HBO’s “Girls” and the Persistent Question of Modern-Day Segregation

Since it debuted last month, HBO’s new series Girls has been the subject of intense jibber-jabbering and hand-wringing.  Though the series has been been widely praised among professional TV critics – its Metacritic score of 87 indicates “Universal acclaim” – it has had to weather a variety of criticisms from other pop culture commentators.  Some of these complaints are easily dismissed: I don’t care very much if some middle aged dude finds the characters “annoying, selfish, and entitled,” or if another one can’t get past the fact that the privileged characters of the shows are played by actresses who are, themselves, the privileged children of famous and successful people.

One particular criticism, however, is not so easily brushed aside.  As numerous commentators have now observed, Girls has a problem with race.  Specifically, it has a problem with the lack of any nonwhite race among its principal characters.  But is Girls the problem itself, or is it merely emblematic of a deeper social condition?

For the uninitiated, Girls is about a group of four young women living in New York City.  Though each of the girls – Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshonna – is in a slightly different phase of young-adulthood, the series thrives on their shared struggle to find and define their personal purpose and identity.  For Hannah – the show’s protagonist, played by producer, head writer, and director Lena Dunham – the journey begins when she’s suddenly cut off by her parents; she had been living on their dime for the two years between Oberlin and the beginning of Girls‘ narrative arc.   Though Hannah goes through a fair bit of stress from this development – she has to abandon her unpaid internship at a small publishing company and take a job as a secretary for a very handsy notary public – the focus of Girls is not on economic doldrums.  Instead, those concerns are simply one part of the general malaise and uncertainty facing the characters as they explore the process of, as Hannah puts it in a last plea to her parents, “becoming who I am.”

There’s so much in Girls that I can relate to.  Being 23 and living in New York City, I’m pretty much of the same demographic cohort that Dunham and her costars portray, many of the same generational issues and themes pervading Girls ring true for me.  Further, as a man of above average gender-enlightenedness who lives with two highly intelligent and dynamic young women, it’s a great thrill to see a show that takes the perspective of such young women so authentically.

However, there’s one aspect of Girls that is harder to relate to: I am a biracial person of mixed African-American and Caucasian descent, whereas the cast of Girls is entirely white.  Many commentators have derided Girls for its lack of diversity (and it is a nearly complete lack of diversity; the closest thing to nonwhite ethnicity in any character is in Jessa, a Brit whose wardrobe is obviously influenced by her travels to India), noting that New York City is the most ethnically diverse city in the country.  Dunham has responded to these critiques by insisting on her passion for authenticity; the characters are inspired by her own personality and those of a few very close friends, and Dunham didn’t feel that she could credibly depict the experiences of a minority character and did not want to resort to simple tokenism.  As Dunham said to Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air,

“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.”

What all of these critiques miss, and what Dunham’s response only implies, is the more general problem that American society – even in such a diverse area as New York – remains remarkably segregated.  Moreover, the “elite” segments of our society, the enclaves of privilege and upward stability, are perhaps more segregated than any other.  For all the progress toward racial justice made in the past half-century, the face of America’s upper crust remains nearly exclusively white.

To be clear, the central characters of Girls are not wealthy in the way many New York City characters are.  These are not the successful career women of Sex and the City, who think nothing of shopping in Manhattan’s upscale boutiques and downing $20 cocktails to their hearts’ content.  These are also not the trust-fund endowed prep-school princesses of New York’s financier class found in Gossip Girls.  Hannah and her friends are New York transplants who live in cramped apartments in Brooklyn – Greenpoint, even, not the completely gentrified hipster haven of Williamsburg – and except for Jessa’s Louis Vuitton luggage, have no conspicuous displays of wealth.

Still, as many commentators have charged, these girls undoubtedly are of the privileged class, or at least a privileged class.  Hannah and her friends all attended Oberlin, a prestigious private  liberal arts college, and from all indications none of them are saddled by the crushing student debt that overwhelms so many of this generation.  In arguing against her parents’ decision to cut her off, Hannah whines, “But all of my friends get help from their parents.”   And it should not go unmentioned that Hannah’s parents cut her off not because Hannah has become some sort of genuine strain on their finances, but rather because they want to purchase a lake house.

For basically all of my adolescence, I have lived in the bubble of white-dominated privilege within a broader “diverse” community.  Both my home town (Santa Rosa, California) and my college town (Washington, DC) are nominally “diverse” places: Santa Rosa is nearly 40% nonwhite, and of course African-Americans are the majority in DC.  But that diversity was almost nowhere to be found in my peer groups.  Maria Carrillo High School was built to serve northeast Santa Rosa’s wealthy and predominantly white neighborhoods: Rincon Valley, Fountaingrove, and Skyhawk, with little input from the poorer, more Hispanic south side of town.  The same was true at George Washington University, a predominantly white private university, located in predominantly white Foggy Bottom, near the halls of power of the white-dominated political class, almost fully insulated from the poorer, blacker areas in Southeast.  (Indeed, the nearby Georgetown neighborhood infamously voted against having a Metro stop specifically to make it more difficult for people from Southeast to reach them.)

In my new home, the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, the issue is less physical segregation as in Santa Rosa and DC, but in social segregation, which gets more directly at the heart of this issue.  In this neighborhood, there are two key populations: the students and professorial staff of Columbia University, and a primarily Puerto Rican population being slowly displaced by the former group.  But despite the close proximity between the privileged, mostly white Ivy Leaguers and their more working-class Hispanic neighbors, there is almost no social mixing between the two groups.  To be sure, there’s more  to this dynamic than just race and class, but the reality remains.

I find it difficult to believe that my experiences in this regard are particularly unique.  Some critics of Girls, like Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart or The Hairpin’s Jenna Wortham, say that the insular whiteness of Girls is unrealistic because they (the authors) are twentysomething young women of color trying to make it in the creative world of New York City and they are members of racially diverse social groups.  But this utterly misses the point: in the context of this world that Girls depicts, is it really so unrealistic that a group of four close friends would not include any people of color?  Given what I see on a daily basis and given the number of conversations I have with certain of my Asian friends about the peculiarities of being one of the few people of color in white-dominated elite society, I can’t believe that the Girls group is as rare as critics would have us believe.

Discussion of the new segregation is nothing new.  Countless sociologists, political scientists, economists, and others have discussed the rise and implications of a fractured, niche-dominated society.  Americans increasingly seek out communities of people who are like themselves – politically, socioeconomically, culturally, and yes, racially.  This is exacerbated by the increasing stratification of wealth, the lack of upward mobility experienced by the lower classes and the still disproportionately brown face of those lower classes.  Everywhere you look in “elite” institutions – government and politics, academia, business and industry, the professions, entertainment – you find domination by whites.

So really, it is a shame that Girls doesn’t include any nonwhite central characters.  It is a shame that Lena Dunham doesn’t have enough familiarity with people of color that she could give them an authentic voice in her show.  But this shame shouldn’t be blamed on Dunham specifically, nor should her show be singled out for its lack of diversity.  No, Girls is simply a symptom, just the latest manifestation of a problem that is pervasive across all levels of American culture.  Rather than demonizing Dunham for creating a show devoid of minority characters, demonize the system that makes such segregation so realistic.

Author: inuyesta

Law student with Josh Lyman dreams in a Toby Ziegler reality.

6 thoughts on “HBO’s “Girls” and the Persistent Question of Modern-Day Segregation”

  1. Nice piece. Since I’m (very) white, the lack of diversity in a TV show often goes completely unnoticed by me. I didn’t choose to watch “Girls” because I’m old and it didn’t really interest me. But my first reaction to hearing about its lack of diversity would be what you wrote in the last paragraph. Dunham based the show on her own experience. If her experience didn’t happen to include a lot of diversity, then it makes sense that the show wouldn’t either. I’m not sure but I kind of think that adding a person of color to the show for the sole purpose of increasing diversity would make the show less “true” in the sense that it’s based on Dunham’s experience.

    1. Yeah, that’s my general attitude as well. Just creating a couple of random roles for people of color in each show is…kind of nice, I guess (although often, when the minority characters are basically just stereotypes and have significantly less depth than the others, such characters do more damage than good), but it doesn’t get at the problem at all. The heart of the problem is that minority writers, showrunners, and directors – people who have interesting and authentic stories to tell about minorities – have an infinitely harder time getting their shows made. In order to make progress here, the studios’ racial paradigms, by which shows featuring minorities are automatically considered “niche” and thus not afforded the same backing as “mainstream,” white shows, have to be changed.

  2. Great article. I haven’t seen the show – I’m looking forward to seeing it in a year and a half when the first season comes out on DVD – but I can’t help but wonder if you’re letting off the writer a little too easily.
    I took a creative writing course once, and one of the assignments was to write from the point of view of someone of a different race and/or gender. I did not do well. The difficulty was surprising to my 18 year old self, and I continue to be impressed by writers that can represent other points of view in a deep, insightful way.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that she’s not blameless for not including a minority point of view because she lives in a segregated world. Not ever show needs to be about race, and I don’t think she necessarily has the responsibility to portray a more diverse world. But it sounds like she could do better. We’ve all seen bad writing, where all of the characters are clearly part of the same monolog, and shows like that run the risk of being self-absorbed. I don’t think she should be demonized for not including minority characters, but I do think it is a valid criticism.

    1. Self-awareness and self-criticism being among the highest of virtues, I suppose I should definitely allow that it’s possible that I’m letting Dunham off because I really (really, really) like the show. It’s certainly possible that if the show were less good, or didn’t appeal so directly to my demographic, I’d be more willing to accept criticism of its whiteness.

      But I don’t think I’m wrong here. To my mind, Girls has a story to tell about a specific group of characters, representing a certain subset of young adult culture, one that does not necessarily require a diverse cast. Dunham has said that in future season there may be nonwhite characters, and if that’s the case, that’ll be great. But discussion of race isn’t necessary in every show, and the other alternative – introducing nonwhite characters and having them fit seamlessly as if race doesn’t matter anymore and their experience is the same as that of the white characters – is just as (if not more) insidious as leaving minorities out altogether. Like you said, it’s not the responsibility of every program to represent all ethnic groups…and given that, I don’t see how “well, there are no minority characters” is a valid criticism. Would “there are no Latino characters” be a valid criticism of The Wire? What about criticizing a show about Latin-American day laborers for not having any black people?

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