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HBO’s ‘Girls’—More Progressive Than Carrie Bradshaw, But Still White-Only


The cast of HBO's "Girls."

CREDIT: Publicity Photo

Lena Dunham’s new HBO show “Girls” premiered to great anticipatory acclaim recently. But since the premiere episode, critics have attacked the show for presenting a very specific and narrow view of New York City and the women who live there as only white and privileged.

Dunham’s 2010 feature film Tiny Furniture (which she wrote, directed, and starred in) told a semi-autobiographical story of a liberal arts graduate who moved back in with her family and was trying to figure out her life. The hugely successful film helped land Dunham a deal with HBO (also thanks to help from director Judd Apatow) for her debut television series, which became “Girls.” While neither “Girls”nor Tiny Furniture are about Dunham, they have very clear autobiographical undertones—Tiny Furniture’s cast, for instance, was largely comprised of Dunham’s friends and family.

“Girls” is an exciting and refreshing look at the lives of young women, and part of the reason for its acclaim is that Dunham isn’t afraid to show women making mistakes and struggling with adult life, or interested in sex but also invested in their careers.

Dunham is young and her work is relatable to women in their 20s who are struggling in a difficult economy. Her work is also leaps and bounds more progressive and interesting than shows like HBO’s massive hit “Sex and the City” and “Gossip Girl,” which have attempted to tell stories of young twenty-somethings living in New York City, but end up focusing on the frivolity of fashion and expensive unrealistic lifestyles.

While “Sex and the City” was about finding your dream man, “Girls” is clearly for a different generation.

These 20-somethings aren’t concerned about Chanel and Louboutins—they’re writing essays and working in galleries and going to college. Yes, these women also have the markers of privilege—the pilot episode centers on Hannah’s panic at her parents’ threat to cut her off financially—but their primary concerns aren’t as superficial as previous iterations of these kinds of television series.

And, what’s more, “Girls” is apt and realistic, too: 12 percent of women ages 20-24 are unemployed, while 40 percent work part-time. Even with their expensive liberal arts degrees, the women of “Girls” can’t find jobs other than unpaid internships.

But while the show is progressive in many ways, the characters still have distinct markers of privilege and, perhaps most disappointingly, the show has an obvious lack of people, and more specifically women, of color.

Since the show’s premiere, Dunham and the cast and crew of “Girls” have faced intense criticism for a perhaps unexpected reason—many critics have pointed out that the women in the show are all white. Critics argue that by universalizing the experience of privileged, conventionally-attractive, white women, the show marginalizes and silences the voices of other women who may have exactly the same experiences as Dunham and her friends but simply aren’t white.

Kendra James at Racialicious points out that, though she and Dunham aren’t that different, Dunham is unable to write about experiences that resonate for women of color:

Here came the confusion: If Lena Dunham and I come from similar educational backgrounds, honed our writing and narrative skills at the same school (and likely with some of the same professors), and grew up spending time in the same city (she’s from Tribeca, and I was a bridge-and-tunnel kid from a nice New Jersey suburb about 30 minutes away), then how could we conceive such radically different images of New York City?

As criticism of the lack of diversity on the show began to mount, “Girls” writer Lesley Arfin responded by tweeting: “What really bothered me most about [the film] Precious was that there was no representation of ME.” She deleted the tweet a few days later and apologized, this time tweeting: “Without thinking, I put gender politics above race and class. That was careless. The last thing I want is girls vs. girls.” Then, she deleted that tweet, too.

Racialicious also uncovered a casting call for the show that ask for “pleasantly plump” Latinas and women of color who could do accents—because on “Girls,” women of color can only play nannies or, at the best, minor parts. It seems the only roles on the show for women of color are to be nannies with one or two lines.

Dunham responded to the criticism recently, telling the Huffington Post:

When I get a tweet from a girl who’s like, ‘I’d love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color.’ You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I’ll address that.

But surely Dunham, who grew up in New York City and attended a progressive liberal arts college, should have realized before the show premiered that it could be alienating to women of color.

Dunham’s work on “Girls” is interesting and provocative, but we shouldn’t have to wait for a second season to see something other than rich, white girls.

Dahlia Grossman-Heinze is a reporter-blogger for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @salvadordahlia.

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