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.
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’
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?
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?