Girl problems: Why Lena Dunham gets scapegoated for TV's lack of diversity

Lena Dunham's critically acclaimed 'Girls' has gotten skewered for leaving out people of color. But why has she gotten the criticism so many have not?

February 6, 2013

If you’ve logged on the internet at all in the past year (or even passingly know what Jezebel is), you know that a lot of people have a big, casually racist bone to pick with Lena Dunham. As the writer/producer of Girls, Dunham was being billed as the “voice of a generation,” one that would revolutionize the ways in which we talk about women in the media.

The problem for many with Dunham is the inclusion of young, privileged white women—about which there are many shows—speaks to the disinclusion of women of color, who have no one speaking for them. The show continued to marginalize anyone not of Dunham’s background and social status (as the daughter of a famous artist), and as the show was marketed as a representation of the Millenial Generation, many felt it was a damaging and problematic representation. Rather than pushing things forward, Girls represented a nudge in the right direction—or more like a plaintive tiptoe.

But to many, it looked like more of the same. It was White Girl Problems all over again.

In interviews, Dunham hasn’t been shy about speaking to the show’s race problem. She mentioned that, when casting the show, race was not much of a consideration, which speaks the ways in which both white feminists and the television industry often don’t recognize racial inclusion as being an issue.

With the new season, I was looking forward to Dunham taking the internet’s criticisms and learning from them, and lo and behold, the premiere practically opens with Dunham carnally knowledging Donald Glover, the black comedian known best for his role as Troy on Community.  While they’re getting all up in each other, Glover and Dunham keep repeating phrases like “You wanted this” and “It’s about damn time,” as an overt message to the show’s fans. Dunham gets it, y’all.

Many were concerned that Glover was being cast to as a “token black friend,” and the fact that the show opened with them sexing each other didn’t help much, as it looked like just another image of the hyper-sexualized black male. The fear was that Glover wouldn’t be presented as a character but an essentialized object, a vehicle of desire. To an extent, that was exactly the case.

However, Dunham did something interesting: she used Glover’s character to call her on her bullshit—criticizing her for tokenizing him and not being truly interested in getting to know him. Dunham’s Hannah was the kind of girl who would date a black guy to feel cool and get to go to the “scary” part of town. Basically, Glover’s character was calling her a hipster racist, which was the major charge against Girls last year. Dunham literally put all of her critics’ words in Glover’s mouth.

True to her character’s narcissism, Hannah ignores them and creates a narrative in which she’s in the right in the break up. She’s the savior. Life is like The Blind Side, guys.

Q: Is this progress?

A: Not so fast. Let’s examine.

Last year, Dunham mentioned that she wrote for white girls because she wanted to write from her own experiences, and this scene serves to narratively let her off the hook for not writing a black actor into the show or doing the work of inclusion. Part of being a good writer is pushing yourself to write outside of your world. Was Dave Eggers an African refugee when he wrote What Is the What? No, but he pushed himself to get inside someone else’s head and see the world from someone else’s point of view.

Martin McDonagh, the playwright and director’s newest film, Seven Psychopaths, comments on this phenomenon through his lead character, played by Colin Farrell. McDonagh has often been criticized for not writing roles for women, and his lead, a screenwriter, grapples with the same issues in his work. As a part of this meta-commentary, the film’s two female characters are vastly underwritten, and actresses Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurlyenko maybe share ten minutes of screen time between the two of them.

However, McDonagh calling himself on his own bullsh*t lends him an easy out, as he still doesn’t have to write a female character. The same is true for Dunham, who gave herself a nice Get Out Of (Hipster Racist) Jail Free card by casting Glover for two whole episodes.

But what does give me hope is that Dunham has the courage to take responsibility for her show’s representation of gender, race and sexuality in a way many shows do not. Shows like How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men have repeatedly bashed transgender people for years, using the idea of transitioning as a cheap ploy for ridicule and laughter. Two Broke Girls, That 70’s Show, Sex and the City, Family Guy, Outsourced, Modern Family, Seinfeld and Homeland have gotten away with trafficking in overt racial stereotypes, and shows like Nashville, Mad Men, Raising Hope, The Middle, Enlightened and my beloved Cougar Town have little to no POC representation.

Even reality shows aren’t much better. Food for thought: Neither the The Bachelor nor The Bachelorette have ever starred a minority.

Last year, television critic Maureen Ryan argued that shows like Girls highlight the ongoing racial disparities on television. The problem isn’t that Dunham is racist. Television is racist. Currently, the only primetime network sitcom about a black family is The Cleveland Show, which is a) animated and b) crazy problematic. In the 2000’s, network TV saw shows like the traditional family comedy My Wife and Kids and the critically lauded Everybody Hates Chris come and go.

A television landscape that makes room for A Different World, Cosby and The Fresh Prince is largely a thing of the past, and unless it’s Kerry Washington on Scandal, people of color are our black friends or casual flings—like Glover or Idris Elba on The Big C.  Remember: Washington was the first black female lead on a network show in almost forty years. Clearly, TV has a race problem—or else Ken Jeong wouldn’t be allowed to be in things.

However, Americans aren’t often trained to see structural racism—although we’re good at pointing out individual acts. (See: the movie Crash, which only looks at racism as a personal problem that can be overcome with a little shaming, yelling and Sandra Bullock falling down some stairs. Inequality solved!) Scandal showrunner Shonda Rhimes spoke to this tendency when she called out ABC Family’s Bunheads for not including girls of color, which sparked fervent response from creator Amy Sherman-Palladino.

However, Sherman-Palladino also worked on Gilmore Girls, which championed both women of color and full-figured women in its seven seasons. At a time when the Ally McBeal body was the norm, the show was practically bursting with big girls, and it was awesome.

I find it interesting that whereas showrunners like Larry David, Ryan Murphy, Michael Patrick King, Mark Brazil, Steven Levitan and Seth MacFarlane are often let off the hook for their race problems or lauded as champions of equal opportunity humor, Dunham and Sherman-Palladino are made to pay for our media sins. In my critiques of King and Murphy, many were quick to defend them and defend them as refreshingly un-PC, willing to say what others are not. Sex and the City was actually about that sort of thing.

However, almost no one has jumped to defend Dunham for the same reason to defend Sherman-Palladino’s right to make a show about white girls. In film, directors like Wes Anderson have, for years, gotten away with making movies with all-white casts—with almost no one criticizing his right to completely leave people of color out. Anderson’s lone black character was The Royal Tenenbaums’ Danny Glover, who had almost no lines, and his most racially inclusive movie was The Darjeeling Limited, a film that could have been called Orientalism: The Movie. It was a neo-colonialist fever dream.

And remember Pagoda? He won’t be winning Anderson POC awesome points anytime soon.

The major difference between Dunham and Anderson is that one is male—and the other is not. Although the criticism of Dunham is accurate, one of the things that’s made her so easy to critique is the fact that she’s a woman and, thus, free game for public scrutiny and paternalism. In a tabloid- and blog-driven media, women's bodies are an avenue for debate, whether that’s Jennifer Lawrence’s “fatness,” Madonna’s arms, Angelina Jolie’s legs, Willow Smith's hair, Lindsay Lohan’s plastic surgery, Megan Fox’s thumbs or Jessica Simpson’s pregnancy body. We look at women to ask “Who wore it best?”—to hold some up while others are destroyed.

If you look at shows like Revenge or the Real Housewives series, we root for women to be taken down or torn apart—to be called out and shown for the frauds they are. For instance, check out that Buzzfeed article on Anne Hathaway, which bashes every single facet of her career (and her "stupid face")—but for what gain? Even if someone is gracious, hard-working and seemingly perfect, as Hathaway is, we can despise her anyway. As Slate put it: "Why do people hate Anne Hathaway? One simple reason is sexism."

And our media culture of lady hate sets up a discourse where we feel free to tear Lena Dunham apart—for her privilege, her non-normative body and the fact that she doesn’t live up to our expectations who she’s supposed to be. A parody of the show’s poster—which re-titled the program as “Nepotism”—went viral before the show even aired, before Dunham’s work even got the chance to speak for itself. The backlash against her was almost built-in, like the media’s dogpiling on Diablo Cody and Kathryn Bigelow.

Compare the constant criticism of Sofia Coppola for “always doing the same thing” to Woody Allen who gets awarded for it. The Oscar-nominated Match Point was lauded as a return to form and his best film in 25 years, despite being a virtual remake of his own film, Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Of course, I don’t think the fact of her gender lets her off the hook for the criticism lobbied against her. In her Golden Globes speech, Dunham thanked HBO for letting a misfit like her into their space, as girls who look like Lena Dunham aren’t often allowed to sit at the table. However, Lena Dunham needs to use her power of representation to allow others the same privilege and use that power for good. Rather than taking the easy way out, her show needs to do the actual work of inclusion by letting others sit at the table, too. Dunham needs to realize she isn’t the only girl in the world and make room for the Issa Raes and the Mindy Kalings.

However, the burden of change isn’t on Dunham alone. The industry itself needs to see racial inclusion as an issue, and we as a public need to hold ourselves accountable to seeing the bigger picture. While critiquing Lena Dunham, we need to hold the industry to the same standards and ask why one of our Two and a Half Men can’t be black or our Two Broke Girls can’t be Asian. If we’re serious about making TV a better place, we need to expect change out of more than just one show and one girl and stop asking women to make it better while the rest of us sit back and watch.

Dunham has clearly got girl problems, but fixing all of ours isn’t one. We all need to call ourselves on our bullsh*t.

Nico Lang blogs about LGBTQ life in Chicago for WBEZ.org. To talk more about Gilmore Girls, follow Nico Lang on Twitter @Nico_Lang or find Nico on Facebook.