Category Archives: Culturelicious

Thursday Throwback: Dear Lena Dunham: I Exist

By Guest Contributor Kendra James (Originally posted on April 9, 2012)

Lena Dunham (third from left) and cast of Girls. Courtesy: Rolling Stone.

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:

Courtesy: Girls staff writer Lesley Arfin, via Twitter

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.

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Broadway Preview: A Raisin In The Sun

By Kendra James

On Thursday night WNYC presented A Raisin In The Sun: Inside Look at The Greene Space in New York City. Joining moderator Elliot Forrest for an hour long discussion on the new Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s play were director Kenny Leon with cast members, Anika Noni Rose, Sean Patrick Thomas, and Stephen McKinley Henderson.

Our readers are encouraged to watch the video in full (it’s an hour long, but a good Friday afternoon lunch time distraction). The discussion and the subsequent Q&A has that rare perfect mix  of a great moderator, intelligent and thoughtful panellists, and an engaged audience that proceeded to ask insightful questions. Some of the discussion highlights included:

  • Kenny Leon has done A Raisin In The Sun several times in various productions, including the production with Sean Combs that premièred on Broadway ten years ago.  When planning for this production he wanted the audience to ask, “What does it mean to do this play ten years later?” The panel pointed out that African-American plays often lack reinventing for new generations, but that a show like Raisin should be affected by events like the election of a Black president and the two Stand Your Ground trials in Florida.
  • Also in that vein, Leon wanted this audience to see Travis (the Younger’s son) not just as a boy, but as the man that he’d become. It was important to him that people actively engage and think about what his life would be like in America ten years from the moments presented on stage.
  • Stephen McKinley Henderson gave a cold reading of Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem which provided Raisin its name.
  • Broadway always seems a bit starved for original content when the new season rolls around. As mentioned this is the second revival of Raisin in 10 years, and it joins shows like Aladdin, Rocky, The Bridges of Madison CountyCabaretLes Miserables, and many other revivals or adaptations coming this spring and fall.  So it was appreciated when a blogger from Arts In Color got up to ask if the cast had any favourite young POC playwrights producing original material fit for the stage. Answers included Danai Gurira, Robert O’Hara, Dominique Morisseau, Marcus Gardley, Lydia Diamond, and Katori Hall.

A Raisin In The Sun also stars Denzel Washington (Walter Lee Younger) and Sophie Okonedo (Ruth Younger) and begins previews at the Barrymore Theatre (home of the original production in 1959) on March 8. Thanks to WNYC for having us, and to Anika Noni Rose for not laughing when I told her about the time I auditioned to be Tiana for Disney On Ice.

NYCC Panel Recap; Geeks Of Color Assemble!: Minorities in Fandom

by Kendra James

The Geeks Of Color Assemble!: Minorities in Fandom panel featured friends of the R activist, academic, and steampunk blogger Diana Pho (who acted as moderator) and fantasy author N.K Jemisin, a friend of mine, cosplayer Jay Justice, cosplayer and prop maker Ger Tysk, writers Jeffrey Wilson, Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, and Emmanuel Ortiz, and writer, blogger and classical music student Muse En Lystrala. As we’ve already covered it was one of the few panels to feature an all POC lineup and subjects of discussion. It also proved to be popular enough that several people waiting in line were unable to attend in the end. Hopefully this roundup helps ease the pain for some of those who were unable to get into this excellent discussion.

Before we dive into the questions and answers presented, it’s important to take a moment to emphasise a point Pho made towards the end of the evening.

If you attended the panel and you liked what you heard, if you wanted to attend the panel but couldn’t, if you wanted to attend but were turned away, or if you simply like what you read of the discussion in this post: Please let those who run New York Comic Con know that you want to see more varied and diverse content at future events. You can rate the panel on the NYCC phone app, you can tweet at them @NY_Comic_Con, or you can write an email to Lance Fensterman and his staff at lance@email-reedexpo.com as I plan to. Anything you can do to make your voice heard is a positive step toward bringing in some change next year.

With that said, let’s get to the panel under the cut:

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Spirit Day Special: Women and the Word Takes The Show On The Road

By Arturo R. García

The documentary Women and the Word would be worth spotlighting any day, but it’s an especially good time to consider it on Spirit Day. The all-woman project spotlights a group of queer women artists as they hit the road for a series of shows that, as the trailer promises, has “an energy, an attitude, a swag, that’s never been seen before in literary art.”

Filmmakers Andrea Boston and Sekiya Dorsett’s follow visual artist Elizah Turner, musicians Be Steadwell and Jonquille “SolSis” Rice and poet (also known as Dappho the Flow-Er), T’ai Freedom Ford, as well as executive producer and “tour mastermind” Jade Foster, who called the nine-city series of shows “The Revival,” after a 2009 gathering that gave Foster the idea to put it together as a showcase and safe space for queer women of color. The film also features interviews with Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Kim Katrin Crosby, and members of the Earth Pearl Collective, among others.

The project is also currently raising funds on Kickstarter to cover the final $15,000 in post-production costs, an all-or-nothing campaign that ends on November 12.

“A successful Kickstarter campaign is critical, not only for the creation of our film, but for the advancement of queerwomen of color,” Dorsett says. “Our beautiful stories should be included in the cultural discussion and shared by members of our community and beyond. We exist. And our voices must be heard.”

Wrapped: New York Comic Con May Need To Move Out

New York Comic Con: Bringing together Rainbow Dashes of all ages.

2013: The year when, at 130,000 attendees, New York Comic Con officially outgrew the Jacob Javits Center. And unfortunately, because of its awkward location, I’m not exactly sure how they’re going to solve this one.

The lack of space affected several aspects of the overall experience this year from the floor feeling more claustrophobic than it ever has in the past, to lines for panels being capped up to 40 minutes in advance of the actual start time. It’s genuinely hard to believe that last year I only had to wait in line for a half hour to get into the Teen Wolf panel and was able to save a seat (a good seat!) for my friend who rushed in at the last minute. This year I avoided that room –1-E, the New York version of Hall H– entirely only to be treated later to horror stories about waiting in line for two hours only to be told later that there was no way you were getting in.

It wasn’t only the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and The Walking Dead types of panels where line waiting and lack of space turned ugly. Those panels were lucky to have the space they did. Smaller panels, including the five (we found one more; last year’s Hip Hop and Comics panel made a return on Sunday at 2:30) on race, diversity, representation, and generally marginalised voices, weren’t always given that space luxury and when the lines were capped well in advance of their start times it meant that a significant amount of people were locked out. I arrived about an 50-60 minutes in advance of the Minorities in Fandom panel after learning the hard way for The Mary Sue panel earlier that day that 20-30 minutes wasn’t going to cut it. Captain Marvel writer and Marvel panelist Kelly Sue DeConnick tweeted out about 30 minutes before the Women of Marvel panel was due to start that the line was about to cap. Since these were the only four options available for discussions in this vein it’s all the more disappointing that this was an ongoing theme.

Last year’s NYCC Hip-Hop panel was incredibly well attended, and The Black Panel at San Diego Comic Con this summer was one of the events to make. Combined with the lines and space issues this year, the draw and presence of an audience for these panels is clear, no matter what NYCC might think as they’re selecting what to feature. I heard several people muse and infer that the NYCC staff made a conscious decision this year to not be known as a convention with a heavy emphasis on “issues”. The few reports I heard of late commers (and by late, I mean people who were standing in line for up to 40 minutes) to the Mary Sue Panel being addressed as “hopeless idiots” by NYCC staffers aligns nicely with that mindset.

We needed more panels, yes, but if there were going to be so few selections those selections needed to be held in rooms large enough to accommodate the women, POCs, LGBTQ, and ally fans who just wanted to spend one hour hearing about something that directly concerned them. There are more of us than those organising the con thought.

One suggestion tossed around in conversation was the idea of satellite locations– using a variety of locations throughout the city to host off site events and panels. SDCC and Dragon*Con both do this by utilising several hotels in San Diego and Atlanta respectively while NYCC sticks solely to the Javits Center. Of course, the Javits Center basically being located in the middle of the West Side Highway, and across multiple expansive construction sites (the walk from 8th avenue to the Javits was murder this year) makes it difficult to imagine how satellite locations would work. The closest and largest hotels that might have the space for off site events are blocks away (New York City blocks; they’re longer than you might think) and it would be difficult to get back and forth without some sort of provided transportation. It could all be done, but I suspect we’d be looking at higher badge prices for future cons.

It’s a lot for Lance Fensterman and the rest of the NYCC team to consider, but it’s at least worth talking about if the ‘issues’ panels aren’t going to be automatically given the space they need.

Between the space and panel issues, the lack of wifi, coming home one afternoon to see several suspect tweets under my account, and the fact that this harassing camera crew got press passes when several legitimate media outlets didn’t, there wasn’t much to be impressed about with the way the con was run this year. With apologies issues concerning the tweet-jacking and the harassment, two of the four issues have been addressed. I’m very curious to see what –if anything– they’ll have to say about panels and space.

Aside from the above, I took away a few other stray observations from this year’s Con as well:

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Diverse Reads: The 2013 Brooklyn Book Festival

The Brooklyn Book Festival runs from September 16th-22nd, but the main stage of events takes place on the festival’s final day, September 22nd. There are over 40 panels open to the public and featuring a diverse group of book authors, columnists, and other writers speaking on a wide variety of subjects. Check out beneath the cuts for a selection of recommended panels featuring Saphire, Anthea Butler, Sonia Sanchez, James McBride, Toure, and many, many others. If you’re in the area next weekend this is an event I highly suggest stopping by, and if nothing on our list stirs your fancy you can see the full schedule here.

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The Racialicious San Diego Comic Con Preview: Thursday + Friday

By Kendra James

Well, it’s that time of year again!

Under the cut you’ll find the panels and presentations for Thursday and Friday at San Diego Comic Con 2013. Arturo and I will be live-tweeting panels throughout the four days (follow the official Racialicious account @Racialicious, Art @aboynamedart, and myself @wriglied to stay on top of things), and providing wrap ups and pictures afterwards. Asterisked events indicate things we’re definitely planning on attending, while the others are recommendations that just look interesting or fun.

If you’re just planning on wandering around and you happen to see either of us don’t hesitate to say hello! For my part, I’ll be the exhausted looking Black girl dressed as either a Captain America USO girl, a Teen Wolf lacrosse player, Maxine from Batman Beyond, or Indiana Jones.

Let us know in the comments if you have questions for specific panels via the comments, and stay tuned for Saturday and Sunday programming coming later today.

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