• Mon, May 7 2012

Lena Dunham Finally Addresses The Racial Backlash To Girls

Lena Dunham stopped by NPR’s Fresh Air today to talk to magical woodland intellectual Terry Gross about her show Girls, and she took the chance to address the most damning criticism she’s received thus far: that the show is racially exclusionary and/or unrealistic because all four main characters are white.

The answer she gave was basically that she didn’t write any minority main characters because she doesn’t think she could do as good a job at it, because she’s never been a racial minority (or I guess, we are to assume, had any close friends who were):

I wrote the first season primarily by myself, and I co-wrote a few episodes. But I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls. As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, ‘I hear this and I want to respond to it.’ And this is a hard issue to speak to because all I want to do is sound sensitive and not say anything that will horrify anyone or make them feel more isolated, but I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately.

She went on to say that she wants to avoid the simplistic, un-nuanced inclusion of “token” minority characters that afflicts many other TV shows. (Think the perfect, post-racial world inhabited by many of TV’s interracial couples.)

I want to avoid classic network tokenism in casting, because although I think that people of color are severely underrepresented on TV, I don’t know that that’s always the solution.

Is this a good answer? Personally, I think it’s wise of Dunham to admit to her shortcomings as a writer of experiences that differ from her own and not undertake an enterprise she’s ill-equipped to execute well. Her writing is heavily dependent on her own experience, and she’ll never know what it’s like to be black in America, so she probably shouldn’t try to write a black character all by herself. Then again, as someone who’s punctured the upper echelons of the TV world, it might be in her best interests to try to grow her range, as life experience is a non-renewable resource that can only be mined for so long, especially if you’re 25.

Perhaps realizing this fact herself, Dunham says she plans to expand the world of the show in its second season:

Now we have the opportunity to do a second season and believe me, that will be remedied. I’m really excited to introduce new characters into the world of the show and some of them are really great actors of color, and some of them are white actors, and we’re gonna continue to tell really honest stories but the world of the show is definitely growing more diverse.

Suggestion: hire one of your many brown-skinned former classmates to help make the writing as true-to-life as possible. If there are budget issues, fire Lesley Arfin.

(Via NPR)

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  • Lastango

    “Only later did I realize that it was four white girls.”

    That may be true about her initial writing efforts, but it’s bunk if applied to the network’s decisions. When it comes to casting and demographics, there are no accidents. This show is a money-making venture, not a social exercise, and the pro’s who put their cash down have pitched it at a target audience and an associated group of sponsors.

    (BTW, that makes it just like Grindstone, Crushable, and the rest of the cluster of associated websites you are viewing right now. A sea of white faces, and not by accident.)

    If the racial profile of the Girls cast changes, it won’t be because of an enlightened urge toward diversity. It will be because (a) the criticism is threatening, the payback, or (b) it will increase profits.

    To see how this works, consider Sears catalog. Some decades ago, non-white women started appearing as models in the catalog. Somewhere, there is a university sociologist dumb enough to think this was because of a new tolerance, and changing attitudes about race. What happened was that consumption patterns changed and white women stopped purchasing clothing from catalogs. Sears then switched gears in hopes of finding women who would shop from their catalog.

    • Halberstam

      What a bizarre post! You really think that white women have stopped buying things from Sears catalogs? While that’s probably true in SoHo, Brooklyn Heights, and the Upper East Side, there are vast swaths of the country where white women still buy from catalogs, Sears and otherwise.

      What has changed is that the country is not as racist as it used to be… I mean, when the portrayal of African-Americans in films was largely limited to the likes of Stepin Fetchit, Manton Moreland, and Hattie McDaniel, the reason for that was not an economic one… the studios could have made a nice profit on low-budgeted films aimed at African-Americans with less demeaning black characters than those usually shown in the “Golden Age,” but to do so would have offended white racist sensibilities of the time.

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  • win

    honestly, PoCs are not that different from the rest of white America. A black girl, latina, hispanic, asian can have the same struggles as Girls. It’s the little moments where people ask to touch a black girl’s hair or telling them their accent is good for a latina or confusing Japanese with Chinese. Just clarifying a person’s race in those little, offending moments can speak a thousand words, if that PoC was in a lead role.

  • WhoIzIt

    Lena Dunham looks REALLY BAD in EVERYTHING she wears…Whatta strange girl..