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Kayla Upadhyaya: HBO's 'Girls' misses opportunity to showcase diversity in the Big Apple

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Daily TV/New Media Columnist
Published April 15, 2012

As we come to the close of the regular television season, it’s time to start hunting for the buried treasures of summer programming. It’s true that summer shows used to — and can often still be — mostly mindless filler with a few gems sprinkled here and there. This week, HBO launched its new dramedy “Girls,” a show I’m simultaneously excited for and concerned about.

Let’s start with the good. “Girls,” created and written by its star Lena Dunham, follows four young women in their early 20s as they live, learn and love in New York City. Their ringleader is Hannah, an aspiring memoirist who is awkward, intense and ambitious.

As Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker puts it, “Girls” is like nothing else currently on television. It’s a sex comedy from the perspective of female characters, a show that prioritizes women’s sexual agency and healthy female friendships. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted from television!

Well, not quite. I’m worried about “Girls” because — despite all that it undertakes — it’s still exclusive. In a show set in one of the most racially and culturally diverse cities in the country, there isn’t a single woman of color in the core group of friends. These girls attended fancy liberal arts schools, and even though their parents have cut them off financially as a way to push them forward, they come from the upper class.

I’m concerned that “Girls” is going to relegate characters of color to background roles that pop up intermittently in the lives of these privileged white women. When shows do this, these characters are rarely fully developed or nuanced, usually based on stereotypes and assumptions. The promos don’t give me much hope: The only woman of color who appears is a gynecologist with some words of wisdom. I hope “Girls” will be smart enough not to throw in a sassy black friend or a sexually promiscuous Latina or an uptight Asian girl as filler or tokens that scream “hey, look, diversity!”

On the subject of tokenism, by no means do I wish that Dunham had written one of these main characters as a woman of color just to have a woman of color. White writers creating minority characters can sometimes be problematic, as they don’t possess the lived experience of persons of color. Again, there’s the risk of stereotyping. The answer lies not only with diversifying a cast, but also with diversifying the writers’ room. To write characters with diverse experiences and backgrounds, there need to be writers with diverse experiences and backgrounds contributing.

As for the show’s lack of socio-economic diversity, Nussbaum claims that the show takes the specific demographic these girls belong to and then “mines their lives for the universal,” but again, I’m skeptical. I’m willing to give the show the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t want to criticize it too much before giving it a real chance, but being cut off from mom and dad’s payroll is hardly the same as coming from a low-income household. Yes, I sympathize with Hannah’s inability to find a paying job in the big city, especially since I’m likely to face a similar future, but what about girls who couldn’t go to college or don’t have the ability to move home if they fail or were raised by single mothers? New York City is home to many women and men alike who fit this description, but they appear to be completely absent from “Girls.”

Some writers have noted that “Girls” looks like a younger, hipster-fied “Sex and the City,” and I disagree to an extent. Whereas “Sex and the City” romanticized New York living and often presented its four main characters as lovesick idealists (as Miranda puts it in the season two premiere: “How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends?"), “Girls” takes a more realistic and gritty route. The lives these girls live, the sex they have — none of it is all glamour all the time.

But when critic Willa Paskin remarks that “Girls” is “for us, by us,” I can’t completely accept it. She herself calls the show’s lack of minority representation a bad mistake in her review of the first three episodes, so is it really appropriate to use a universal “us” to describe the show’s makeup and target audience?

I think that sometimes feminist film and TV critics can get wrapped up in the excitement of simply having a show or movie that places women at the forefront without mistreating, limiting or devaluing them, because it’s unfortunately something that is still a rarity in mainstream pop culture. But this excitement can lead to a lack of criticism.

This happened with “Bridesmaids,” which people have been quick to compare with “Girls,” mainly due to the Judd Apatow producer credit they share. Ad campaigns and critics alike made it seem like if all women didn’t immediately go see “Bridesmaids,” there would never be another movie for and about women ever again. In many ways, it’s true that the movie represents an achievement, but it’s hardly the be-all, end-all, Hollywood-hearts-feminism savior. And I feel similarly about “Girls.” We can applaud it for its commendable successes, but we should also critique it for the ways in which it doesn’t quite satisfy.

If “Girls” is supposed to be the voice of a generation — or a defense and critique of a generation, as Nussbaum calls it — it’s certainly painting a very narrow picture of what that generation is: white, liberal, educated. Its title alone evokes a sense of representation, but that representation is incomplete. In a time when “Two and a Half Men” creator Lee Aronsohn derides female-centric television by saying “we’re approaching peak vagina on television, the point of labia saturation,” I can’t emphasize enough just how important it is that “Girls” and other female-POV shows take a stand against the Man. But in excluding a more diverse range of women, the girls of “Girls” can’t possibly speak to us all, and I hope it doesn’t pretend to.


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