The speed of the conversational cycle around Girls has been whiplash-inspiring, from critical praise, mine included, to a range of critiques that run the gamut from the weirdly sexist and nasty to the thoughtful and convincing, particularly when it comes to the show’s non-approach approach to race and diversity. There’s no answer to the charges that Girls is extremely white, and that all four main characters are the daughters of famous people, some of whom have extensive connections in show business. Whatever relationship those facts have to the actual quality of the show, they are undeniably true. The people of color we see in the pilot are Joy Lee, once Hannah’s fellow intern, now an employee at the publishing house that has declined to hire Hannah, and the black man who harasses Hannah on the street on her way home from the hotel where her parents were saying. There’s no member of the ensemble cast the show can point to as evidence that Hannah’s world is broader, or that the one of the goals of the casting process was to hire people of color. Ultimately though, I don’t think this conversation is about Girls. I think it’s about the fact that this is an arid media landscape, and when people crawled to the oasis, some of us found the water we were looking for, but not everyone did. And the important thing to do is to find more oasises, and to define what we need from all of them, rather than burdening one show with the obligation to satisfy everyone’s thirst.
I’d suggest that we need two broad categories of diversity on television: broad shows that include broadly diverse casts, and shows that take deep dives into necessarily narrow settings. While we’ve made some progress on making the former kind of show diverse, we’ve done worse at making sure that those deep dives don’t just explore white settings and the perspectives of white auteurs who have created them.
A show like Happy Endings or Bent where the characters are racially, sexually, and somewhat socio-economically diverse, is one of the things we should be striving for, but it isn’t the only thing we should want. Heterogeneity is a fact of life for a lot of people, and for a lot of settings, but not all of them. There are settings where an overwhelmingly-majority white main cast seems thematically and appropriate, as is the case with the seasons of Mad Men that precede this one. I think there is an argument to be made that the whiteness of Girls is a manifestation of how cloistered the characters’ lives are. In two years in the city, they’ve mostly failed to establish relationships outside the group of people they graduated from college with. That may be the show’s myopia, or the characters’ limitations, or both, but as with many things in Girls, those perspectives are not actually one and the same.
If Hollywood was genuinely interested in telling a wide and creative array of stories, we’d have shows where it made sense to have an all-black, all-Latino, or all-Asian core cast as well, and I think that’s something we should want. I’d have been deeply irritated by the insertion of a white roommate as a core member of the ensemble on Living Single because the network thought that sort of decision would increase the marketability of the show to a white audience. That would disrupt the characters’ ability to assume that they have certain cultural reference points and life experiences in common, and correspondingly, their ability to discuss them without pausing for explanations. The futzing with Margaret Cho’s sitcom All-American Girl to first make her seem more legibly Asian to audiences, and later to replace Asian characters with white ones would be unacceptable even if it was in service of an overall network goal of making sure all shows had mixed-race casts. People are different when they’re in homogeneous settings, and there are interesting stories to be told there, whether a piece of culture explores the lives of Orthodox Jews or Baltimore drug organizations. I want television to carry me places that I don’t already go, but I’m relieved that Girls exists because it means that I also have a flawed, weird little home on TV, and I want everyone to have something that feels that way to them, because it feels wonderful, and I don’t take it for granted.
There’s a world in which Girls’ whiteness wouldn’t be so alienating: a media landscape in which we had a healthy mix of shows and movies created and run by men and women, people of color as well as white folks, and dedicated to the deep exploration of experiences that range from tight, insular groups of friends to the mechanics of bureaucracy. Girls is successful because of what makes it different from existing television, not because of the whiteness and class perspective it has in common with many of the people who make television. For those of us who like it, Girls is currently very technically accomplished and a lot of uncomfortably true fun. The test of whether it’s important will be whether it serves as the thin edge of a wedge that opens up television further. That’s an impossible burden to put on any show. But whether it asked for them or not, Girls is carrying a lot of those already.
Lesley Arfin, apparently a writer on Girls, has tweeted: “What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.” This is about as un-constructive and un-self-aware a response to this kind of hugely valid criticism as you can possibly get. As Jay Smooth put it to Lena Dunham on Twitter, “You need to come get your people.”