Tag Archives: Lena Dunham

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.

Why Can’t Black Women Claim Sluttiness, Again?

By Guest Contributor Laura K. Warrell

Black woman orgasm

In the June issue of Glamour magazine, spunky rock chick Pink declares herself a “reformed slut,” describing her brush with whorishness as an “unsophisticated” attempt at taking back her sexual power from men.

“I’ve always had an issue with [the idea that]: ‘Okay, we’ve both decided to do this,’” she says.  “‘Why am I a slut and you’re the player?  You didn’t get anything from me that I didn’t get from you.”

This “anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better” attitude has been key to the burgeoning cultural narrative around slutdom, and it’s an attitude I’m mostly down with.  Still, I found myself bristling when I read Pink’s interview.  At first I thought my politics were offended: is Pink suggesting that sexual experimentation for women is a moral crime that ultimately requires “reform?”  But then I realized, as a black woman, what I was really feeling was resentment, even envy–what a luxury is has to be able to publicly declare her sexual independence without having to worry how the declaration might affect her credibility, career, or romantic prospects.

In recent years, scads of books and other commercial works of art have been tossed onto the pop-culture landscape by white women reminiscing about their “phases” of sexual promiscuity, often told from the comfort of their fulfilled, easy-peasy lives as wives and mothers.  In March, comedienne and NPR host Ophira Eisenberg published Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy about banging everything in Manhattan with a bulge before settling down with her handsome, comic book-writing husband.  In 2010, Jillian Lauren published Some Girls: My Life in a Harem about kicking it with the Sultan of Brunei before marrying a rock star and adopting a cute kid.  And since 2005’s My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands, Chelsea Handler and many of her sassy gal pals have built thriving careers around being drunk and easy.  Then of course, we have the fictionalized slut phase Hannah braves through on Girls in order to bring her creator, Lena Dunham, cultural relevance and Emmy awards.

So why aren’t these stories by or about Black women?

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The Racialicious Links Roundup 5.23.13

Make no mistake: This donation is historic. It appears to be the largest gift by a black man to any college or university, comparable to the gift Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, gave to Spelman College in 1988. Some 25 years later, their $20-million gift (about $39 million in inflation-adjusted dollars) is still the largest-ever private gift to a historically black college. Dre gave USC almost triple the amount Oprah Winfrey has given Morehouse College over the years. Sean “Diddy” Combs gave $500,000 to Howard University in 1999, which he attended before launching a successful career.

A hip-hop icon is now the new black higher-ed philanthropy king. We’ve never seen a donation to rival this from any black celebrity — musician, athlete or actor — and that fact must be celebrated.

But as the president of a black college, it pains me as well. I can’t help but wish that Dre’s wealth, generated as it was by his largely black hip-hop fans, was coming back to support that community.

USC is a great institution, no question. But it has a $3.5-billion endowment, the 21st largest in the nation and much more than every black college — combined. Less than 20% of USC’s student body qualifies for federal Pell Grants, given to students from low-income families, compared with two-thirds of those enrolled at black colleges. USC has also seen a steady decrease in black student enrollment, which is now below 5%.

A new report on black male athletes and racial inequities shows that only 2.2% of USC undergrads are black men, compared with 56% of its football and basketball teams, one of the largest disparities in the nation. And given USC’s $45,602 tuition next year, I’m confident Dre could have sponsored multiple full-ride scholarships to private black colleges for the cost of one at USC.

The comparison has been made before between Lena Dunham and Beyoncé as feminist icons. Mainstream white feminist organizations don’t question whether Lena Dunham, a self-professed feminist, is feminist enough. Though her show Girls has come under fire in more progressive wings of feminism, mainstream feminist organizations embrace her, happily framing her as a new face of feminism. Dunham openly swears, walks around naked, and simulates sex onscreen, but there is no larger mainstream questioning of her feminist credentials. But when Beyoncé, a fierce, independent woman of color flirts with the feminist monikerthe backlash begins. How interesting.

Dunham has appeared fully naked on her show. She has both appeared in and written some highly provocative and often controversial sex scenes. Her character has been shown snorting cocaine and having one-night stands, yet no one questions Dunham’s feminist credentials. And they shouldn’t — her choice to appear naked and in simulated sex scenes is not anti-feminist. It’s a choice that she made, an artistic choice meant to explore sexuality, sexual expression, and the limits of her character.

And yet, Beyoncé is often roundly criticized in feminist spaces because of her “slutty” outfits, herovertly-sexual dance moves, for her lyric choices, for using the moniker Mrs. Carter, and her occasional use of the word bitch. Who are we, feminists? Is this who we want to be? You sound like Phyllis Schlafly. She wears a unitard — she can’t be a feminist! She is gyrating and shaking her butt — how inappropriate! She said the word “bitch” — that’s a feminist no-no! Do you hear yourselves, white liberal feminists? Do you hear what you are doing to this strong, independent black woman?

That Olivia Pope is the new darling of network television is less surprising than you might think, if you really take the time to think about it and to consider it within the context of America’s strange relationship with its dark racial past. After 40 years without a leading black female in a network drama – 40 years which has seen the likes of cornrows at Wimbledon and the White House – it’s more than about time, it’s way overdue (interestingly, if you Google “black female accomplishments of the past 40 years,” Kerry Washington’s Wikipedia page is the sixth entry). But the hype aroundScandal feels different than the catharsis traditionally felt when glass ceilings are nudged by nappy or nappy-in-spirit heads of hair. This is at least in part due to the show’s success lying in not only one fictional black woman’s double-duty reign on the mountaintop and roll in the hay; Scandal’s real shocker is that it represents a trifecta of black female power, visibility, and influence in the entertainment industry. The show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, who, according to Willa Paskin of The New York Times, is “one of the most powerful show runners in the business,” the real-life inspiration for its protagonist, crisis manager Judy Smith, and its leading lady, the hybrid star and character, brown bombshell Kerry Washington/Olivia Pope, who is brilliant, cunning, and stunningly beautiful.

Rhimes is a crafty one, to say the least. She learned the hard way “how to be a boss and a leader at the same time,” forced to transition from a self-sequestered screenwriter into the powerhouse Midas she is now, as her first network effort, Grey’s Anatomy, turned directly into prime-time gold. Paskin’s NYT piece paints a picture of a woman who earned and owns the right to write the counter-culture D.C. of Scandal,where “America is run by an African-American spin expert, a scheming first lady and a mercenary gay guy.” Furthermore, Shonda Rhimes’ facility with social networking has made her show the industry’s darling test-tube baby of multi-media engagement and viewership, prompting the Los Angeles Times’ Mary McNamara to crown Scandal“the show that Twitter built.” Rhimes regularly sends Tweets of gratitude to 350,000 followers and fans, who include among their number former-D.C. mayor Marion Barry; while cast members Tweet from the set, and fans respond in kind. All of this has made the show a social media phenomenon, and the first to achieve the multi-screen orgy network execs have been trying to pull off since prime-time ratings started falling.

While I was a teenager during the grunge and Riot Grrrl era, for some reason I was (at the time) more drawn to hyper-masculine, testosterone-saturated grunge and metal bands and was not that interested in what was happening on the other side of the scene. As Hanna’s talk was intriguing, I took the opportunity to check out The Punk Singer, part of the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto.

About 10 minutes into the documentary, I knew that I had made a colossal mistake.

Well, actually, as soon as I saw a snippet of 17 year-old fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson waxing poetic about an era she was not even alive to witness, I knew that I would not be able to put my personal biases in regards to my age—and more importantly, my ethnicity as a black woman—aside when watching this documentary.

From watching The Punk Singer, I realized why I had never been that psyched on the Riot Grrrl scene. It wasn’t for me. It was for white women.

At the most basic level, there’s nothing any more wrong with aspiring to be a rapper than there is with aspiring to be a painter, or an actor, or a sculptor. Hip-hop has produced some of the most penetrating art of our time, and inspired much more. My path to this space began with me aspiring to be rapper. Hip-hop taught me to love literature. I am not alone. Perhaps you should not aspire to be a rapper because it generally does not provide a stable income. By that standard you should not aspire to be a writer, either.

At a higher level, there is the time-honored pattern of looking at the rather normal behaviors of black children and pathologizing them. My son wants to play for Bayern Munich. Failing that, he has assured me he will be Kendrick Lamar. When I was kid I wanted to be Tony Dorsett — or Rakim, whichever came first. Perhaps there is some corner of the world where white kids desire to be Timothy Geithner instead of Tom Brady. But I doubt it. What is specific to black kids is that their dreams often don’t extend past entertainment and athletics  That is a direct result of the kind of limited cultural exposure you find in impoverished, segregated neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are the direst result of American policy.

Enacting and enforcing policy is the job of the Obama White House. When asked about policy for African Americans, the president has said, “I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of all America.” An examination of the Obama administration’s policy record toward black people clearly bears this out. An examination of the Obama administration’s rhetoric, as directed at black people, tells us something different.

Why I Wrote A Mad Men Episode With Negroes

By Special Guest Contributor Erika Alexander; cross-posted from Showbiz Is Glamorous 

"Mad Men Remix." Illustration by Brian Sanders. Remixed by Tony Puryear.

“Mad Men Remix.” Illustration by Brian Sanders; remixed by Tony Puryear.

Why did I write an episode of Mad Men with Negroes? And by that I mean with “Negro” characters in it, not with.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Anyway, why did I write an episode of TV that I know will never be made? 

Though I work as an actress and have pitched and sold a television series or two in my time in Hollywood, I’m not a writer on Mad Men, so this episode won’t appear anywhere but here. Why, then? And why negroes? Aren’t we finished with all that? In honor of the Season 6 premiere, let me tell you about it.

I like Mad Men. A lot. I like the subject matter (advertising); I like the cast (Don Draper is hot); I like the look (sexy Eames meets Op Art); I like the writing (Matthew Weiner is a storytelling beast). I love the writing.

I have only one issue with Mad Men (OK, with a bunch of shows, but let’s stick with this one): I’d love to see more diversity. I’m a Black actress, so diversity is an issue that comes up for me. A lotMad MenGame Of ThronesGirlsVeep–these are cool shows, except for the fact that they would really rock with more people of color, series regulars or otherwise. I complain, wtf?…and bemoan, WTF!…but alas, for all my years in TV, I’m not able to make a difference in my own living room. Or am I?

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Black People Review Girls (2.2): Dear Joe, Nothing Happened

By Kendra James

Lena Dunham (L) and Donald Glover from HBO’s “Girls.” Image via The Hollywood Reporter.

Dear Joe,

I watched the season premiere of Girls last week deciding that–after a good hour or so of snark directed in Dunham’s direction on Twitter– I’d pretend I didn’t know any of the drama swirling around the show. Why? Well, I only made it four episodes into Season One of Girls, less because of my offended sensibilities and more because I was just bored. The show bored me–and before you say anything, my addiction to Showtime and FX hour-longs proves that I’m capable of enjoying TV without vampires, werewolves, and witches, okay?

Anyway, I was bored with last season but I was willing to make a concession: given how I felt about the show’s…well, everything…was I really going to judge it fairly? Probably not. So Season 2 was going to get the benefit of the doubt.

And the first two episodes have!

But, Joe, I’m still bored.
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Black People Review Girls (2.1): A Letter From Joe To Kendra

By Joseph Lamour

girls2
Dear Kendra,

Did you have a good weekend? I hope you did. Mine was pretty great: friends, karaoke, laughter, moderately priced alcohol, and other 20-something stereotypes…Instagramming, there was definitely a lot Instagramming. So… Is it as foggy in New York as it is in Washington, DC right now? Because I’m feeling a little like I’m trapped in that Lana Del Rey video. Anyway…

I just wanted to break the ice before our season-long foray into talking at length about Lena Dunham’s Girls. I know, Kendra: the idea of Lena and Lena’s television program and requiring you to watch Lena and Lena’s television program for the site is a less than thrilling idea for a lot of people…and even less than less for entertainment writers like us who are attuned to TV stereotypes and diversity shortages. None of us were thrilled about the whole debacle last year. There was quite an article about it on the site, as you know—you wrote it, after all.

So, Kendra, I’ve watched the first episode of Season 2 already. I’ll let you know what I’m thinking, and I’ll wait for a reply with your own thoughts. We’ll be kind of like pen pals who are super-focused on talking about something neither is particularly fond of. Kidding, of course… sort of.

To the topic at hand!

Plot spoilers below the cut. You’ve been warned…

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The Racialicious Entertainment Roundup 1.6-11.13

By Arturo R. García, Kendra James, and  Joseph Lamour

Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis. Via Fox Searchlight.

2013 Oscar Nominations: Nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis made history Thursday when she became the youngest actress ever nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress–part of the somewhat surprising nomination haul for Beasts Of The Southern Wild, which is also up for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (director Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar), as well as a Best Director nod for Zeitlin.

The only other PoC up for major awards, however, are Life of Pi director Ang Lee (Best Director) and Denzel Washington, who earned his fourth Best Actor nomination for Flight. Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kerry Washington were all passed over for their turns in Django Unchained, as was director Quentin Tarantino. (The year’s other prestige slavery film, Lincoln, gathered 12 nominations, most overall.)

The Black Comic Book Festival: The Black Comic Book Festival will take place this Saturday, January 12, from 10am-4pm at the Schomburg Center (NYPL) in Harlem. It is, of course, happening a mere 15 blocks from my home…while I have to be at work. I won’t be able to go, but if you enjoy any of the reporting Arturo occasionally does on comics here at the R and yearn for inclusiveness at larger cons like NYCC and SDCC, this may be an event for you.
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The Racialicious TV Roundup

By Managing Editor Arturo R. García and Guest Contributor Kendra James

“Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” creator Issa Rae. Via ABC News.

Issa Rae: Well, this is how web television supporters say it’s supposed to work. Now, can Rae and Shonda Rhimes deliver?

Earlier this week, Rhimes, the showrunner behind Scandal and Grey’s Academy, sold a sitcom to ABC reportedly titled I Hate LA Dudes. On the surface, it doesn’t sound that different in tone from Rae’s acclaimed (if occasionally problematic) Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.

But in going from the wilds of YouTube to Pharrell Wiliams’ i am OTHER channel and now to serving as co-executive producer and writer on a broadcast television show, Rae becomes the first notable web creator to complete the circuit. This brings pressure on multiple fronts: not only does she become, for better or worse, a test run for creators and executives looking to see how her style and fanbase translate to a “mainstream” stage, but you have to figure no small percentage of ABG fans will seek reassurance that the comedy that drew them to that show survives the migration.

On the other hand, with Rae making the airwaves not long after Mindy Kaling’s own ascension, we also have to ask ourselves: how much does progress need to be progressive? –AG

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