By Guest Contributor Kendra James
The advertisements for the new HBO series Girls presented us with main character Hannah referring to herself (while on drugs) as “The Voice of a Generation.” Salon calls the show a “generational event,” and other reviewers rave over the series’ realism and call it “spot on,” and the characters’ feature by Emily Nassbaum in New York Magazine refers to it as “FUBU: For Us, By Us.”
But which “us” are you talking about? And how is this a realistic? I asked myself, as I struggled to figure out exactly what I had in common with these four white girls.
I only became more confused when I remembered what Dunham and I actually do share.
We’re both the products of independent high schools. She went to St Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights, while I boarded at The Taft School in Connecticut. We’re both graduates of Oberlin College in Oberlin, OH, where we were separated by two years. Dunham majored in creative writing, while I majored in cinema studies and anthropology. We weren’t friends at Oberlin, and we weren’t acquaintances, but it’s a tiny school; I could have picked her out of a crowd by her tattoos alone. Like the character Dunham plays on Girls, Hannah, I spent almost two years after graduating toiling in a thankless, underpaid internship in my desired industry.
Here came the confusion: If Lena Dunham and I come from similar educational backgrounds, honed our writing and narrative skills at the same school (and likely with some of the same professors), and grew up spending time in the same city (she’s from Tribeca, and I was a bridge-and-tunnel kid from a nice New Jersey suburb about 30 minutes away), then how could we conceive such radically different images of New York City? Why would I feel so ill-at-ease with her critics essentially declaring her as my voice?
We have our differences. She has famous parents, and sure, there’s race. She’s white. I’m Black. But Oberlin’s a fairly diverse campus and, despite ridiculous tuition costs, those independent high schools are becoming a lot less white than they were. At Oberlin you could try and make your life and circle of friends look like the Girls poster or a scene from Friends or Sex and the City, but you’d have to make a concentrated effort. (And if you did that, then…well. We have other issues to discuss.)
Curricula, on the other hand, are distinctively less diverse.
Of the 20 or so courses offered within the Cinema department (not including private readings and one-on-one seminars), there are zero offered on African-American film, Latino film, LGBTQ Film, African film, and East Asian film. There are, however, seven classes you can take on the European film tradition, and one on framing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict via film. To find classes on African-American, Japanese, and Chinese film tradition you have to leave the department. The classes count towards a Cinema Studies major, but fall under East Asian or African American studies, as if they somehow don’t fully qualify in their otherness. Most importantly, students are not required to take any of these classes that deviate from the White Hollywood arc.
Nevermind the fact that the Nigerian and Indian Film Industries have both at times surpassed Hollywood in output and returns in revenue. The same goes for the Creative Writing department: while classes from the English department count towards a Creative Writing major, students aren’t required to take classes that focus on non-white or European writers and narratives. “There was no non-European requirement, and it was so white,” said a Korean-American friend who happened to be a creative writing major along with Dunham (and also attended an NYC independent school). “I would have to stop in the middle of class readings to explain to everyone what things like kimchi were.”
There’s something to be said about Girls and the state of diversity in education. Dunham is a recent college graduate; one of the first in a new generation of young writer/directors who will–whether we like it or not–be helping to shape the pop culture we’re going to consume over the next decade. If these course requirements represent the average college graduate requirements, then pop culture might be in trouble. I don’t claim to know what Dunham’s course schedule was while she attended Oberlin, but the fact that there’s a chance that she–and the other writers and directors who will come after her–has never had to read a Langston Hughes play, watch anything by Chen Kaige or Oscar Micheaux, or study any type of non-white/European media narrative is troubling, and it’s unsurprising that it would lead to the creation of a show that highlights (I would even go so far as to say rehashes) the lives of four white girls in New York City.
Despite our similarities in background, our views of life in New York city seem to be radically different. An article in The New Yorker tells me that our circles of friends come from the same pools: Oberlin Students and high school friends that more often than not come from the same group of New York City day schools and New England boarding schools. Not only do I work with a WOC who attended high school with her, I have friends who went to high school with both her and her younger sister and, because my friends consist of Latin@s, Asians, Blacks, and whites, I know her life couldn’t possibly have looked as white as the posters for Girls (which is semi-true to life; she calls her character Hannah “another version of herself”) would have you believe.
Yet Girls, set in Brooklyn, where only one-third of the population is white, somehow exists in a New York where minorities are only called to cast for one liners and nanny roles. “Pleasantly plump” Latinas may also inquire within.
These are casting calls from April and May of 2011–when the show was still filming its first season–pulled from Breakdowns Express. There may have been (and probably were) more that have since disappeared from the site.
When asked about the lack of diversity, The Voice of Our Generation didn’t have much of an answer.
“When I get a tweet from a girl who’s like, ‘I’d love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color,'” Dunham told the Huffington Post. “You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I’ll address that.”
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.
Though perhaps with a Black homeless man catcalling Hannah on the street, an Asian girl with about fifteen seconds of dialogue taking the job Hannah believes she’s entitled to, mentioning Nigeria as a segue to a joke about the evils of working at McDonalds, and her boyfriend telling her emphatically not be a slave to anyone, Dunham thought she’d incorporated a perfunctory amount of color into the New York she’s created for Hannah. So far to be non-white in Hannah’s New York is something to subconsciously vilified.
Consider these statements from Dunham’s HuffPo interview and Nussbaum’s piece in NY Magazine:
“Our generation is not just white girls. It’s guys. Women of color. Gay people. The idea that I could speak for everyone is so absurd. But what is nice is if I could speak for me and it’s resonant for people, then that’s about as much as I could hope for.” – Dunham
“Still, like SATC, Dunham’s show takes as its subject women who are quite demographically specific—cosseted white New Yorkers from educated backgrounds—then mines their lives for the universal.”- Nussbaum
But 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.
Perhaps it would help if she were to hire a staff writer of color or a consultant for her writing team, because I’m not sure her staff gets it, either:
I can’t say if being mandated to take classes focused on a non-white experience have fixed Girls and Lena Dunham. I also wouldn’t argue that that’s the only thing wrong with her attitude (Dunham says in her profile in The New Yorker, “Let’s call a spade a spade—a lot of times when you are a vegetarian it is a just not very effective eating disorder.”) or with the show, but I genuinely wonder if it would have helped. Or at least given her some perspective if she really had spent her time growing up in NYC completely oblivious to the brown folk walking past her on a daily basis.
I refuse to believe that you can sit through a Spike Lee film, study his work, read his screenplays, and then believe that this is the proper way to cast a show set in Brooklyn– even the wealthier areas of Brooklyn (I can’t wait to see what Blue Ivy Carter’s circle of high school friends looks like). Media studies programs–especially my alma mater’s–should take note of the work their students produce and the attitudes they display and seriously consider if that’s the legacy they’ve intended to release into the world.
Lena Dunham and I may have a bit in common, but regardless of what Emily Nussbaum says, I do not consider Girls to be For Us or By Us. Nussbaum’s “Us” and Dunham’s show eliminate not only the other two-thirds of Brooklyn that exist, the reality of a minority-majority NYC population, but also the reality that my friends and I are currently living. Once again, we’ve been erased from a narrative.
Is a change in curriculum going to fix that overnight? No, not overnight. But I’d feel a whole lot better knowing that those who are going to speak for and represent the “Millennial Generation” (as NY Magazine claims Girls does) have studied and learned something about people that don’t fit the show’s mold. Maybe that’s when erasure begins to fade.