So. I avoided watching Girls for the same reason that I avoided Sex and the City bonding sessions with my mother back when I was home every weekend of high school. I didn’t find that much to relate to. Part of it is personality – I am cripplingly shy and self-conscious around people I haven’t trusted for a long damn while; I practically lust after winter so that I can wear coats (the only sartorial articles I really love are the combo of a smart pea coat and a fluffy scarf) and fully cover up what, in the recesses of my mind, I believe to be an essentially, intractably unattractive body, unworthy of physical love or affection. Women talking about shoes and sex or the lack thereof and how these things relate to happiness? Yeah, not so much with that.
Girls has, to its credit, a swirling vortex of other messy concerns, including the ever looming threat to educated millennials: money. But it is, essentially, a bunch of precocious young people living hispter lives, and wearing the kinds of clothes and having the kinds of relationships I have huge anxiety attacks about. This is a deeply personal way of saying that the show doesn’t “speak” to me, and I’d much rather use my time to watch a Best Of Ron Swanson clipshow. There was some critical outcry over “nepotism” with Dunham, and with the lack of diversity on the series, particularly given its Brooklyn setting, and that’s basically what I knew. I was content to leave it there, lest the spasms of existential angst and jealousy over Lena Dunham’s whirlwind success send me into a depression coma.
Eventually, as happens on the internet, I got forwarded one of these critical pieces, which I read while bored at work, and chewed over on the way back. It’s actually a fabulous critique of how academic curricula with their bent towards the works and perspectives of white Europeans – with African American, Latin American, or Asian cinema/literature confined to those departments at Oberlin and not required by its English or Film Studies majors – shape the voices and perspectives of future content creators, and whether or not such a backwards-looking creative background is healthy (it’s not). The article was well thought out and written, and stuck with me, particularly the two quotes below:
But Dunham is the showrunner, writer, director, and star of Girls. I have the feeling that if she’d honestly wished for some diversity she’d have gotten some diversity.
…why are the only lives that can be mined for “universal experiences” the lives of white women? Dunham’s statement on the other hand, makes me question her overall skill as a writer (you can’t write about anyone besides yourself?), while also implying that there’s some special way to write people who aren’t straight and white. That the problems she presents in Girls couldn’t be happen to anyone who doesn’t look like her.
TV or film criticism is, by necessity, a business of generalizing and describing and trying to distill the experience of art. So saying that a show is ‘representative’ of a generation or an artist ‘speaks’ for a group of people is never really that accurate a statement to make. My usual response to the cry for ‘diversity’ or other cultural demands on entertainment is to paraphrase another, even whiter writer and say: Lena Dunham is not your bitch. If she wants to create a universe (every show is its own unique one; I know because of film theory) in which only white people exist and yet paradoxically they only eat sushi and the only pets they own are baby sloths and all they drink is Cherry Diet Coke, she can do that. If you want a more racially diverse version of Girls, go make a more racially diverse version of Girls, because that’s what Lena Dunham did. She made a movie that Judd Apatow liked, and he took a chance on her and now she has an hour of HBO’s programming slate to entertain people and possibly seek out truth as she perceives it. Of course she had help. Of course she had industry connections and the support, and the financial support, she needed to succeed. Most everyone else in the entertainment industry did, too. The idea that, as a creator, Lena Dunham owes anything to anyone besides herself, especially to redress or reflect someone else’s perceived notion of fairness or even of reality, strikes the writer in me as abhorrent.
Then again, the writer in me wasn’t the part of me at the fore when I found myself alone on the subway the other day, with a crazy, drunk, or drugged and very smelly hobo who kept rocking back and forth repeating “I have a problem with God,” over and over again in my general direction – it was the little white girl from Louisiana who’s been very effectively taught, without any lesson plans or lectures, to be afraid of black men, to feel alone and exposed and vulnerable when there aren’t other members of my race present. It’s not, unfortunately, a prejudice I’m confronted with that often. I’m very rarely without cultural grounding in any environment – real or imagined. The primal, gauzy unease I have between the Nevins and Newkirk Street stations, whether (groundlessly) reinforced by the aforesaid homeless man or, the overwhelming majority of the time, not, isn’t the status quo. I have the luxury of not having to think about non-white cultural perception unless I sit down to specifically watch a Johnny To film with the masculine ideals of his mobsters in mind, not unless I specifically pick up my Spanish-language edition of Borges’ El Aleph (which is very quickly exchanged for the translation; no se hablo mucho). The rest of the time, I’m safely ensconced with my English folk-rock blasting out of my earphones and my A History of the Crusades taking up way too much memory on my iPhone.
I have the choice, is what I’m getting at, to consider Girls as representative of young white women and through them the human condition, or to seek such representation elsewhere. So does everyone else, yet you’ll invariably find that that show – Battlestar Galactica, for the record – also has more than its fair share of attractive white people and deals with their problems as universal. I may take rhetorical issue with the idea of holding up a creative work as emblematic of a generation, both as praise and as evidence of problem culture, or (even worse) of expecting a piece of entertainment to made with others’ agendas at heart outside those of its creators; yet thinking about the problem of Girls a little more thoughtfully, I begin to understand the frustration with Lena Dunham, with just how easily she and I and many prominent shapers of culture (most of them white) stay snug in a perspective still ruled by Imperialists, from Augustus to Christendom to Victoria. If all the white people seen in Girls actually lived in Brooklyn, she’d be like the Peter Jackson of the outer boroughs’ film industry.
The good news is that, even if it’s only begun superficially, Lena Dunham is listening. It is completely on Donald Glover that I finally watched the series at all, so that I could be caught up for his entry in the second season premiere. Troy is probably everyone’s favorite human (jury is still out on whether Abed could contest this, as he is likely more advanced than humans) and getting to see him on HBO means that he’d probably take his shirt off. That is perhaps as close to universality as our finite mortal frames can hope to reach, and I’m only slightly kidding.