Girls, Auteur-Driven Television, and the Failures of Multiculturalism

Curator's Note

Season one of Girls highlighted the tensions between the legitimacy of the "personal" viewpoint produced by auteur-driven television and the politics of the "post-racial" age. While we've seen some thoughtful meditations on the contemporary intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality on auteur-driven shows like Louie and to a lesser extent The Mindy Project (and to go even further back, Curb Your Enthusiasm), it was Girls that stirred the polemics of this discussion. This was partly predicated upon the guileless comments of Lena Dunham: “I really wrote the show from a sort of a gut-level place...Only later did I realize that it was four white girls.” What is revealing is not that Dunham forgot to "include" people of color in her semi-fictional world – it was that she forgot she was white.

Girls exemplifies the accidental failures of neoliberal multiculturalism to account for whiteness as an articulated form of identity because the rhetoric of multicultural inclusion does not necessarily demand an acknowledgment of the centrality of whiteness to this operation. As Dunham's comment suggests, she can restore her "accident" to political correctness by casting a token black person for the next season.

But while it's not impossible, it is unlikely that these upper-middle class pseudo-hipster Oberlin alumnae would have close black or brown friends, despite living a city that is only 44.6% white, according to the 2010 Census. What would make for a far more interesting (and truthful) storyline is not how Hannah Horvath deals with Donald Glover, but how she comes to realize the many ways in which she doesn't – and may never have to.

In this clip from the episode “Hannah's Diary,” Hannah seeks no-nonsense advice from her racialized, working-class co-workers, while Jessa attempts to organize the immigrant nannies at her local playground. Both of these scenarios use class and racial contrasts as a form of comic relief for our carefree white girls; neither allows for any insight. Curiously, the episode's other major comic relief is the character of Shoshanna, a prude yet sex-obsessed Jewish American princess whose insecurity and inexperience legitimize the sexual exploration of the others – particularly Jessa and Marnie, paragons of white feminine beauty.

While the show is acclaimed for its honest, awkward portrayal of sexual confusion, Dunham would do well to explore the terrain of race – a far more prudish topic in 2013 than sexual promiscuity or financial profligacy.


Melissa, this is a really incisive read of Dunham's race issues, especially because, as you point out, they are not exclusively hers. "Girls exemplifies the accidental failures of neoliberal multiculturalism to account for whiteness as an articulated form of identity because the rhetoric of multicultural inclusion does not necessarily demand an acknowledgment of the centrality of whiteness to this operation." YES! The precondition of an all-white cast being an accident is that the writer—the auteur—be capable of forgetting the whiteness of the cast. Like readers assuming a black character in The Hunger Games is white, whiteness is not an articulated identity so much as a medium-specific convention. It accounts for why so many characters of color on TV right now (New Normal, Two Broke Girls, and Girls itself) are written as stereotypes or (as in New Girl) written as meta-comments on stereotype. In order for a character to not be white, the character has to be written as NOT white. This is why Louis C.K. casting an African-American actress as his ex-wife was so provocative. It wasn't that C.K. staged come grand conversation about race on the show—it's hardly mentioned diegetically—it's that the act itself prompted a conversation about casting and the assumptions we, alongside casting directors since the dawn of time, have about precisely WHO television characters are or should be or can be.

It's interesting to me that, when we talk about auteurs, we traditionally talk about the intentional rather than "accidental" choices--the latter being no less organic to and distinctive of the auteur. Are there entirely accidental auteurs?

For the most part I like Louie’s tweaking of TV conventions and the kind of cultural assumptions that Phillip points to, but truthfully I was bothered by the choice to cast an African-American actress as his ex-wife without diegetically justifying what he admits is their daughters' “extrem[e] whiteness." It seemed chiefly self-serving to bestow a Liberal merit badge on his character for having married interracially without his having to do the work of narrative explanation. Similar to Dunham, Louie CK pleaded accidental casting, claiming it wasn’t his intent to make it about race. But unlike Dunham’s depiction of “upper-middle class pseudo-hipster Oberlin alumnae,” it wasn’t believable. What IS believable is the presumptuous, self-satisfied paternalism – or maternalism – that Jessa affects in attempting to rally the nannies. That she is immediately taken down a notch by losing sight of her young charges is the show indicting her for that fatuousness. It’s Jessa who is the butt of the joke, and that she expresses genuine remorse at having momentarily failed in her responsibilities suggests that she HAS acquired some insight. That Hannah instantly heeds her co-workers’ urging to “have some self-respect” by delivering the “I don’t want a picture of your dick” speech to Adam (see Monday’s posting) surely suggests the same.

Hi, all! Maria, I think you make a valid point about re-thinking just who is the butt of the joke in the clip above, and whether the girls' encounters with these minority working-class women leads them to any insight about their own privilege. As this week's discussion has revealed, Girls actually isn't devoid of people of color, and this adds an important nuance to the discussion of class and racial diversity on television. But while it is suggested to the audience that Hannah and Jessa may be challenged by these encounters, I'm not sure if H and J gain any insight into a specifically white privilege. Rather, they are chastised for being irresponsible or not confident enough: the "wise words" of the women of color help create a commentary on the transition from "girl" to "woman" (as Chris mentioned in his comment on Ashar's post, this gestures in the direction of the "magical negro"). Phillip, I love the idea of The New Girl as a meta-commentary on the carefree white girl / manic pixie dream girl. I haven't seen much of the show, but I'll look into it again with that in mind. Re: Louis CK -- like Maria, I'm ambivalent about his decision to cast his ex-wife as an African American woman while his children remain plain Jane and Lily white. From what I understand, it was not a completely colorblind casting (as it seems to be with the character of Serge), but rather that he felt it was more powerful to be yelled at by a black woman. Despite that, though, I think Louis CK has done a fantastic job not just portraying racial diversity but in actually thinking about its implications, and most importantly, thinking about his own whiteness. Some scenes I'd highlight include the vignette where he tries to flirt with the grocery store cashier; when he goes out on the town with some colleagues and finds he cannot compete with the aura of black male sexuality; when he travels to Miami and is welcomed into a Cuban family's party; and really any of the stand-up bits where he even acknowledges that he and his daughters are white -- even "extremely" white (interesting given that he also recognizes his Mexican upbringing, referring to his Abuelita and so forth). The episode where he is harassed by some teen boys in the donut shop and follows one home to Staten Island was a fascinating contemplation on contemporary white masculinity and its classed contours. The jury is still out, for me, on the China episode. Unlike Dunham, Arfin, et al, Louie's whiteness does not preclude him from thinking about his own racialized position. His encounters with "diversity" allow him to reflect on how he contains difference and has a unique position, rather than laughing at how (static) others are different (ie. Hannah's co-workers and their outer-borough accents) from the position of normative (if flawed and evolving) subjecthood. While it seems silly to say that Girls should all of a sudden become like Louie, I don't think it's inappropriate, in 2013, to press public thinkers to have some idea of their own racialized, classed, sexualized, gendered, etc., positions.

Great post, Melissa! "Girls exemplifies the accidental failures of neoliberal multiculturalism to account for whiteness as an articulated form of identity because the rhetoric of multicultural inclusion does not necessarily demand an acknowledgment of the centrality of whiteness to this operation." This is a fantastically necessary insight. Do you have any thoughts on the rhetoric of neoliberal multiculturalism in say, a show like Grey's Anatomy or Scandal? Because in many ways, Shonda Rhimes, an African American woman, operates through this logic as well and could be considered an "auteur" showrunner...though her programs do not have the legitimacy of being branded as "quality" that HBO affords its content. In fact, Rhimes is a huge proponent of "color-blind casting." The fact that she almost never articulates or marks race on her shows is interesting. Basically, when an auteur woman of color, do you always have to be the "Awkward (Black) Girl" or can we think about Rhimes as subverting some of these paradigms?

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