I know, I know. So much praise and criticism from entertainment and feminist bloggers has dominated the pop culture discussion of the new HBO series Girls since the pilot aired on April 15, that we get it. She’s a voice of a generation! No! She doesn’t speak for me!
So what else is there to say? Plenty. Driving back from D.C. yesterday, I was excited to catch Fresh Air’s interview with Lena Dunham, the creater, producer and star of Girls. It was the first time I heard her address the serious criticism toward the show that it doesn’t include any people of color as characters:
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.
Lena Dunham wrote what she knew – her own experience as a white, upper-middle class, 20-something educated girl – and as the show’s main writer and sole creator, she could write what she wanted and what she felt comfortable writing. She also wanted to avoid tokenizing the experiences and voices of people of color, which is a legitimate feeling as a young writer. Dunham is a young writer who created a TV show that is an extension of her lived experiences. Why are we placing so much expectation on her that she be everything to everywoman?
The tension and harsh criticism toward Lena Dunham tells me more about our collective desire and demand for the inclusion of many women’s voices and experiences in television shows from producer to writer, creator and star. This collective desire and demand is good and healthy – we should advocate for more TV shows that include women’s voices that aren’t overwhelmingly representative of young, white, cisgender, heterosexual women’s experiences.
The loud criticism against the show is also indicative of our growing cultural and social acknowledgement that we live in a multi-racial and gendered society that isn’t reflected back to us in television and media. I’m certainly aware of it. In my initial, mixed reaction to the pilot of Girls, I was annoyed by the privilege and sense of entitlement from Hannah, the main character of the show, and the unrealistic nature of the girls’ living situation. Seriously, what post-college, unpaid intern can live anywhere in New York City? I don’t think my high school and college friends in New York did that. And I’m supposed to believe that Hannah’s college professor parents are footing the bill? Yeah, right. More importantly, I thought, how can Hannah be a Millennial living in NYC and only have white friends? (Yes, some people do.) But after watching the first five episodes and having conversations with other feminist friends about these debates, I’m hooked. For me, the show is funny, bold, fresh and all too real in terms of navigating relationships, friendships and life after college.
So let’s leave Lena Dunham alone. Let’s take her show and her unique, singular experience that speaks to who she is – white, educated, young, middle/upper class – and leave it at that. Some girls will find themselves in it in varying degrees, and some won’t. That’s ok. Let’s focus on creating more opportunities for women of all backgrounds and experiences in television and not place such huge expectations on Lena Dunham to fix all of what’s wrong with women in media. If yesterday’s NPR interview is any indication, she’s intelligently aware of the criticism and seems intent on really addressing it in the show’s upcoming second season.
Watch Girls every Sunday at 10:30p.m. on HBO.
This post also appeared on Rhyme et Reason.