I tried to watch HBO’s much-lauded Girls.
I received absolutely nothing for my trouble, except 30 minutes with full-on screw face. Kendra and Jenna Worthham have already handled the diversity questions that arise with the pilot, but I have to admit that I really don’t care about diversity on this show. If they didn’t get the message by now, it’s not going to happen. And, on the real, is this what we really want? Diversifying that show is the pop culture version of integrating into a burning house.
My personal rule (being an urbanite) is that if someone can’t diversify their social circle in areas like Brooklyn or DC, they are not people I want to know. So whatever, the show isn’t for me. A lot of them aren’t–I don’t watch Two and a Half Men, nor do I watch Rules of Engagement, and that’s just fine. I’m not the core audience, and that was made abundantly clear.
After I turned off Girls, I tried to make sense of why I was so deeply pissed off. And for me, what stood out the most wasn’t anything to do with the monochrome cast. Nor was it the wink-wink nudge-nudge entitlement of the privileged class, though that’s fully there as well. (Pro Tip: Being aware of racism, classism, or ignorance is not the same as actually doing something about it.)
But more than anything, I was annoyed because the usual accolades, denials, misrepresentations that follow after a show like this airs. There’s the usual conversation from gender-focused outlets that these shows are for ALL women and we all need to go support or else we won’t ever get another shiny new toy. Then comes the idea that, even though this show is totally for ALL women, that we shouldn’t be attacking them for things like a total lack of diversity because it’s not fair to expect one show to be all things to all people. Then we start hearing the usual idiotic arguments about television being a meritocracy where, if you create good programming, you will automatically be served with a deal, or that it’s so unfair that this one show is getting so much negative attention when whatever new show of the year is one of dozens that fits the same basic theme of exclusion.
So for the purposes of this piece, I want to talk about why there is such a diversity gap in television, and in most pop culture, more broadly.
Let’s start with what is considered watchable.
A lot of folks seem to be under the mistaken assumption that people of color are not creating interesting things to get noticed. Actually, the issues in Hollywood are well documented, particularly with insiders sharing stories like this:
Screenwriter: […] People are comfortable with their own stories. For example, I’m comfortable with a story about a black person, and a black hero, and a black family, and whites are comfortable with stories about themselves. Unfortunately, in their world, there’s not any room for stories about anyone else. They can read a good story about someone else and go, ‘That’s wonderful! But is there an audience for it?’ Because it’s not about them. And that is where they sell the American public short. I do think that whites outside of our industry are curious about other people. They go to zoos. So wouldn’t they go to see a movie about somebody else? It’s cold, but is that not true? They’re not closing up zoos because they’re not about white people. Why wouldn’t we think that whites would go see a movie about a culture different than theirs? Why do you keep making the same movie about yourself over and over again? Your love angst, or whatever your feelings, and what’s happening to you this year, over and over again? That’s why I have my own little thing about certain movies I won’t go see. There’s not a room that you go into when there’s a movie about black people or about any ethnic group where you don’t hear, ‘That’s a hard movie to sell.’ ‘That’s going to be tough.’
And even when all the indicators for success are there in mainstream channels, it doesn’t mean these projects will actually come to fruition.
Angela Nissel is a multi-talented author and TV writer. (She’s also the co-founder of Okay Player.) Back in 2001, Nissel penned “The Broke Diaries,” focusing on the lifestyles of college students and those post-graduation. Her book was sidesplitting and memorable, presenting stories that should be familiar to anyone who is broke–like finding herself counting out 33 pennies for a pack of ramen noodels and then not being able to pay the tax or making value judgements about food or lights. Or as she writes on the Broke Diaries site:
You’re broke? Learn to laugh about it. Being broke sucks, but being a broke miserable ass sucks even more. When you’re broke all you have is your sanity and that expired can of tuna. Don’t give away your sanity (but return that can of expired tuna for a new one. Express outrage at the store for selling outdated product even if you bought it a year ago. If you’re truly hungry, I believe you will be forgiven for this sin.)
Chris Rock provided a blurb for the book; it got a coveted Oprah shoutout in 2002. Aaron MacGruder, of The Boondocks fame, did all the illustrations. It was popular and well-received. Nissel started writing for the popular show Scrubs in 2002, so she was at least a player in television circles and a known quantity. And to top it all off, Halle Berry bought the options to BOTH The Broke Diaries and her memoir Mixed! So where’s the show/movie on either book? Nissel explains:
Is Mixed going to be on TV? I heard you’re working with Halle Berry.
Wow, how’d you hear that? I just said it was a super-secret television project. Hmmm, okay…Halle Berry and her manager, Vincent Cirrincione have optioned both of my books. We are combining our powers and executive producing a show. Will it ever actually make it onto television? We’ll see. Television is a weird and fickle chick. But, of course, if it doesn’t make it on the air, I’ll erase this paragraph and act like it never happened.
That’s just one story. But for the sake of argument, one could convincingly chalk Nissel’s experience up to the time before YouTube was huge and people get deals these days from their web series.
Dunham and friends created Delusional Downtown Divas back in 2010, which aspires to be an NYC art world version of Portlandia. Watching the series just made me nostalgic for this Liquid Television relic:
Tell that to Issa Rae, creator of the popular and award-winning series Awkward Black Girl. Even by the standards of the new playbook, Issa Rae did everything right. She built her own following, with each webisode averaging from 300,000 – 500,000+ viewers on YouTube. (I would compare this to the viewership for Delusional Downtown Divas but the first season has been removed, and the second is hosted on Vimeo where the stats trend lower than YouTube.) She went outside of the usual framework for a heroine and boldly presented a different vision of black womanhood. She got tons of online accolades and buzz from blogs as well as mainstream media outlets.
The first episode has 900,000+ views on YouTube.
Will you turn Awkward Black Girl into a full-length show?
After meeting with a couple different executives in television, and seeing our visions don’t really align, I don’t want to sell my life to it now. In one meeting, during the first ten seconds, this guy said, “The show is pretty funny. This is about a typical black woman with her black women problems.” And then said big names were necessary to make it to television. Everything we were against, he was for. It was just one meeting, but for me, that was all I needed to realize we’re in the right space, and I realized I’m not ready to hear those things just yet. For season two, we’re working to build our audience and leverage our audience to networks to say, “We’re successful showrunners, give us a chance to have creative control.” I would love Awkward Black Girl to be on television, with the right team of people who understand and get it. If Awkward Black Girl could make it to HBO starring a dark-skinned black girl, that would be revolutionary.
Dunham has full creative control over her series. Why shouldn’t Issa Rae?
And to add insult to injury, Rae’s work caught the attention of the Shorty Awards, who named Awkward Black Girl Best Web Show. For that honor, she was treated to racist hate mail and twitter campaigns. As she writes in “People on the Internet Can Be Hella Racist:”
It was bad enough that fans had traveled all this way and lost, but to lose to a “black show” that they had “never even heard of?!” The NERVE! The Shorty Awards “are bullshit,” they cried. Completely unfair.
I can only imagine their confused anger at the fact that their “envelope-pushing,” irreverently racist comedy shows lost to something called, “Awkward Black Girl” — it not only makes me laugh, but it reminds me of why I wanted to create ABG in the first place.
And the tweets have it:
But ultimately, if people choose not to see that one of the roots of this problem is racism, they won’t.
Why is Girls considered more “universal”, or more defining of a generation, than this monologue from Romance Of The Three Kitchens?