Voice of a Generation?: The Potential of Authenticity in HBO’s Girls

Curator's Note

In the pilot episode of HBO’s Girls, the protagonist Hannah (played by the show’s creator, Lena Dunham) proclaims that she’s “the voice of [her] generation…or at least a voice of a generation.” In an interview with the cast, the hosts of The View wanted to know if this is true. Barbara Walters in particular seemed hell-bent on finding out if the girls’ “gritty” lifestyle is authentic. Dunham responded that the impetus behind the story was to show “a very specific breed of girl” that wasn’t being represented on TV. “They’re complicated, they’re self-aware, but they’re also naive. They’ve been in therapy since they were 12 but don’t know how to handle themselves in relationships,” and their stories weren’t being told, Dunham lamented. 

Critics of the show rightly point out that if Hannah/Dunham is the voice of any generation, it is one that is blind to race and class inequities–-all four main characters are white and are from upper middle-class backgrounds. This homogeneity is significant in that the day-to-day lives of the four hipster characters tell us something important about contemporary race and class relations in the US. Even in a place as diverse as Brooklyn this “particular breed of girl” could easily walk through life without any real engagement with people of a different class or race background. So, yes, it seems Hannah/Dunham is indeed a voice of (this particular) generation.

Although in many cases the question of “authenticity” is rooted in a racist uptake of “the other,” to confirm the “authentic” hipster may actually provide insight into the ways in which racism manifests in the neoliberal, colorblind US. The writers’ responses to critiques about the lack of diversity illustrate what some commentators have dubbed “hipster racism” (see Lesley Afrin’s tweet), and Dunham’s promise to address the “accident” of an all-white cast in Season 2 will surely lead to more examples of this iteration of inferential racism (Hall, 2003). Thus, rather than dismiss Girls for being yet another television program about privileged white people, we might instead view these “authentic” portrayals as a way to better understand and work against contemporary forms of racism in society and popular culture.  


Hi Raechel, Your post got me thinking about space and place. Although most of the criticism for Girls' lack of diversity (legitimately) focuses on Dunham's whitewashed New York City, an equally important aspect of the show's inspiration seems to be her experience at Oberlin College. I wonder, in light of your point about confirming the existence of the authentic hipster, accepting this category of subjectivity could open a space for interrogating the racial and class politics, and realities of privilege (of which a lifetime of access to therapy is indicative of) involved in the neoliberal-ized, yet left-ish, spaces of college education, and their collisions with popular culture.

I think that's a really awesome point. That contradiction that exists in private liberal arts schools is a reflection of hipster culture in general. Ostensibly resistant, while simultaneously upholding the status quo (partly through its ability to commodify itself).

I think the opening scene was the exact opposite of an "FU" to her diversity critics. If Dunham had introduced Glover for one introductory sex scene and then we never saw him again, that would have been a great FU. But, the fact that his character remains a part of the story, and he was present so early in the episode, tells me it was the exact opposite. It was Dunham saying "I really did hear you" and "look, I'm doing what you wanted." I will also add that's not the response I think she should have chosen. She should have stood up to the critics and maintained her original vision. During interviews last year she had stated her friends characters were based on people from her real life and she didn't want to add any minority characters if they were just going to be tokens. Now, she has done exactly what she said she didn't want to do. My question is why?

Watching Sunday night, I did think the opening scene with Donald Glover was a bit of an "FU" to critics, but perhaps more pointed toward those critics who have tried to body-shame Dunham. But what I found more interesting was the decision to plunge directly into a very intimate scene, instead of introducing Glover's character in a more traditional way--flirting, courtship, dating, etc. What this did, rather neatly, is remove all of the interracial dating drama. Viewers don't see Hannah agonizing over the decision to date someone from a different ethnic background, yet this theme is a VERY common "hot topic" in sitcoms and teen shows. So are we, as an audience, "over" the interracial dating question? Is Dunham side-stepping the question? Or is she telling the audience, basically, "I don't care, so you shouldn't either?" Of course, we may get more backstory into the relationship later in the season, but I'm kind of cool with the way she handled it here.

I sort of felt like she was side-stepping the question by plunging right in to the sex scene. By neither introducing Glover as a character first, nor writing in anything involving Hannah mulling over anything involving interracial issues/dating drama (which was out of character, as she is somewhat neurotic and agonizes over everything else) the scene lacked context, and without context, it felt jarring. I couldn't help but wonder if her choice was a somewhat aggressive response to her critics-like "here you go, are you satisfied now?" But, I realize that this is not the most generous reading of Dunham's motivations. I think that this is one of the best qualities of Girls-it is a very contradictory and polysemous text.

I agree that the scene with Glover was a direct response to her critics who criticized the show's lack of minority characters/diversity. I guess I read the scene as a more aggressive, pointed response-like she felt compelled to get the scene out there in the opening sequence of the show, without context or characterization of Glover's character or their relationship (which I found disappointing). I read it like "Look! A minority character in an intimate relationship with Hannah! Satisfied now, critics?" I would have preferred to see Hannah neurotically mulling over her issues with an interracial relationship (which would have been in character for her, and provided an opportunity to address critics/criticisms in a thoughtful and nuanced way ). It will be very interesting to see how Hannah and Sandy's relationship develops!

Yes, I think it was a direct response to the critics which I think, as I note in my essay, goes against what is probably more "real" for these characters. And even in the chance that they were in the same circle as people of color, you're right, Hannah would *absolutely* neurotically mull over dating him. The absence of that process is evidence less of 'hipster racism' (which would include ironic comments about her 'black boyfriend', perhaps), and more of a frustrating colorblind approach ("I dont even see race!"). Glover seems to most definitely be a token. That said, he's a talented actor and I'm curious to see where their relationship leads too!

Yes! I was thinking something similar-that by introducing Sandy without context in the sex scene, she was automatically tonkenzing/fetishizing him. It felt really defensive and problematic.

Thanks for this post, Raechel--I think the issue you're dealing with here is closely related to the one my post will be tackling on Thursday. The thing I always find interesting about that "voice of a generation" quote is how much both Dunham and Jenni Konner have attempted to emphasize that the line is intended to be farcical--I think that it's in Konner's recent podcast for Grantland that she says that the "a voice of a generation" clause was added in later drafts of the script to emphasize how ridiculous Hannah is being with that line (although it could be somewhere else?). And yet, as you point out, Dunham often talks about her work as though it is for all girls, or captures some sort of zeitgeist of the contemporary moment--in this interview, in her Golden Globes speeches this weekend, etc. I suppose I keep coming back to the question of how we square the (often insightful) ironic awareness of Girls with Dunham's own frequent seeming lack of self-awareness. The show itself is so deliberately dismissive of the idea of "the voice of a generation," but much of the press surrounding the show (even by those involved with its production) seems to miss the joke.

Good points, Patricia. I absolutely thought about that during her Golden Globes speech when she talked about being given a space, and lumped herself in with everyone else who "felt like they didn't have a space." Has she learned nothing from the wave of more critical responses?! Dunham! You are not part of the most marginalized populations in the US!

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