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Girls In White

Posted by Francie Latour  April 13, 2012 11:31 AM

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Since no one else seems to be saying it or feeling it, I guess I'll just come out and say it, because I feel it: I have a problem with Lena Dunham.

Dunham, you may have heard, is the 25-year-old New York filmmaker, producer and actress behind the much-hyped HBO comedy Girls, which premieres this Sunday. The series chronicles the slackerish adventures, awkward hook-ups and studied self-deprecation of four 20-something friends in New York City, and as many a glowing review has pointed out, these are not women strutting Manhattan sidewalks in Manolos or battling to earn $2-a-word at Vogue. These are the anti-Sex and the City girls, perpetually and almost professionally adrift, their characters drawn with the same wry humor and specificity that made Dunham's first feature film, Tiny Furniture, a huge success.

With Girls, Dunham has been catapulted from indie-film darling to Hollywood It-girl, heralded by culture critics as a fearless visionary capturing the zeitgeist of young cosmopolitan womanhood in a post-Carrie-Bradshaw age. But the problem I have with Dunham is that the vision of New York City she's offering us in 2012 -- like Sex and the City in 1998 and for that matter Friends in 1994 -- is almost entirely devoid of the people who make up the large majority of New Yorkers, and have for some time now: Latinos, Asians and blacks.


Fictional "Girls," daughters of privilege: From left Allison Williams (daughter of NBC anchor Brian Williams), Jemima Kirke (daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke), Lena Dunham (daughter of art photographer Laurie Simmons) and Zosia Mamet (daughter of playwright David Mamet) play four 20-somethings in a statistically impossible New York City.

It's a zeitgeist so glaring and grounded in statistical reality that Hollywood has to will itself not to see it: America is transforming into a majority-minority nation faster than experts could have predicted, yet the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in America is delivered to us again and again on the small screen as a virtual sea of white. The census may tell us that blacks, Latinos and Asians together make up 64.4 percent of New York City's population. But if you watch CSI: NY on a regular basis, you'd think the only person of color you're likely to meet in Manhattan is a forensic scientist who works in a high-tech basement. (God bless you, Harper Hill).

Much of Girls is actually set in Brooklyn, a borough where just one-third of the population is white. Yet as Dunham's character, 24-year-old unemployed writer Hannah Horvath, and her friends fumble through life with cutting wit and low self-esteem, they do it in a virtually all-white bubble.

That brings me to the thing that bothers me even more about Dunham: Earlier this week, when the question of the show's lack of diversity and "white-girl-problems" focus was put to her directly, this bold visionary now running her own HBO show suddenly lost all her agency. The fearless and fearlessly honest auteur blazing a new trail in television could barely bring herself to own her own series.

"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."

In other words: Who, me? This isn't actually my show! I'm just the intern who gets coffee for the guy who's really making all the calls, Judd Apatow!

Dunham has wished some bold wishes in the past couple years: that she might land a deal with the king of cable, that HBO might give a 25-year-old almost total creative control over her first-ever series for television, that she might rise to the top of the entertainment heap as a woman without being blond, thin, tall or alluring in the way almost all women who make it in Hollywood are.

It's a testament to Dunham that she's made these wishes come true. But it's also a testament to the hollowness and hypocrisy of her words when she says she wished her series had more women of color, but was somehow powerless to do anything about it. While I doubt luck has had much to do with Dunham's meteoric rise, it sounds like we will now be waiting for her to get "lucky" to address the fact that her bold vision for young womanhood in New York doesn't actually look anything like New York.

Much has been written about the persistence of tokenism in Hollywood, and especially the token black female BFF (always sassy, never with real lives of their own). But even among these ghettoized roles, there is an especially absurd and disturbing category of tokenism of shows that are set in cities and neighborhoods where you'd normally encounter people of color all the time. Blair Underwood, who played the rare black love interest on Sex and the City, knows this pain. So does Aisha Tyler, who did it on Friends. So did Alicia Keys in The Nanny Diaries, and Tracie Thoms in The Devil Wears Prada, also set in New York.

I'm not sure what Dunham means when she says she plans to address the near non-existence of people of color on her Brooklyn-based show. But if it follows the well-worn path Hollywood has traveled time and time again, there's a large and growing swath of 21st century American women who won't see her hit series as remotely bold or anything approaching new. To us, it will be as visionary as vanilla.

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About the author

Francie Latour writes about race, gender, ethnicity, and cultural identity. She’s written about everything from working-mom guilt to black Barbies as a contributor to The Boston Globe, where she worked for 11 years as an investigative reporter and features writer. More »

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