A Meaning of Minority in Girls

Curator's Note

In a 2012 Fresh Air interview, Girls creator Lena Dunham explained the show's focus on four white, middle-class girls as "an accident," a product of writing "from a sort of gut-level place," the issue of which were pieces of her or those close to her. "[O]nly later did I realize that it was four white girls [...], super-specific to my experience," Dunham stated, before alluding to Girl's second-season attempt to diversify its cast. In the interest of vindicating or censuring Girls for its lack of non-white principal characters, we must interrogate this appeal to the accidental, asking not only, What is the nature of the accident in Girls specifically, but also, What is the nature of accidents in artistic production generally?

Dunham's accident in Girls is her unconscious privileging of her own specific racial (and socioeconomic) experience—an omission a writer of color, ever-conscious of representing her own race to a "race-free" general audience, would be less likely to make. But indications of Dunham's privilege are not the only things to emerge from the "gut-level" of her writing. If we can drop the associations of "accident" with mistake, misfortune, and apology in favor of concepts—like excess, semantic drift, and talking cure—more appropriate to a creative context, we see that the accidental is, if problematic, also a quite interesting feature of Girls.

Hannah (Dunham), whose steady and anxious self-expression resembles the talking cure, is often interrupted by peripheral minority characters. To cite one example, Hannah's rambling exposition on her fear of, and possible desire for, AIDS—one she developed after seeing a white woman die of it in Forrest Gump—is promptly contradicted by her gynecologist and woman of color as "an incredibly silly thing to say. You do not want AIDS." The doctor then sums up the condition responsible for Hannah's ill-informed andself-absorbed utterances: her age. This instance of intervention is typical of how minority functions in Girls, outlining the show's construction of its subset of whiteness. Following Toni Morrison's point in Playing in the Dark that identity—and whiteness in particular—is negatively constructed, we may infer that the fleeting minority presences in Girls indicate what the girls are not: accurate interpreters of and responders to situations, steadily employed, slow to alarm, and more permanent and credible inhabitants of the city. In short, the minorities in Girls often represent the daunting competencies of urban adulthood.


From the A.V. Club article, it sounds like Glover's character aims to press Hannah on her as-yet-untested college-bred liberalism as it pertains to race. I'm not given to (or good at) making predictions, but I'm floored that Glover's character is also a Republican. Usually, when the GOP promotes minority candidates, it is accused of tokenism. Is a Black Republican a token in the context of Girls or of Brooklyn? I know that Dunham was wary of tokenism when she wrote the scripts for Seasons 1 and 2.... Seems like an interesting, because unexpected, move. If Girls was the show of my dreams, I could anticipate a real dialogue about whiteness, race, Republicans, and Black Republicans in Season 2, and the subsequent challenge to my own presuppositions.

My subject line is, of course, said in jest. You mentioning the "show of your dreams" is the exactly point that Karen brought up on Maria's post. Any bit of information that comes out about the show, we use it to construct a story in our heads about what that "should" mean for the show. And without the caution balancing out the optimism that you are so correct to have, we become, dare I say it, irrationally upset that it falls short of our expectations. What you write about the minority-as-educator aspect is fantastic in that, as you point out, it's so telling about the show and its characters. The main characters are so maladjusted and flawed and insulated, why would we expect them to have a perfect, desegregated city experience. Dunham writes what she knows but we are all guilty of that, of keeping to our comfort zones. I think by depicting these ladies as naive and flawed, the show answers the "whitewashing" criticism better than having a token black character. A final point, does anyone else think that making Donald Glover a Republican, while perhaps subversive to some less savory black stereotypes, also makes him non-threatening (I don't mean physically!)? It would be great if his character can actually challenge Hannah and change her for the better, but as the article Nedda posted suggests, she just responds with a "'self-righteous, defensive rant' that also includes a Missy Elliott lyric." If this holds true, then characterizing Glover's character as a Republican simply gives the liberal opinions of Hannah (and arguably the show) an excuse not to attempt any personal growth. In that case, Hannah's defensive response is more of a critique of the show's whitewashing than any token black character can be. Metatextually, Donald Glover is an interesting casting choice in that he is extremely popular with an white audience due to his fame from Community. This is only anecdotal, a friend went to a Childish Gambino show in Philadelphia, an extremely diverse city, and reported that it was attended almost exclusively by white people. Food for thought?

Like Ashar I am hesitant to make any firm statements before seeing how this all plays out on the show itself but I am incredibly interested in Hannah's response to this charge. I think that there is something very telling about the way in which Dunham describes the centrality of whiteness as an accident. While not ideal, I think that unintended blind spot is important to interrogate in a way that goes beyond just introducing more ethnic minority characters to "round out the cast." I am worried, though, that there is going to be a trend of minority characters who have to teach Hannah about difference (not quite encroaching upon the magical negro trope but perhaps gesturing in that direction). On a related note, this just popped up from the TCA about the NBC show Deception and the refusal of its writers to engage in race: http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2013/01/07/1404671/nbc-deception-colorbl.... Having seen the pilot, I feel as though there is some overlap with regard to the way in which whiteness understands race in America.

Ashar, thank you for highlighting the definitive presence of minority women on the show! I also mention this in my post for Thursday (namely, Hannah's co-workers at the office and Jessa's nanny colleagues). What do you make of these figures in comparison to the portrayal of white "adult" women on the show, like Hannah's mother and the woman Jessa baby-sits for? (Or white adult men, for that matter?) How does attending to race help us to explicate the difference between "girls" and "women" in the world of the series? This is a place where, I think, the "racial critique" (whatever that means) that has defined the discourse around Girls is quite helpful, and not gratuitous to the text.

I heartily echo others' gratitude for your pointing out the importance of the (albeit supporting and marginalized) characters of color in season 1, Ashar. I hope these minority-figures-as-educators will not be consigned to the subordinate role of teaching/guilting the girls (into) how to be but rather will enable the speculum-like self-enlightenment that you referenced in yesterday’s discussion. I’m also intrigued by your formulation of Hannah’s confessionals as “talking cures.” Like the “speech act” formulation I used myself, both require an audience for their desired effect – self-enlightenment, self-affirmation – to be conferred, though without relying on that audience’s permission or even affirmation.

Ashar, I love your play with the valences of the "accidental" in regard to criticism about Girls. It strikes me that much of the writing about Girls—both immediate, tweet-length cheers and jeers as well as more elaborately considered works of criticism—is focused, in some way or another, on intent. On one hand, it's a complement to Girls that writers have felt there was enough meat on the bones of the show to begin to ascribe to it things like authorial intent. (In our discussions already, the unremarked shot of Hannah taking both her own and the maid's money has already become a marker of Dunham's point-of-view in this way.) But it also gets us into a pickle when we begin talking about things the show does not do, such as race. In other words, if Dunham, as she suggests, "accidentally" didn't write characters of color into the main cast, can we discuss her casting of the doctor as intentional? Personally, I think the doctor is who she is for a reason—and Jing, your response makes a beautiful case for it—but I think that the toggle between accident and intention is one to pay attention to in regard to Girls especially. Indeed, one of the reasons I think that public is so interested in critiquing Girls for its "statements" on whatever topic is not, as has been mentioned already, because Dunham presents herself as the voice of a generation. Dunham is explicitly speaking from personal, limited experience, but, at the same time, it is very clear that she IS speaking. In other words, unlike Louie, for instance, a show that revels in inscrutability and moments of natural, found ambiguity, Girls is speaking, even if meta-visually, to its audience.

Thanks for your comments, everyone! I'm still thinking through Girls, and I think the issue of intention versus accident is a key one to explore as we get to the bottom of the show's arguably evasive racial politics. Along with Chizoba, and in the vein of a truly auteurist (or maybe anti-auteurist) study, I would like to know to what extent the show's choices originate with Dunham and which are the result of collaboration (perhaps Melissa will shed some light on this question later on). Responding to Melissa's questions about the relationship of minority women characters to the "girls" of the show versus their white, less marginal counterparts--it seems to me that white women relate on a primarily familial rather than professional or otherwise no-nonsense basis. Jessa's employer takes Jessa aside and offers her unsolicited but nonetheless pertinent perspective on Jessa's behavior, advice that is contextualized by the adviser's maternity and marital status. There is sympathy here, and understanding, and forgiveness--all offerings typically associated with motherhood. Hannah's mother extends love to balance her toughness ("No. More. Money!"), which suggests to me that Dunham--accidentally or intentionally--attributes opportunities for nurturing and support to white women that she does not extend to her more hard-edged minority characters. As I write, I'm aware, too, of the dearth of adult characters, period. It will be interesting to see whether the second season is more inter-generational in its depiction of the lifeworlds of twenty-somethings...or if we'll have to wait for the twenty-somethings to grow a bit older.

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