“Girls” isn’t really plural: A narrow view of color on the HBO Hit

I just watched all 4 episodes of “Girls” on HBO. I really, really, really enjoyed the dialogue and the plot. Obviously, as a 24 year old "girl", I and all of my friends can so relate to these young women and the tough things they face in the name of "finding themselves": pregnancy scares, job uncertainty, relationships growing stale, STIs, learning to care for yourself and not succumb to abusive people and situations. Girls is funny and honest, and tries very hard to not glamorize the complete circus that this time can feel like...


I will agree with many of the critiques. I wasn't as up in arms about the lack of substantive characters/narratives including people of color, because honestly...most "middle-class/I've been coddled my entire life and now the real world is so 'hard'/I have the luxury of being in a quarter-life crisis" white women would NOT have meaningful relationships in real life with other women of color. Instead, women of color, that is Chicanas, black women, and Asian women may be relatively peripheral to a world that allows you the privilege of introspection, wanderlust, and unabashed disdain for working menial jobs. By no stretch of the imagination am I implying that meaningful interracial friendships and relationships are nonexistent or that the tropes present in “Girls” aren’t more indicative of class status rather than race; however, I believe that the narrative is fairly representative of a large slice of the population.

The show is spun through the lens of Hannah, a 24 year old, liberal arts graduate, a writer whose parents have just cut her off. Hannah’s parents are over-protective professors, she struggles with weight and self-esteem issues, and her acerbic wit is often misunderstood. She and her friends are complex characters simultaneously struggling to escape their insecurities while reveling in the fact that, at this age, life doesn’t have to make much sense. The plot unfolds somewhat haphazardly, yet brilliantly in each episode so that the viewer experiences layers of depth in each girl. There are no “good” or “bad” girls, even the douche-y love interest cannot be relegated to 2-dimensions so easily. This makes for great HBO programming. Unfortunately, the few glances of women of color are (surprise, surprise) narrow, stereotypical, and lacking nuance.

In episode 3, Hannah visits her friend Shoshannah, who is watching her favorite dating show on TV. In the show, each contestant has to unveil their “baggage” (their small, medium, and large secrets) at which point they are either chosen or sent home. One contestant was a black woman. Guess what her baggage was?

Small: She spends $1000 a month on weave, which host Jerry Springer deems “un-be-weave-able.”

Medium: She plans her wedding after the first date.

Large: She pokes holes in condoms.

Um, my biggest question after that scene was “Why?” not “Why would that imagery be so clearly assigned to the black woman?” but “Why are those images so prevalent in American popular culture that they, unsurprisingly, insinuated themselves in a show that doesn’t even address black women peripherally?” The weave meme has unfortunately caught fire in white America. They know what it is, they can even recognize it, they are morally outraged by its prices, and by golly, they are going to mention it every chance they get, even when it is not attached to an actual character. The condom-poking phenomenon, to me, falls into the delicious treasure chest of hood fairy-tales along with “welfare queens”, gang-banging, and the origins of rap music.

In episode 4, Hannah has just gotten a new job. She works with a sexually-harassing boss and two spicy staff members that seem to leisurely regard work. One of them appears to be Afro-Latina (perhaps Dominican or Puerto Rican) and, as we can only expect, is caricaturized and stereotypical from the start. She has an exaggerated accent, dramatic penciled-in eyebrows, tight clothes, and a neck/eye roll combination unparalleled on recent primetime TV.

Again, I asked myself the same questions from above. As you can tell, I am not surprised by the lack of well-constructed black and Latina characters. I actually think it is an honest representation of the stilted and one-dimensional schema that privilege builds towards people of color generally. “Girls” is true to life, because that is how so many interactions with women of color are perceived, analyzed, and then digested by white, middle-class women. As a black woman, I know these characters to often be misrepresented or too narrowly defined; but in a popular culture where there are less black people on primetime TV now than 20 years ago, what can we realistically expect?

“Girls” is one more reminder that media not birthed from a multi-cultural, colorful, inclusive perspective will never authentically reflect what we know to be true and what we hope will one day be celebrated.
In the meantime, we will be left with witty, yet unbalanced vantage points from majority privilege. I will still be watching Girls, but these things are always in my mind.

Will you be watching? How do you feel, am I making too much or too little of this? Read more about Lena Durham, Girls creator, writer, and co-star, confronting the topic (or lack thereof) of race in the show here.

Share your thoughts!



Courtney said...

I haven't watched the show, myself. But it sounds a lot like a younger version of Sex & the City (the series, not the movies), which I love. It is true that Sex & the City lacks multidimensional characters of color (the only memorable black female is the chef sister who tells off Samantha for dating her brother - there are actually more black men in the show than black women). However, I still enjoyed the show for its glitz & glam and universal relationship insights. To your point, Brittany, I don't know that the world of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte realistically includes a lot of profound relationships with women of color. Unfortunate, but likely true.

How does one change this? Well, I think our generation is the first step. Most of us have friends with diverse backgrounds who we will continue to influence and be influenced by throughout our lives. The next step is to represent this new dynamic on TV. Unfortunately even in the shows that do have fabulous, multidimensional black female characters (aka Keri Washington in Scandal), they are usually the only black woman on the show without any family or girlfriend ties. I LOVE Scandal, but what is Shonda Rhimes telling us? Does being a successful black woman really mean being isolated and lonely?

We definitely still have a long way to go on this front. We need more Awkward Black Girl- like shows depicting real black girls in real relationships, living their sometimes fabulous, sometimes challenging lives.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

Brittany said...

I agree Courtney. I'm laughing because I actually thought of the image of the attitude-having black chef from Sex and the City while writing the post. Other than that, there really were no memorable women of color on the show. The only difference between that time and now is that there are more people holding media accountable for these images. Hopefully, this will be successful in changing these images to be more reflective.

I also think you made an interesting point about Shonda Rhimes. Scandal, and the writing, is absolutely amazing, but we have yet to see race addressed as part of the narrative. In Shonda's other shows (Grey's Anatomy), the same is true. I wonder what impact this has when we include dynamic characters of color, but don't explore the actual social constructs that led them to be so.

I don't hold Shonda to be the beacon for the entire race or for all of black women, but I really hopes she uses this awesome platform to further change mainstream perceptions!

Sydnie Mosley said...

I finally watched GIRLS. The whole first season. I'm sure I will write about it more in depth, but I wanted to respond to your post Brittany. I totally hear what you are saying about the rare and one-dimensional appearances of women of color, but what was actually more jarring to me was the soundtrack -- For there to be such an absence of color visually, "black" music shows up in abundance, basically in every party scene, or the like. The lack of persons of color in the show only revealed more starkly the appropriation of black cultural markers into mainstream white culture, including r&b and rap music, any Beyonce-esque dancing of the "Crazy in Love" variety, and even in an episode when Shoshanna unknowingly smokes crack.

This show is a shining example of how white American culture is accepted as "the norm" for all, appropriating one-dimensional slivers of other cultures to taste. I would say that Issa Rae of "Awkward Black Girl" fame, is the colored woman's answer to Lena Dunham. At the core of her show are universal questions/truths about being an awkward 20-something woman, same as Dunham. But for all the national publicity and support Rae has received she's still just a YouTube star (even if she's in cohoots to develop a show with Shonda Rhimes). Dunham's GIRLS (note: not "White Girls") on the other hand is on HBO! These women are the same age, and are seemingly both extremely resourceful, hardworking women, but it is Dunham's story that is broadcast to the wider audience (and probably receives the greater financial reward.)