This article was originally published here and has been posted here with permission.
By Nicole Lee
I love Lena Dunham. Say what you will, but the fact that the girl wrote, directed and acted in her own show, while at the same time managing to make a nuanced commentary on the struggle of today’s Internet drenched, recession happy, self-focussed generation – before the age of 25 no less – makes the star of HBO’s new series Girls nothing short of a genius.
Much has been made of the ‘whiteness’ of the Girls world over the past week. I won’t repeat all the arguments here (you can read some very compelling and insightful arguments online: Hairpin, Jezebel, Racialicious, Gawker and an entire Room For Debate on New York Times), but the general gist of it is that for a TV show that paints the Gen Y female experience with such painful clarity, the glaring absence of “ethnic” (and I put that in quotation marks because everyone is ethnic to some culture or another) characters seems a sore disappointment.
I have only seen one episode, the pilot. From its opening scenario I was hooked. As an ambitious drama school graduate, I have had to take on low-paying jobs, accept parental handouts and turn my face away from more ‘stable’ opportunities in the name of becoming a fully-fledged “artist.” So too did I identify with the closeness of the female relationships portrayed on the show, their complex relationships with their bodies, and the strange and inexplicable relationships they have with guys – when the males of our generation have been brought up on an easily accessible diet of Internet porn, why wouldn’t you both be convinced of the dysfunctional nature of it? Girls resembles my life closer than anything I’ve seen on television. The only other show that came close in terms of values was Sex and the City – albeit much glossier and sexier than my life could or would ever be.
So then what’s all the fuss? Before watching the show I had read a glowing cover story in New York Magazine about the show – the brilliance of its star, the openness of her relationship with producer Judd Apatow, the comparisons to Sex and the City. At back of my mind was the criticism about the cast being all white, but for the first watch I cast it aside. So? I thought. Most American TV shows are. And yet, despite two racial stereotypes popping up (which, it could be argued, is what made the show even whiter), at the end of the half hour it did seem strange that a show about New York had gone by without a single memorable blast of colour.
I got it immediately. Lena Dunham’s characters were all white because she was trying to paint a “white people’s problem.” As a child of affluent artistic parents (and indeed all of the lead females are famous progeny, whether it was intentional or not) she had probably grown up around other privileged artistic kids and was portraying what she knew. In making her feature Tiny Furniture, made for an impressive $25,000, not only did she raise capital from family and friends, but her parents gave her their apartment to use and acted in it (like rowing, filmmaking is an elite sport). At Oberlin college, she studied creative writing. White kids everywhere there. Clearly she was surrounded by a supportive and affluent environment.
But on reflection I changed my mind. I had responded to the show because I identified with it. Hipsterdom and artistic lifestyles are not the realm of the white and privileged. At drama school my other “ethnic” classmates were from different privileges and backgrounds, as were my white classmates. I had begun a career pursuing something much more stable but left in the hopes of becoming, much like the ironic comments of Dunham’s character Hannah in Girls, one of “the voice(s) of my generation.” Like the author of Stuff White People Like Christian Lander suggests, “white people” really refers to an outlook, not a racial identity: like Hannah my friends and I are “left-leaning, inner-city hipsters who believe (we)’re unique — despite the fact (we)’re actually all the same.” Where was I in this picture?
For some shows, this is excusable. Mad Men, of course, is clearly about the lives of white advertising men in the 60s (although it does seem strange that only now a prominent black character as been brought in). Game of Thrones, which I dearly love, is obviously based on a mythology whose otherness is based around dragons and “white walkers” (although Starz new TV series Marco Polo, to be shot in China and based around the adventures of Kubla Khan’s court, might now soon appease those who have been wondering when the world was going to get its first English-language epic Asian historical fantasy series, myself included). Friends and Seinfeld were made in times when whitewashing was the norm. But with The Wire’s Baltimore, Glee’s California high schools and Grey’s Anatomy’s Chicago being racially, sexual orientation and size and shape diverse, should not Girls’ 2012 New York be assorted also?
It has been odd reading about the issues of race on television and film in the US recently, because in Australia the lack of diversity casting is so widespread that it has always been the case to look towards the Northern Hemisphere for examples and support. Many times as a young actor I have been advised that of someone of colour I should go to the US to look for work, and in all honesty, the numbers look more promising. On Hawaii Five-O, two lead actors are of Korean origin; Heroes and Lost promoted heavily diverse ensemble casts; Grey’s Anatomy is a pioneer of colour-blind casting; The Office, Modern Family and The Good Wife all offer diverse casts in all areas, including race. In Australia growing up I was spurred on by the Asian faces I saw reflected back at me in local children’s television shows; as an adult, however, I see myself rarely, if at all. Recently, the government body ABC’s high quality TV drama The Slap observed a highly colourful and eclectic portrait of contemporary Australia; however these kinds of shows are uncommon and rare.
But it is clear that this is a systemic problem, not just one of a single network or television show. In both the US and Australia, the lack of diversity amongst casts on stage and screen means that entire cultural groups are being denied their right to be part of their nation’s story. What we want to see is not necessarily our “refugee” stories or “slave” stories or “immigration” stories, (although these stories are valid too and deserve their own space and come with their own set of struggles and limitations – something misunderstood by Girls staff writer Lesley Arfin in this Twitter post), but our faces as the common people; the girl who goes to college, sleeps with the wrong guy, stresses over money. Any of these characters on ‘Girls’ could be white; but just as easily they could be of African, Asian or Mediterranean descent. And it would still be the story of a girl.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nicole Lee is an actor and writer living in Melbourne, Australia. She blogs here.