Whiteness and Privilege, or maybe Girls is actually the worst and that’s the whole point of it

I really like Girls, but I’ve struggled to reconcile my enjoyment of the show with the debate that’s raged about its whiteness. On one hand, I can definitely understand why people are frustrated that a show set in one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the world features four white girls who appear to have only white friends. On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that if any four women on earth would have only white friends, it would totally be Hannah, Jessa, Marnie and Shoshanna.

Do we need better representations of people (and especially women) of colour on our predominantly white screens? Yes. Would Girls be a better show if it had better characters of colour on it? On that count, I’m not so sure.

This is not me trying to be super-racist. Really. I promise, it’s not. Instead, I want to make the argument that the four characters on Girls, in all their whiteness, are about as real as it comes, and that fucked-up aspect of the show is possibly its most compelling. Hear me out.

Hannah and her gang are playing at worldliness, but the fingerprints of their privileged upper-middle-class upbringings are everywhere in their lives. I’m willing to bet that all four of them grew up in nice, predominantly white suburbs full of families just like theirs. They went to school and college and despite the diversity of those environments, gravitated towards people just like them. And now, even though they’re out in the “real world” of New York, they’re operating socially much as they always have. Colour is “other” to them, and they’re not yet mature enough to be better people about it.

For these four characters, the whiteness of their world makes sense. They’re a televisual representation of whitewhine.com.

Contrasting the world of Hannah, Jessa, Marnie and Shoshanna with the much more powerful struggles of America’s black and Latina women would immediately show the four heroines up for the inane, spoiled half-children that they are. That would have been a disaster. The secret of Girls’ success is that it actually took us a little while to cotton on to just how silly these characters could actually be. For the first few episodes, we were plagued by doubt: Hannah seems like a vain idiot, but could she actually be a genius writer? Is Jessa’s boho shtick stupid, or is she actually the wisest of us all?

We discussed these characters passionately, and kept asking why there were so few people of colour on the show. In doing so, we possibly missed the point: that these characters are so privileged, so cushioned, so damn white, that they wouldn’t even know how to relate to anyone of a different background to their own.

What Girls gives us are four young women who have no idea how good they’ve got it. Hannah can’t find a job, but her parents will never truly let her fall flat on her face – they love her, they have means and if push really comes to homeless, moneyless shove, they’ll come to her aid. Marnie’s life has worked out so well – perfect job, perfect boyfriend, perfect clothes and parents who still pay her smartphone bill – that she had to make herself dissatisfied with the boyfriend just for something to do. Jessa is so far up her own ass that she makes wild statements about wanting to have babies with lots of different men of different races, but marries the world’s most Anglo yuppie at the drop of a hat. And Shoshanna (oh, Shosh!) has a parentally-funded princess apartment in a ridiculously nice part of town… and seems to spend all her time in it, watching Sex and the City.

And consider this: Girls doesn’t celebrate its characters the way that the aforementioned SATC relentlessly did. There’s no sense in this show that the four characters are winning at life on any grander scale, and instead, they leave the audience wondering when the fuck they are just going to get it together and act like real people already. This is why Hannah being “a voice of a generation” is such a great joke. With all her hang-ups and neuroticism, she’s barely able to speak for herself, let alone anyone else.

She may be doing it unconsciously, but I think that with Girls, Lena Dunham is actually making a pretty interesting statement about what we expect from TV. We want Girls to show better characters of colour because we know just how rare it is to see such characters on our screens, and Lena Dunham seems like a pretty good sort and how could she have dropped the ball this badly?

What we’re missing is that these characters are white, and only have white friends, because that is all too often the case with people who have nice, white, suburban upbringings. I don’t know Lena Dunham and I can’t speak to her motivations for creating the characters that she has, but as someone who has spent a lot of time in privileged, predominantly white environments, these characters feel real to me. (Crap, but real.) They may be living in New York, but they’re clinging to each other. They’re not very good at branching out into the world and relating to people who aren’t just like them (and that includes Jessa, for all her big talk).

We’re so impressed with this show, and with Dunham, that we wish that impediments to us liking the show even more would be removed. We see shreds of ourselves in these characters and we want the show to accordingly tell the stories of our lives, and when we see a big discrepancy, such as the absence of people of colour, we start getting pissed off. But maybe we’re not supposed to like these characters, or their world, or their values. Maybe Girls is actually about four people who really are just that shit.

Making Hannah and her gang less shit would make Girls a different show entirely. That would probably be a good show, and I would probably watch it. But it wouldn’t be Girls, because Girls is about four very fortunate women who think they’re part of the world but haven’t even started. Perhaps we’ll see these four women develop from their current, very blinkered standpoint into people who actually know and understand a broader range of people. All we know for sure right now, though, is that the foursome isn’t there yet.

We want to see more people of colour on Girls because we want to like these four characters and be on their side, but maybe that’s not what’s supposed to happen here. The very thing that we want to see in it is the very thing that would undermine why these characters are compelling, if problematic. I still like it, but I won’t make the mistake of thinking that Girls is supposed to be the show of our generation. It’s not. Girls is good art about shit people.

About missaleksia

Street press journalist and culture vulture based in Melbourne, Australia. I enjoy Australian hip hop, obsessively following television shows, healthy debate, baking and wine. My views are my own. Keep up to date with me on Twitter: @missaleksia
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2 Responses to Whiteness and Privilege, or maybe Girls is actually the worst and that’s the whole point of it

  1. The thing with the leaving-out-POC on Lena Dunham/HBO’s part is that, I’ll pay it, they didn’t do it maliciously. That doesn’t mean the omission is any less racist. You don’t need to have intent to be racist. Sure, horrible people can be racist and nasty about it, but “normal”/nice people can still be racist too. Like my mother, for instance. Not even kidding.

    Racism is about power structures that are ingrained in societies. Same with sexism. The fact that people are racist/sexist because they grew up in shitty society is not their fault. What IS their fault is when it’s pointed out, and they get all defensive and all “I’m not racist” rather than going, “OH HOLY SHIT THAT WAS REALLY RACIST/SEXIST BECAUSE I COME FROM A POSITION OF PRIVILEGE THAT ISN’T MY FAULT AND I SEE IT’S NOT AN INSULT AND I WANT TO CHANGE THIS BECAUSE THAT SHIT IS WHACK”.

    You said on FB “essentially the characters are far shittier people than everyone seems to want to give them credit for being.” I don’t think it’s the characters’ fault. They are ignorant but not shitty about it. They just don’t fucking no better and don’t have the opportunity to engage in the issue.

    But in LD/HBO/Moran’s complete denial of the inherent racism that is displayed in the way it was written when it was pointed out to them, in them going “I literally could not give a shit about it”, THEY are being shitty about it.

    If in the next season they don’t take out the stereotypical women of colour in stereotypical stereotypical women of colour bit roles like nannies and the gyno, and the sassy Latina secretary that they slipped in hoping to make us shut up and make decent actual roles, and if they don’t make the characters acknowledge/challenge their Whitey McWhiteness, then they are EVEN MORE SHITTIER ABOUT IT.

    Great post. Love you xx

    • missaleksia says:

      All fair. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think there are two different issues here: is Lena Dunham a problem, and is the show itself a problem? I think you’re right about LD and co. being a problem on this one – the bit-part roles the show DID include were pretty on the nose, and not engaging with the discussion isn’t helpful.

      However, people do seem to conflate the universe of the show and whatever Dunham’s own viewpoints are into one big pot, and I worry about that. Dunham and Hannah may be intrinsically linked, but Hannah’s still a construct, and Girls is still a show that I think is saying some pretty interesting things about whiteness and privilege, many through the fact that these four white chicks live in their own crazy bubble. Basically, Dunham’s attitude and conduct have been problematic, but in all the conversation about the fact that there are no women of colour in Girls and it’s all her fault, we seem to be missing an opportunity to look at what their absence means in the context of the characters.

      There are shows where I think people of colour could have been cast in existing roles and that it would have been all positives, no negatives. Bunheads is a big one, because the characters of the four young dancers are so unformed that having a couple of them played by actors of colour would only have enhanced the show. But when it comes to Girls, I think that the whiteness of these characters’ worlds is integral to whatever journey they are (hopefully) going to go on.

      Ideally sans stereotypical bit-part characters, of course.

      Love you too x

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