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Where are the shows about neurotic Black women?

If you’ve spent time flitting across the internet over the past few weeks, chances are you’ve encountered the Lena Dunham/Girls backlash, or ‘backlash to the backlash’, even if you’ve never watched the show (which is likely in Australia, because it hasn’t even screened here yet.)

To recap the story thus far: Lena Dunham is a rich filmmaker and actor who attended several elite New York institutions before making the agonisingly quirky indie comedy, Tiny Furniture. Now, with the financial backing of Judd Apatow, poster-boy for the VSWMSRRWOVSWM genre (vulnerable, straight, white man seeks romantic relationship with other vulnerable, straight, white man), Dunham has created a television show. Girls is a comedy about – duhn duhn duhhhnnn – four privileged white girls living in New York and screens on HBO, the station that made narrative television an art form. (Disclaimer: I’m a sucker for HBO narrative, having watched and admired The Wire, Carnivale and Six Feet Under. Although their best, in my opinion, was Oz.)

Word on the internet since its debut is that Dunham has made the most divisive and racist television show in the history of the picture tube.

‘I Don’t Want a Baby That Looks Like That’: A Girls Recap
Gawker

The appropriate response to Girls, a television program about pretty young White Nationalists seeking abortions and love in the Big City, is silence. […]

The rest of the episode is the Chinese restaurant episode of Seinfeld but set in an abortion clinic. […] ‘Like I get my period at the same time on the same day every monthly cycle my entire life … Like it’s never strayed from that. Seriously, I need to become a mom, Hanna. I was put on this planet to become a mother.’ Oh just wait until you get fucked in a manly fashion by a manly man in the forthcoming episodes.

The Horror of HBO’s Girls
Exiled Online

Lena Dunham is getting hosannas from critics for exposing her nude doughy depressing body in humiliating ways throughout the show—makes it all so ‘real,’ somehow. They’re all calling Dunham ‘the voice of her generation,’ and maybe she’s the body of her generation too.

The Bleaker Sex
New York Times

The show is drawing inevitable – and apt – comparisons to ‘Sex and the City,’ in whose long shadow it blooms. ‘Girls,’ too, is a half-hour comedy (of sorts) about four women finding themselves and fortifying one another in the daunting, libidinous wilds of New York City.

But it’s a recession-era adjustment. The gloss of Manhattan is traded for the mild grit of Brooklyn’s more affordable neighborhoods. The anxieties are as much economic as erotic. The colors are duller, the mood is dourer and the clothes aren’t much. It’s ‘Sex and the City’ in a charcoal gray Salvation Army overcoat.

Where (My) Girls At?
Hairpin

My chief beef is not simply that the girls in Girls are white. I’m a white girl and not a white girl, identified by other people as black and not black for as long as I can remember – which, in mixed people speak means biracial. But the problem with Girls is that while the show reaches — and succeeds, in many ways — to show female characters that are not caricatures, it feels alienating, a party of four engineered to appeal to a very specific subset of the television viewing audience, when the show has the potential to be so much bigger than that. And that is a huge fucking disappointment.

So a 26-year-old hipster filmmaker is responsible for the lack of representation on television, for making women’s sex lives tedious and/or grotesque and for not producing television that gives voice to millions of young female New Yorkers, as well as the rest of a generation?

I’m not going to address all the issues of representation because I think Malcolm Harris kind of nailed it when he wrote:

So, as a paragon of white privilege writing a story about young, privileged, white women, how should she represent race in the show? If it were a network sitcom, there would probably be a token black girl or Latina. Since this is HBO where characters get to be a bit deeper, maybe her portrayal wouldn’t be as painfully stereotyped, but she would mostly be a way for the show to avoid being labeled racist by critics. Any plot lines about the imagined black Girl dealing with racism wouldn’t serve the purpose of revealing social inequality because hey look we can make television with real narratives about racism now! It would be not a sign, but a simulation of anti-racist progress. […]

Girls is a show about a racist who doesn’t hate black people, she just doesn’t see them, and when she does, she looks at her shoes.

But why is it that when a woman makes television, it’s supposed to speak for women everywhere, that whatever X it’s representing must be covered comprehensively and universally? This was a major criticism of Sex and the City – ‘It’s about rich, white educated women who live in NYC and spend hundreds of dollars on shoes?!’ (It was rarely a criticism of My so-called life, where it was more ‘Holzman so captured adolescent ennui!’ Just an observation.)

Have these people ever watched HBO? Here’s how I imagine the script development session went:

Producer 1: We haven’t had a show about women and sex for a while …
Producer 2: Any in that pile?
Intern: (from behind tower of 500 scripts) This one?
Producer 3, 4 & 5: Great. Lunch?

Maybe it often goes unnoticed, but, despite the accolades and the fandom, HBO doesn’t really care that much for women. Same goes for people of colour. Allow me to demonstrate through a little test I devised called, ‘Whose gaze was that?’

1. The Wire – A show about the corruption at the heart of American institutions, The Wire was one of the few shows to screen on HBO that didn’t only focus on white people. There were, however, as few as eight recurring roles for women over five character-driven seasons.

Whose gaze? The white male liberal who supports decriminalisation. It’s an important show, insofar as it depicts the effects of neoliberal decline on ordinary people, but echoes what Viola Davis of The Help said when describing acting roles available to women of colour: ‘I’ve played a lot of drug addicts.’

2. Curb Your Enthusiasm – A show about an uber-rich, neurotic comic writer, allegedly inspired by Larry David’s day-to-day interactions. For years the only character of colour was played by Wanda Sykes, who would intermittently appear to prove how racist David actually was, and then the Black family came to live with the Davids, after losing their house in Hurricane Katrina.

Whose gaze? Again, the male white liberal. All of the characters in the show are cringe-worthy stereotypes, their sole function to try to make David appear a better human being.

3. True Blood – From the title to the characters’ lineages, True Blood is obsessed with blood purity and hierarchical bloodlines. This show, where vampires, humans and other mythical beings co-exist, has dressed-up a traditional romance structure as though the heroine, Sookie, is empowered, even as she exists only to be swept off her feet.

Whose gaze? The white man. The obvious tackling of racism and gay rights probably push this into liberal fantasy, but the fact that any kind of reaction to the system or the circumstances of oppression are treated as irrational, most obviously in the character of Tara – where anger is explained away as demonic possession or alcoholism, as anything but exploitation – is awful.

Then there’s Bored to Death, where white men are infantilised, women are caregivers and male companions are soulmates and fellow adventurers, or Sex and the City, where women pass time in their New York fairytale waiting for Mr Big to fly in on his Boeing 747, and so on and on.

Television made by white men, typically starring white men, and yet, how many of these shows were expected to depict universal experience?

Jacinda Woodhead is Overland’s deputy editor. She is in the midst of a PhD project about abortion in Australia and nonfiction as political intervention.

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Comments

  1. Very interesting post Jacinda, thank you. The Gaze Test you devised is very instructive isn’t it?
    Any media, say a film or or HBO series, that steps outside the white liberal male gaze is always going to carry a massive lot of baggage and analysis. There’s a lot more that could be said about it I think. If a series were made about neurotic black women, or even feminist black women it would still be positioned within that same gaze, and critiqued and evaluated from that viewpoint. That gaze claims to celebrate non-normative values (gay characters, condemnations of racism or misogyny etc) but actually only accepts certain kinds of critique and reserves the right to decide whether the expression of those values are authentic or not. A couple of weeks back I shut myself in one weekend and watched The Wire, True Blood, Breaking Bad, The Killing, the three Swedish Lisbeth Salander movies and so forth, all critically acclaimed things. What struck me was the commonality of the very gaze you identify. It was like being stuck in Groundhog Day. (I couldn’t go near Game of Thrones. It just looks too misogynist.)

    • Yes, you’re right, and also runs into all kinds of dangerous essentialism. But where to from there?

      • Well I guess you’re asking the question ‘How can we disrupt the gaze’ not ‘how do we make better TV series’.
        I think there could be a whole blog on that very easily, and maybe too complex to go into in a comments box. It seems to me that it’s the whole basis of a political stance, and of daily life; ‘How am I disrupting the gaze?’ or ‘What part of me is gazing’ or ‘Who is gazing at me or ‘What part of me is part of the gaze’. Etc.

  2. I thought Six Feet Under spread the gaze pretty evenly around gender (if not so much class and race) but then I did get the feeling sometimes that the main character of the show was Nate. However, I also got the feeling the writers lost all sympathy for him by the end (as had this viewer) because the show was clearly framing him as an ultimately selfish jerk – which he was. But the more I think about it, the more I think Six Feet Under was actually pretty great on women. I was going to suggest that might be the Alan Ball effect, be he also did True Blood so what would I know.

    • Yeah, I liked Six Feet Under for that very reason. And the fact that it was set in a funeral home. Though I do wonder how I would feel if I revisited it now (older and, ahem, wiser and all).

      • I’ve watched it all the way through twice (with 2 years in between) and the second time around I got really frustrated with Nate and Claire (who I was compared to a LOT when the show first started), and really felt a lot of sympathy for Ruth and Brenda – which is pretty much a full reversal of my feelings towards them on the first run-through.

        Also it still stings that Carnivale never got to end properly.

  3. “But why is it that when a woman makes television, it’s supposed to speak for women everywhere”

    Why indeed … one of my pet hates about the divide and conquer response to feminism that I rant about periodically.

    Our destructive and immoral worship of the ‘white liberal male gaze’ has got to end: so thanks Jack (as always) for the wake up.

  4. Having not seen any of these shows, I probably shouldn’t comment. But if these critiques of Girls are accurate, I’m not sure that I see the force of pointing out that other programs are worse. Are you saying that the criticism of it aren’t true (that clip certainly seems pretty dire)? If they are true, doesn’t the argument then become what aboutery?

    • But the point is that HBO has been running sexist television for a long time – why is it only when it’s for or about women that it receives this level of criticism?

      Did you read the criticism above? Critiques such as, ‘Lena Dunham is getting hosannas from critics for exposing her nude doughy depressing body in humiliating ways throughout the show’?

      Haven’t we moved beyond accepting culture and literature at face value? Literal readings have been well and truly buried.

  5. But that still ducks the main issue: is it racist or not?
    If it is, surely people are right to criticise it, irrespective of how bad Larry David’s show might have been.

    • Of course it’s racist — most television is, being that it reflects society and all. It’s something the show’s creators even acknowledge in that last scene Harris describes where Dunham passes the only person of colour in the episode, a homeless man in the street: ‘Girls is a show about a racist who doesn’t hate black people, she just doesn’t see them, and when she does, she looks at her shoes.’

      But that wasn’t really the point of the post.

  6. jacinda, I was on my way to the airport a couple of days ago, and picked up a cheap copy of Flaubert’s Three Tales…seemed the right size to finish in a two hour plane trip to Brisbane.

    Later that night, my partner and I watched the first episode of Girls, and there was a reference to Flaubert almost straight away…I had to laugh at the coincidence.

    What were the writers wanting to tell us about their depiction of the Girls with that reference?

    • Doctor: Does it hurt?
      Dunham: Only the way it’s supposed to.

      Where are the shows about neurotic black women? There’s no such thing as a neurotic black woman. Neurosis is a white affliction. Black women are uptight. If I can leave my archetypal tongue in my cheek for a second, why has Dunham inflamed the critics? Easy. Because she listed her name three times in a row in the credits. Ergo, she’s an egotistical jerk. Double standards? Absolutely. We expect male writer-directors to be egotistical jerks.

      The writing’s fine, if a little Blume-esque, and I got some laughs. I won’t be watching past episode three though :) Thanks for your write up, Jacinda. Pretty much spot on as I saw it.

  7. Jacinta, you ask in the last paragraph, ‘how many of these shows were expected to depict universal experiences?’ I wonder if it is even possible to speak of something called a universal experience in the first place. This observation, mind you, does not sideline your point about the white male gaze. I find the gaze test very useful indeed, although my conclusions about the shows examined here are a bit different. (I see the ‘vampire politics’ of True Blood, especially the struggle between those who aim to ‘fit in’ and those who continue to yearn for human blood as a metaphor for progressive political scene of today. Or is this too simplistic a view?)

    I am not sure it is possible to make a show about universal human experience because any such attempt would be exclusive, by definition. It is better, I think, to accept the inevitable incompleteness and contingency of all texts – and here I really draw on the basics of literary theory – although this does necessitate that all intelligent TV is basically quite conscious of the limits to which it depicts any ‘real’ life anyway.

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