It was hard for me not to get caught up in the hype surrounding Lena Dunham’s HBO show “Girls.” One of my favorite comedians, Mindy Kaling, was smitten with her and her film, “Tiny Furniture,” and people were excited to see an HBO show created, written, and acted by a young woman.
I eagerly watched “Tiny Furniture” to get a feel for her work. Though it had some problems, I felt like Dunham, a feminist, mostly understood that strange limbo young twenty-somethings enter into – that part of existence where you’ve finally graduated, only to find yourself slogging through life wondering about your future, your identity, and what comes next.
The previews for “Girls” cemented my hopes when it featured its main character, Hannah (played by Dunham and arguably version of herself), declaring, “I think I may be the voice of my generation.”
I kept my expectations for “Girls” realistic. Going into the show, I knew the cast would likely be all white, and I was willing to look beyond that to enjoy the show that young women all around me were already celebrating – and it hadn’t even aired its first episode.
So I wasn’t surprised when I made it through “Girls” and didn’t see a woman of color in a main role. But I was left wondering why a show set in present day Brooklyn, with a population comprised mostly of people of color, lacked even a hint of diversity.
It was eating at me. On the one hand, I could delight in the fact that Dunham was out there representing women whose bodies don’t align with mainstream media’s idea of “beautiful” and for tackling the sometimes selfish, often privileged, but nonetheless very real problems people cope with. She was trying her best to represent young people.
On the other hand, it felt like a slap in the face.
How could “Girls” be the so-called voice of a generation, but neglect to include any substantial people of color? Unless Joy-Lynn, the intern who worked with Hannah and had all of one brief line, counts; or maybe the black woman she passes on the street counts? Or the black homeless man
I wanted to love the show, but I left the first episode a bit broken-hearted. It was compounded by the casting requests for Dunham’s show coming to light. It called for almost exclusively white women, except in very specific cases, like the “pleasantly plump” Latina co-worker or the “overweight” black nanny with a “good sense of humor.” The message was clear that the only place women of color had in “Girls” was in a secondary role, fulfilling a stereotype.
Following that, one of Dunham’s writers, Lesley Arfin, made an offensive tweet that said, “What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.” That loosely translates to: women who critique “Girls” should kindly shut up and be happy there’s even a show at all.
True that Dunham has no control over what her writers do, and that Arfin has a long history embedded in racism, but things didn’t stop there. Dunham tweeted a photo of herself draped in a black cloth resembling a hijab and joked about how she was feeling “fundamentalist” – despite the fact that many women who wear headscarves aren’t fundamentalist (among other things).
Her responses to critiques of her “casual racism” do little to redeem her, either. She said she based her show on her own – very white – life and experiences. Dunham felt she couldn’t accurately write about a black (or Asian or Latina) woman living in NYC. Fair enough, but why not hire a woman of color who could?
And it only got worse from there: she said she created the show to depict “white people problems.” Well, I can relate to the issues Hannah and her friends face, but I’m not white, so what does that say? I get that Dunham was trying to be clever and to acknowledge her privilege, but she did so by conflating problems pertinent to white people with problems that plague many young, middle-class individuals.
I stopped even being able to give her credit for representing fat women after she felt the need to go on Howard Stern (who had called her fat) and declare that she was “thin for, like, Detroit” (whatever that’s supposed to mean).
So while scores of women my age believe “Girls,” and subsequently everything Dunham touches, is gold, I’m still nursing a broken heart. Next time someone claims to be the voice of a generation, she may want to be sure she’s actually representing more than just herself.