a writer, this is a pretty large problem and a good example of how uncritical engagement can lead you to perpetuate the conditions of your own oppressive positioning. For example: I have a science fiction novel due out later this year. If there were such a thing as the Bechdel test for novels, mine would fail. The book is written predominantly from the perspective of a middle-aged white man. The only female characters are his wife, his secretary, his daughter and his doctor. You would hope the doctor would redeem this subordinate, service role for women, if not for my protagonist then at least for the reader, but there is a tension as to whether she actually exists or is merely, wait for it, his fantasy. Does it go without saying that all the characters are white?
EEP. And I AM a feminist.
When I undertook to solve structural problems in the novel by rewriting two sections from different perspectives, I saw it as a great opportunity to attend to the erasure of women. It was a challenging and rewarding experience and one that has made my narrative far richer than in the previous version. I did not, however, change any of the character’s ethnicity. That would be unacceptable tokenism. Right?
While I often read texts with my feminist glasses on, I hardly ever scrutinise representations in pop texts for whitewash.
Girls creator Lena Dunhan, says she didn’t realise that all the characters in her show were white until it was too late. She says she wrote from what she knew and what she knows is white. This, I think, is an important point. Dunham (who, like me, studied arts and creative writing in a pretty racist curriculum) avoided writing say, a black female character, because she did not want to be held responsible for the tokenism of that character.
Third-wave feminism has taught us not to speak for each other, or assume each other into our own experiences, but does this mean we are no longer attempting to understand each other’s position? Is this racial sensitivity or just laziness, in craft and world view?
I know that the reason I choose to write much of my fiction from a white male point of view is because I don’t have to feel politically responsible for the character. The assumption is that in fiction, as in life, a male character is free to explore the world without having to explain what he is doing there. Also, in male dominated spaces, his occupation doesn’t mean anything about his character. Also, if I write a male character who is neurotic and shallow, I don’t feel responsible for perpetuating a negative stereotype about men. If he is sexually repressed, I don’t feel like I’m making a comment on the sexual experiences of all men. Not having to deal with my male character with sensitivity allows me to exploit him to explore different ideas more aggressively.
I can only imagine that, for Dunham, not having to be sensitive to her characters allows her to exploit them for comedy. Four episodes into the first season of Girls, the only sustained interaction between a white girl and a women of colour is a scene in which a group of women childcarers sit together in the park, watching their children. In her newly acquired status as a babysitter, the white girl patronisingly states that no, she isn’t a model or an actress, but “just like all of you”. Her claim is understandably met with eye rolls from the other babysitters and a deep cringy feeling for the viewer. When we next return to the scene, the white girl is sitting on top of the table, lecturing the other women about unionising, saying she will “take a pay cut for the good of the group”.
I read this as a knowingly fucked moment in which a white woman assumes experience with other women of different backgrounds and then immediately starts lecturing and patronising them. It’s a good scene, the problem of course is that, in terms of the overall arc of the show, the other babysitters don’t really exist character wise, they are just props to support the parody of the white woman’s hypocrisy.
At a recent Next Wave Festival event on feminism, a white dude, Doctor Ianto Ware, got up and discussed his experience of “attaining” (his words), or perhaps growing into, privilege. Ware, because he “used to be a punk” – i.e. dressed scrappy, had ideals and made a point of being poor – didn’t feel he had access to what we would regard as mainstream privilege. Then he grew up, straightened up, ditched the working class accent, got letters after his name and became CEO of an arts festival (of course, he could easily have called himself CEO of his zine or punk band previously). Suddenly doors opened. He learned to inhabit his privilege. Speak like a private school boy.
In his talk he gave a refreshingly succinct list of things he had noticed about privilege as he obtained it. People with privilege tend not to barter or apologise. Privilege is a system of rituals. Privilege is all about having things in common with other people of privilege.
Third-wave feminism has taught us not to speak for each other, or assume each other into our own experiences, but does this mean we are no longer attempting to understand each other’s position?
This is relevant to the Girls argument because not noticing the imbalance of representation in the TV you watch is all about cementing your privilege uncritically by appearing to ‘have something in common’ with everyone. This creates a world where there is only privilege and, therefore, no pesky injustice that you might have to take responsibility for. You can even, with a little (non-)creative casting, appear to have something in common with, say, everyone in Brooklyn. Even if you have never even been to Brooklyn, the commonality of privilege, simulated by the TV show, will open up the space and make it appear known to you, while being simultaneously unrecognisable to people who actually live in Brooklyn.
The final point on Ware’s list was that, as a white man, you can speak for yourself, and aren’t expected to be speaking for ‘your people’. Is this why Seinfeld or, like, pretty much every other sitcom ever written by a man, is not accused of being racist? Because we don’t expect white, male writers to see beyond themselves? If Larry David isn’t taken to task for racism, why should Lena Dunham be?
Admittedly, it’s likely a large part of why Seinfeld wasn’t immediately vilified in the media for racism has to do with the changing nature of the media. Girls too was largely embraced by print news, but blogs and Twitter mean that marginalised voices have the space to articulate frustrations that the (predominantly white male) mainstream press may not see, feel or have the freedom to write about. It also means that misguided writers can put their foot in it even more by responding to their detractors.
But beyond this Girls is so promising. It is somehow more saddening that a smart, savvy twenty-first century show like Girls erases race than that Seinfeld does. For me, relating heavily to the characters on Girls is both an uncomfortable and refreshing experience. It is fun to see parodies of the worst of yourself.
However, when you are watching parodies of the worst of someone else, the affect is often alienating or even offensive. As a teenager (I was punk too) watching the shallow yuppies of Seinfeld trivialise everything made me sick to my stomach. Sex in the City too was totally appalling. I remember watching these yuppie freaks obsessing over whether they should do a shit in their boyfriend’s toilets and thinking, there but for the grace of god go I.
Like all things though, as you learn through repetition the language, the tropes, patterns and systems of a text, you can become less repulsed and more ambivalent or even amused. Historically, this works for TV shows and racism.
Girls is often compared to Sex and the City, and the comparison is not unwarranted. Both shows are about white women living in New York City. Though in Sex and the City these women – financially secure, successful and validated in every way – have less to lose in character assassination than the characters in Girls. That the Sex and the City women think and talk almost exclusively about men and sex is somehow made okay by the fact that they are already independent women at the top of their fields in male-dominated creative industries (PR, media, law, fine art sales).
Criticisms of the kind of privilege represented in Girls focus on the fact that Hannah and her friends (like Lena Dunham) receive support from their parents and feel that this is something to which they are entitled. There is a ‘poor me’ element in Girls that is funny and distasteful (or funny because it’s distasteful). Dunham makes fun of this in interviews: she told NPR’s All Things Considered that she feels she is always asking her parents to both “stay out of her life” and “bring her soup”.
You don’t get the sense from the interview, though, that she has resolved this conflict. Neither has Girls. But this youthful precociousness is balanced out by the fact that the ‘girls’, like Dunham, are engrossed in a big adventure. They are young and stupid and maybe, slowly getting less so. They are living in NYC and think they are at the centre of the world. They have a lot to learn and don’t let all the mistakes they are making destroy their confidence.
I think that it is easier to write a script that begins ‘successful female protagonist gets feet splashed by bus with her picture on the side’ than realistically explaining how the fantasy scenario of being a freelance writer who supports herself in NYC from one column a week came to pass. For me, depictions of women struggling through at least partially realistic lives is more empowering than a world in which all the women are just really rich and beautiful and powerful, ok?
Another point of comparison is that Sex and the City is also racist. Though for Dunham, its trajectory toward ‘race inclusion’ can only stand as an illustration of what not to do. Can anyone remember how Louise from St. Louis, Carrie’s new assistant in the Sex and the City movie, progressed the plot other than by being black and making Carrie (and by extension her writer) look a teency bit less (or maybe more) racist? In a kind of double whammy, Louise not only supplied the black furniture for Carrie’s apartment, but also supplied some uber-fucked-up product placement when, in her climactic scene, she is ‘empowered’ with a Louis Vuitton handbag.
That the Sex and the City women think and talk almost exclusively about men and sex is somehow made okay by the fact that they are already independent women at the top of their fields in male-dominated creative industries…
Of course, it’s not impossible to write a convincing, vital portrayal of a person different to yourself. It just involves mores research and sensitivity than making cracks about your friends does. For Dunham, perhaps the easiest way to get around this cringe and avoid having to do too much empathy training and mind broadening (she has a middle-class comedy of manners to write after all: closed mindedness is a writerly asset) would have been to employ a diverse team of staff writers rather than white gals whose resume includes writing for rape-joke and white-power fashion rag Vice magazine. (Does anyone remember when Vice‘s founder told the New York Times that he “loved being white”, and would hate to see his culture eroded or some such rubbish? NO? How about when some fucker wrote that Hispanic girls in shorts and pumps are so hot not even a good raping would cool the fire?)
But then, would Dunham’s ‘non-white’ writers be tokens? And isn’t Dunham herself a token too? She is the token under thirty (white) ‘girl’ writer/director at HBO. She is charged with speaking for ‘her people’. The problem is that ‘her people’ is not ‘women’.
The Guerrilla Girls, in a recent talk at VCA addressed tokenism in the art world by asking the question, “is tokenism a solution or a continuation of exclusion?”
With their art projects, Guerrilla Girls seek to challenge the racist, sexist institutions that continue to under-represent women and people of colour and then seek to rectify their mistakes with blatant tokenism. A question from the audience asked how, as a practitioner, you can make ethical and political decisions in this kind of climate.
Should artists hang their paintings in institutions where they will be tokenised, for instance? Or should you take the extra work that is offered to you just because it’s International Women’s Day, or NAIDOC week? Or, should female writers seek to penetrate the male dominated world of TV scriptwriting, and if you choose to do so, do you have more responsibility than your new cronies?
“It’s really personal,” said the Guerrilla Girl. Some of the group’s members take work where they can get it. Some refuse to exhibit in places where female artists and artists of colour are under-represented. Sometimes this leads to change. Sometimes it leads to the institution passing the token. Sometimes it leads to no token at all.
“But, I mean, you’ve gotta work, right?” said the white, female audience member.
“Yes you do…” said the Guerrilla Girl elliptically. And even with her face concealed in a hairy gorilla mask and hands gloved in black leather she spoke, inevitably, for ‘her people’.
Briohny Doyle is a Melbourne-based author, poet, critic, performer and academic.
First posted at Passion Pop Pistol