Girl-on-Girls crime: Moran and Dunham vs feminism

I wonder why Caitlin Moran didn’t ask Lena Dunham about the absence of black characters in Dunham’s HBO sitcom Girls when the journalist interviewed the showrunner for The Times. It’s been a much-picked over omission in Girls’ version of New York, and Moran’s been getting a kicking for the oversight since publication. On the other hand, I don’t wonder very much because I think the answer is there in the interview: Moran loves Girls and sees Dunham as a success story, and the story she tells is one of feminist victory rather than hapless racist failure.

I haven’t seen any of Girls yet (which makes me at least as qualified to gob off about its racial politics as three-quarters of the angry people on Twitter), but this is what I know about it: it’s a comedy that draws a lot of its humour at the expense of its four solipsistic 20-something female main characters, and Dunham (its producer/writer/director/star) has made a joke of her own solipsism. “I am half-Jew, half WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs,” she told NPR.

When she offers “I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately” as an explanation for the absence of black characters, I can’t decide whether she deserves ambivalent praise for recognising that her race has protected her from certain situations, or a clip round the ear for failing to take the tiny step into the imagination required to write a self-involved, well-off character with brown skin. But it’s not as if Dunham has created this bleached fiction on her own.

On the way to Girls reaching screens, there will have been tens of people more powerful than Dunham involved in the commissioning process. People who read the pitch, who went over the casting, who saw the rushes – and none of whom said, “Lena, this is looking awfully white. How about adding a black character to the main ensemble and casting someone who can co-write, if you really find writing black people such a terrifying prospect?” Dunham is not a lone gunwoman. American TV as a whole has a race problem. Actually, scratch that: the entertainment industry, in all its forms and all its localities, has a race problem.

So why make Dunham the face of telly racism? Maybe because the fact that Girls is good (not that I’ve watched it) means the audience has suddenly got a taste for raised expectations: here at last are interesting, convincing female characters, so why can’t we have interesting, convincing, non-white female characters too? I’m honestly not sure how I feel about this, because I think it’s right that we should have high standards for the things we love and criticise them when they fall down, but I also wonder whether Lena Dunham is being forced to carry the weight of the world in a very unusual way – and being punished with unusual vitriol.

Look at The Hollywood Reporter’s power list of showrunners. There are 32 names on the comedy rundown; six of those are female. (Don’t even ask how many are non-white. The answer is “not bloody many”.) Two of those female names are attached to Girls, which is the only show with a majority female cast. That’s why Moran is right to see Girls as a minor feminist win (even if she’s too easy on its flaws), and why it’s curious that Girls is the one point of the entertainment industry where the righteous have decided to rain down body blows of justice.

Successful women are still in sufficiently short supply for us all to feel we have a stake in them. Successful, politically-engaged women? They’re so scarce that the rest of us are in danger of becoming maenads, tearing our rare girl Orpheuses apart because we all want a piece. The minute a feminist woman reaches a level of recognition beyond Fawcett society fundraiser, all the complicated hypocrisies that make us functioning people are laid open to scrutiny, and if the standard we demand is inviolable political perfection, then all women will fail.

The result is ugly: it creates invective where reflection would be better, and makes the high achievers (in this case, Dunham and Moran) into scapegoats to be driven out. There’s a sweet spot between Moran’s unadulterated big-upping of Dunham, and the furious denunciations of Dunham and Moran that I’ve seen drifting across the internet over the last 24 hours, though, and that sweet spot is called “constructive criticism”. Feminism can’t be a league of the perfect, but if it could discuss flaws rather than simply judge and punish them, it could bring perfect a lot closer to hand.

49 thoughts on “Girl-on-Girls crime: Moran and Dunham vs feminism

  1. I haven’t seen the show either, I’ll get that out of the way up front… I guess I wanted to just pose the question to anyone who chooses to follow this and answer, Does every new show on telly NEED a black character? I’m more than happy to see an increase in ethnic diversity on the idiots lantern, but surely only where appropriate. Not all friendship groups have an ethnically diverse makeup, so why should shows not reflect that this is the case? If the programme demands a black character, write them in, otherwise isn’t it just tokenism?

  2. When it’s set anywhere other than a rural backwater – but especially when it’s set in New York – having no black characters does seem pretty weird.

  3. I guess, but was anything said about the lack of black characters on Friends or Seinfeld etc when they first appeared? I can’t honestly remember if there was or not, but quite often the shows grow organically to include a wider representation of the ethnicities within the city… Like I said, just posing the question.

  4. It was, and I think it’s probably a good thing if expectations have increased to the point where 20-odd years later people find that omission less acceptable.

  5. Twitter’s big flaw is that 140 characters doesn’t leave any room for subtlety. Which makes it a right laugh some days and a tedious bore on others.

    That aside though, Girls is (as far as I can tell from this article, haven’t seen it either) about WASPish/Jewish rich girls in New York; I’ll bet, as in the wealthy sets of most Anglo-American cities, that in ‘real life’ the self involved elite in NY includes far less non-white people than that city’s diversity would imply. So it is hardly racist or unrepresentative to have a show about the privileged wealthy where there are no black people. What we should be asking instead, if we’re bothered about shows with few black people, is why Eastenders still has a predominantly white cast that in no way bears relation to the racial demographic of the east end. And if we’re actually bothered about racism, we should be asking why the privileged rich in our cities are so often white people, and how the correlation poverty and the non-white has happened.

  6. A fair point made again Sarah, and I definitely believe that there should be a better representation of the location programmes are set in, but elfinkate also makes a good comment about how the socio-economic influences may affect certain American shows… Both issues are also something that needs to be addressed in our own tv programmes, especially, as elfinkate suggests, in shows that purport to be demonstrative of the environment (though to an extreme dramtised version) they are set in.

    Hope I’m not coming across as a pillock!

  7. Two points. One: Everything about “Girls” seems to be designed to render it the “voice of a generation” – from its title on down. Some of this is down to Dunham, but a lot is undoubtedly the fault of the media, which have over-hyped the show, loading it down with unfair expectations. This makes the programme’s failings especially visible and high-profile, fairly or unfairly.

    (There was also an incident where a writer for “Girls” tweeted some incredibly insensitive comments on race and media representation: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2012/04/girls-writer-learning-theres-no-such-thing-ironic-racism/51338/ – so, yeah. Not exactly encouraging.)

    Second point: the point about “constructive criticism” is a good one, but I really don’t think it’s up to Moran’s/Dunham’s *critics* to moderate their behaviour! A lot of the criticism aimed at (especially) Moran HAS been “constructive” – but in response, she has blocked and deleted and generally ignored the perfectly reasonable objections to her approach. And refused to apologise, showing all signs of refusing to consider why people are so horrified by her comments. It is bad faith to lay blame on both sides implicitly, when it really *is* up to Moran not to dismiss/refuse to listen to the voices of people of colour, and up to Dunham to use her platform to tell stories about people other than white, cis, conventionally attractive etc etc New York “girls”.

  8. Thoughtful article as ever, Sarah.

    Re the constructive criticism, when the issues were first raised when the show aired, Dunham’s response was broadly it wasn’t intentional, she was writing about what she knew, but that she would address it in the next season. I think that is as much as a response as we could hope to expect and I’m not sure why the criticisms of her herself continued. I think there are broader issues that this raises about lack of diversity in TV and also the society that she’s writing about (even the NYT piece criticising the racial aspects acknowledged that the environment in which she was raised, was a posh, white, privileged one) but if she’s taken that on board the continued criticisms seem to be slightly redundant.

    Position with Moran seems more complicated, but further to Jo’s comments, I think that if you want to get a sensible response from someone you criticise you’re only going to do it when you’re not going for the jugular or have an axe to grind. Having looked through her tweets, her initial comment is clumsy and ill-advised but is in response to someone who wasn’t tweeting at her but about her and copying her in to a snide comment on her and Dunham. That person then went on to say that her fairly dumb tweet about Girls was her view about women in colour on tv generally. I suppose it highlights the problems with twitter as a forum for debate, but you’re not going to encourage anyone to engage in debate if yo attack them and misrepresent what they say.

  9. Every single thing I have ever read about Girls mentions the race issue. I haven’t seen the show either, and it’s basically the one thing I know about it. “Girls – that’s that show with no black people.” So perhaps Moran did not get into it with Dunham because she correctly thought the issue had already been adequately covered in every form of media everywhere in the world.

    Anyway, “Why didn’t you put any black people in your show?” isn’t really the right question. The question is, “Why doesn’t a show that’s based on someone’s life and experience have any need for black characters?” And that’s not really a question about television.

    You could certainly make an argument that it would be more mendacious to put non-white characters in the show simply for the sake of having them.

  10. It still sucks that nobody else in the production chain said, “Hold up, isn’t this weird?” The emphasis on Dunham as one-woman band is weak as both accusation and alibi, I think.

  11. So all this rage on twitter that’s being directed at Caitlin Moran is because she didn’t take an angle in an article about a TV show that some people think she should?

    Feminism has far bigger battles to fight. Our rights over our bodies are being challenged on a daily basis and we have born the brunt of many of the government’s changes, and yet some women think it’s important to get angry about an article about a TV show? I’m embarrassed for them, to be honest, so publically raging at such length about something so irrelevant. And if they think they are doing anything to improve the lives of women of any colour by doing so, they’re deluded. What a waste of energy.

    There are so few prominent feminists. It dismays me that some women seem to be so keen to tear them down for the tiniest of perceived infractions, as if perfection is a prerequisite to being a feminist.

  12. I laughed at the line in the first episode, “I might be the voice of my generation! Or a voice… of a generation”, because it seemed to neatly predict (and pre-emptively subvert) the lazy journalism that would inevitably arise (and how) about Dunham, affixing that “voice of a generation” label without hint of irony. And, of course, voices of generations tend rather unfailingly to be white.

  13. Totally agree regarding the one-woman band. But interesting to compare the criticism she’s come under for this when you compare that Judd Apatow, the exec producer, gets (or doesn’t get) when you consider the general diversity of his films.

  14. Individually it seems hard to take issue with particular writers and showrunners about diversity within their shows. Most people are happy to have made it through the notes/pilot/commission process and gotten on the air without feeling ready to take on industry norms, and I have a lot of sympathy with Dunham’s “write what you know line”.

    But that industry norm is something that on a wider level we should all be beating the shit out of. A recent example, this Directors Guild Of America survey (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/cotown/la-et-ct-dga-diversity-report-20120927,0,6325774.story) found the huge majority of network television is directed by white men (73%) with white women coming in at 11%, “minority” males at 13% and minority women at 4%. This is specifically related to directing, but its very much representative of writing, producing and pretty much everything else.

    So, not to wash way the idea that New York should probably be less monochromatic, but I can understand why Dunham would feel like she has a hard enough time getting something broadcast without batting for fellow minorities. And without a doubt I place the burden of redressing the shameful under-representation of minorities on TV on the established, powerful white dudes who do and will for the foreseeable future be running the networks.

  15. If you haven’t seen the show, DON’T! I watched the first episode of Girls ; it’s an awful, dull, unfunny and sour show. There was a black person in the pilot- a homeless guy who hit on her. I’m mad HBO carries it. Every month, I want my account pro rated for me not watching Girls and it taking up valuable broadcast space.

  16. Siren – it’s fair to say that Moran’s “I literally don’t give a shit” was a bit hasty and easy to turn against her. But in the context of the Twitter exchange, I can totally see where it came from – and then with that exchange in the context of many, many similar exchanges… Well, I’ve said stupid angry things on Twitter and thank Christ I haven’t had my entire political identity questioned because of them.

  17. The issue is more or less entirely about Moran and her status in the world of journalism isn’t it? She gets an incredibly easy ride from almost everyone despite not really having much in the way of ideas, and her book IS a seriously-intended, if ‘humorously-delivered’ attempt to define feminism.

    Or to put it another way, she has it both ways – by trying to be funny all the time, she can avoid serious criticism – thus reviewers fawn her jokes and Twitter status but ignore some of the less-than-enlightened things she says (I remember a Radio 5 interview when the book came out where she made her case against heels partly by saying that as they make a lot of noise when walking, women should avoid wearing them because they might attract rapists – not only unfunny but also deeply problematic – and this is one of her MAIN issues).

    So with that, feminists who don’t buy into her or her feminism are likely to be looking for things to criticise her for – and this particular thing is not really because of her self-proclaimed new feminism, but because it’s symptomatic of the rubbish interviewer – ignoring a fairly important and often-discussed issue because you like the person you are interviewing. It wouldn’t have been hard to joikily bring it up – dunham does have a decent answer, after all. Not simply ignore it, though, looks like another example of something CM is prone to – the unquestioningly fawning interview with someone they’ve decided they admire in advance. Then we get a tantrummy ‘i don’t give a shit’ – sorry but it’s not good enough. Step away from Twitter if you’re angry. But of course she is Queen of Twitter…

  18. I agree with you that this was about people lying in waiting for something to use against Moran. I disagree with pretty much all the rest. You’ve misremembered the heels thing too, unless she used a different formulation to the one in the book: she didn’t say heels attract rapists, she said they stop you running away, which is a good observation on the enforced helplessness of footwear.

  19. it might be misremembered, I’m not sure, it’s pretty clear in my memory that it was the sound as potentially attractive she focused on, AFTER doing the ‘running away’ thing. and we’ll have to disagree about her merits i guess.

    i do think, though, that the ‘i don’t give a shit’ thing is being handled badly by her supporters, saying things like ‘if you are attacked angrily what do you expect’. If someone shouts at you in a misinformed manner, it doesn’t necessitate shouting back in a misinformed manner. There’s also an approach to this ‘lack of white faces’ thing as ‘blog-contrived’, as if there’s something wrong with that…

  20. Interesting article – My tuppence. Firstly, you say “It still sucks that nobody else in the production chain said, “Hold up, isn’t this weird?” ” Well that seems to me to be exactly how TV productions become dumbed down and sanitised to the lowest level. “We need racial diversity, we need redemption, we need hugs and learning, we need explanations, happy endings etc etc’. I doubt it’s possibly to make anything other than bland crap under those strictures.

    Secondly, perhaps Moran’s initially dismissive reaction was aimed mainly at the kind of Twitter user who gathers into a worthy, chanting mob over whichever minor outrage has flickered into their attention span in the last five seconds. The fact that so many people seem to suddenly deeply care about this rather tangential issue is reflective of the way that opinion flocks like birds on social networks.

    Thirdly, wouldn’t it be a nice thing if feminists could look for the good things in (relatively) feminist success stories, rather than looking for a stick to hit them with? Seems to me that was what Moran was doing.

    Fourthly, how much criticism can anyone really truly deserve for not asking a question that didn’t especially interest them, and that has already been answered several times?

  21. One headline is “another TV show unrepresentative of race” but in a parallel universe where the show has a black character it is “why does a white Jewish woman think she is qualified to write about black people”. Seriously can you imagine the reaction! There is also another headline “we don’t like clever/successful women; especially when they are jewish”.

    Yes there needs to be a more accurate reflection of race (and religion etc.) on TV, film etc. but why is it this woman’s job to write it? People write about what they know. Commissioning types need to be convinced that this is what people want to see, they will only commission something sellable. The question is how can they be convinced of this and who writes it? Our own television schedules are hardly representative, my limited knowledge tells me ethnic minority soap characters run shops and takeaways for example.

    People have been waiting to kick Moran, and there is more than the hint of the snob about it: “How could someone without a formal education get where she has when I with my English degree and masters in being fantastic cannot get the breaks.” No matter how hard it is however she should know better than to take a rise on twitter; it always ends badly.

  22. I’m kind of surprised that there is surprise. Both Moran and Dunham’s work has been really successfully marketed on, “hey! Feminism for people just like me! Are you just like me? Are you fed up of being ignored by a male-dominated media? Come and recognise yourself in my work!” Which, fair enough, because there is little enough stuff out there about women that that’s actually a reasonable way to go. But if you’re doing that, it’s a bit daft to be surprised when people go, “there are also people who are not just like you, and we’re a bit bored of being missed out too.”

    Both Moran and Dunham are presumably aware that it’s easier to get your story and your perspective out there in public if you’re a straight white male, so I don’t *get* how you can not understand that it’s also easier if you’re a straight white female than if you’re a not-straight or not-white female. That doesn’t make you a terrible person, but if, as a straight-white-woman you’ve ever felt any frustration at seeing yet another straight-white-male story told on TV or in a book or a film, then I wouldn’t have thought it takes that much imagination to realise that the people you’re missing out are going to feel the same kind of frustration if you allow yourself to be marketed as a spokesperson for a generation.

  23. Moran’s response to critics (both white and ‘of colour’) is the problem – someone who has been named both Journalist and Interviewer of the Year, in a fit of pique, says they ‘literally could not give a shit’ about representation issues! That’s Mighty White of her, and it says something about her privilege that she can choose not to care about the visibility of women different from her. She may have no formal education and come from abject poverty, but that’s not where she is sitting today. She is part of an establishment (if not *the* Establishment) and apart from class issues, most of her output (and endless, cliquey Twittering) is solipsistic and self-regarding. When, in her book, she described her early days of work in the music press, she focussed on her relationships with the men working in her office and completely ignored/failed to mention the half-dozen women working for early ’90s Melody Maker as if she was The Only One – classic, unthinking Queen Bee BS. I would also suggest that a friendly interview by a Murdoch journalist with the subject of a hit show licensed in the UK to Sky is probably NOT the place where representation shortcomings of said show are going to be discussed. But the most deliciously ironic bit of this row was the what-aboutery and minimising she dished out to her critics, much like a man challenged on sexism or a US Republican challenged on racism. SCREAM! HUMBLE PIE IS TASTY!

  24. I’d cry tokenism if Lena wrote a black character into the show for the sake of it, and I take her excuse of lack of knowledge resulting in her not writing black characters in. But, similar to her, this is probably because I’m white and don’t understand the issue fully. Or so I’m told.

    Out of interest, does anyone know if the same furore occured around Sex and the City when it first came out (admittedly based on a book that (from memory) contains pretty much entirely white characters? (SATC even featured an episode detailing the disconnect between black women and white women).

  25. And I feel that Morangate has been taken somewhat out of context. She said she didn’t give a shit about a tv show’s lack of a black cast member, which seems to have been translated to mean she doesn’t care about anyone who isn’t white. Massively different things there, right? Right?

  26. Yes, there have been critiques of SATC’s limited representation of women. Also, that show is a decade plus old now, so let’s hope it doesn’t represent the high water mark of women on telly.

  27. “The minute a feminist woman reaches a level of recognition beyond Fawcett society fundraiser, all the complicated hypocrisies that make us functioning people are laid open to scrutiny, and if the standard we demand is inviolable political perfection, then all women will fail.”

    This is true.
    There are 3 types of people voicing opinions on this issue:
    1. People who won’t say a word against their hero, as she’s a high-profile feminist, and so defend Moran’s shitty behaviour regardless and do a lot of lady-mansplaining.
    2. More-feminist-than-thou bores who’ve been waiting to have a go at Moran because she doesn’t fit their (ridiculously specific, usually jargon-filled) definition of what a feminist should be.
    3. People who like to think they’re ideologically sound, but who’ve never actually been feminist in any real sense, concern trolling.

    Replace ‘feminist’ with ‘socialist’ and you see this kind of thing all the time in the left blogosphere.

  28. Thanks – I guess I wasn’t really aware of SATC at the time of its release, so I wasn’t able to watch any backlash in the way I can watch the one regarding Girls.

  29. In response to BigCharlieCharlie (first commenter) (and in a sense to RH as well), I can understand the anxiety about tokenism but I think it’s important to ask yourself why you would consider a person of colour to be there as a token gesture to political correctness rather than just because that person happened to be of colour. Once you scratch the surface of that seemingly innocent instinct, you will probably find it’s because somewhere in your brain you default to white people = normal. This isn’t aggressively racist – most people I’ve seen this in aren’t even aware of it and are actively anti-racist – but it plays a role in othering people of colour and contributes subtly to a more inherently racist culture.

    When you write: ‘If the programme demands a black character, write them in’, I read: ‘If the programme doesn’t demand a black character, leave them out’, as if black people should only be included if it is relevant to the plot because the default is white. I totally understand that this is a minefield and that tokenism is real, but speaking as a person of mixed race, I would love to see more people of colour on TV who weren’t just there for a plot point.

  30. Nailed it, K.

    I find the showrunner idea of “Oh, I didn’t want to be inauthentic” quite baffling. “What is it you imagine black people and other POC do so differently?” I want to ask. We breathe air and drink water and fart rainbows – like everybody else. The tokenism argument is often the go-to in these circumstances and I am very tired of it.

    I was a teen when SATC came out and I certainly remember some comments about SATC, NY and the surprising lack of POC. I remember lots of people talking about how it was a new version of American sitcom Living Single (which was ACE), except all four women were white, and there was a lot more explicit onscreen sex and nudity. There was talk of the super-white NY of Friends too. If people don’t remember this, consider we didn’t have Twitter or blog culture (as we do today) back then.

    But I remember.

  31. Given that writers, especially young inexperienced writers, tend to create characters and works that are broadly based on their lives or versions of themselves, surely rather than attack a privileged individual for writing what they know, the best way to increase diversity on TV is to actually employ more writers from underrepresented/underprivileged groups.

  32. In response to k… (and bim… and everyone else…)

    Agree with you 100%, and if I have come across as promoting a “leave them out if not essential” attitude, then I apologise. The question was posed more as a discussion point than anything else, and does not reflect my personal standpoint anywhere near as clearly as pehaps it should.

  33. >>if the standard we demand is inviolable political perfection, then all women will fail

    And the flipside of that is that if you have the enormous privilege of being able to see your writing and your thoughts reach a public platform, accept that people are going to disagree with you, and find a graceful way of dealing with it.

    One of the biggest things for me in dealing with my own racial privilege is getting over the desire to *right*. As a white person, I want to be in the right: I want to be told that there is a way of Doing It Right which will stop people criticising me. So I chafe at the idea that if I create something without black or Asian characters I’ll be criticised, and if I create something with black or Asian characters and write them as a ridiculous cliche I’ll be criticised for that too. What? You mean there’s no way for me to be perfectly, 100% right in this situation? BUT THAT’S NOT FAIR! MEANIES!

    But as a queer woman, I know I’m not in the right. I know that if I write something with queer women in it, someone will dismiss it for just being about queer women, and someone else will be hurt because they’ll be the wrong kind of queer women, and someone will like it waaaay too much *because* it’s about queer women in a way that really grosses me out. When I’m thinking about the dynamic where I don’t have privilege, I know I am not going to be in the right – so why do I want someone to tell me I’m in the right in the situations where I do have privilege?

    Once I started framing it like that, being anti-racism started to feel a lot more achievable: I’m not going to be perfect. But the criticism I get for not being perfect hurts me a lot less than racism hurts the people criticising me.

  34. K,

    It’s a fair point to ask why you would consider a person of colour being there to be a token gesture to political correctness. But I don’t think the tokenism issue is as simple as that. In this case, because the specific question has been asked “why so white”, the debate has been framed in terms of ethnicity and it suddenly seems obvious to a lot of commenters that something should have been done, that Dunham should have written it differently, or been advised to by someone in the production team.

    Firstly, if she had done that in order to forestall criticism, would that not be tokenism at its most pure? And secondly, what about other groups, such as the disabled, the LGBT community or whatever. Do we also have to accept by the same logic that if a writer doesn’t include at least one of each it must be because they think they are somehow “not normal”? If so, it would be pretty hard to write any story that someone somewhere couldn’t criticise for not being inclusive enough.

    I think the blog post has it about right when saying that feminism can’t be a “league of the perfect”. It’s all too easy to start dismissing women as being “not the right kind of feminist” or “not feminist because she makes some choices I disagree with.”

  35. My feeling about some (not all) of the criticism is that it’s intended to trash individuals rather than advance politics. Being graceful while you’re assailed from all corners for something you don’t think is a crime – in this case, not asking a particular question in an interview – is an almighty ask. I’d probably flunk that test.

  36. I think the tone had hit “fury level” before that tweet. I’ve got no inclination to defend it – it’s a flat wrong thing to say – but the context means it’s pretty unfair to take it as Moran’s ultimate say on representation in popular culture.

  37. Easy. The piece isn’t about the show, it’s about the interview and the reaction to it. I don’t want to come off patronising, but the answer to your question was pretty obvious if you, y’know, read the thing you’re commenting on.

  38. There seems to be this bizarre idea going around that Dunham never even considered going outside her own self for ideas (because if you’re from a multicultural background, and I am, how on earth do you not notice that not everyone around you is white?), and that it’s outrageous to expect her to consider it. Did she also opt out of male characters on the same grounds? Characters who didn’t have the same job as her? Characters with a different family background? Surely the whole point of being able to write is that you learn to go outside your own experience, and if you get stuck, you don’t panic and erase entire groups, you go and ask those groups for advice instead. Would it have been tokenist to include a random black character just because someone had pointed it out to her? There’s no reason why that would have been the only possible outcome. She could easily have handled it gracefully by talking to people of colour, finding out what they thought would work well in the show, doing her bloody research, making sure that the character/s was/were well-rounded and not a derogatory stereotype. There’s nothing wrong with making some extra effort, and I am truly puzzled by the idea that it’s only “natural” to write white characters if you’re white yourself.

    I can understand that people are nervous about getting it wrong, but you can’t just withdraw from society because you’re nervous about getting it wrong. It’s a bit like talking to someone who’s been recently bereaved. Yes, it’s really hard to know what to say, and potentially anything you say could be terribly wrong and upset them, and it’s all a really sensitive topic, but you still make the effort to say something, to learn what they want from the discussion, and to be guided by them, because otherwise you are failing to do your duty as a decent human being. And if they point out that you have totally, even if inadvertently, screwed up, then you listen to them and look at what you’ve done.

  39. Thalia,

    First up I absolutely agree with you about not dismissing other women or other feminists because I don’t agree with all their choices. I don’t think I did that, but just to clarify I wasn’t trying to be hostile or to slate Dunham, I just wanted to contribute to the wider discussion about inclusiveness and the fear of tokenism. My view is that unless the plot calls for someone to be of a specific ethnicity then that part should be up for grabs by an actor of any race and that the idea of defaulting to white unless a character is specifically called on to be of colour is a problem.

    About tokenism. Writing for a TV show is a collaborative process and there are many stages where other people (the producers, the directors, the network, focus groups…) suggest changes which will include considerations about how the audience will react and forestalling criticism. Making a change such as to the race of a character or actor as a result of that feedback would not automatically be tokenism, and you could go on to write a really good, interesting, realistic character who happened to be of colour, even if you only did it because someone had told you you should be more inclusive. What would make it tokenism would be if that character was ONLY there as a POC, was a poorly constructed stereotype, and didn’t have the same depth as the white characters.

    As for other minority groups, while your comment about ‘one of each’ is rather reductive, I would also love to see more disabled and LGBT characters/actors represented too, and indeed represented better. I really don’t see the problem with that. Just as I don’t see a problem with a doctor or politician happening to be a woman.

  40. Elfinkate – you are basically correct re: the milieu of the show. I lived in NYC/Boston and new a fair number of Jessa’s etc. I’ve also watched the first 4 episodes of the show. In the WASP/Jewish social scene, centred around college grads from Oberlin/Brown/Vassar/Brandeis/Holyoke etc. black women are incredibly rare (similar case, my b-school, with 300+ students had exactly 1 black woman). Lena’s adding such a character to the show would have been both patronising and inauthentic. In fact, if racial diversity were needed, an Asian (in the American sense) woman would have been more realistic. They are fairly common in that scene.

  41. Whilst I love ‘Girls’ and I love Lena Dunham, I do take issue with the lack of diversity within the show. It’s not that I have a problem with her only writing about what she knows, it’s more that when they came to casting the characters written they didn’t think to just cast a POC in an already written role. You don’t have to “write in” a black character – that perpetuates the idea that people possess certain personality traits and characteristics depending on their ethnic background. Which is like saying all women are overly emotional and can’t catch. Seriously damaging bullshit.

    However, I am more irritated at the disproportionate amount of criticism Lena and the show have received relating to this issue. Of course, racism is a huge problem in the film and television industry. Sadly this is nothing new. Why then are the plethora of white, male, middle class driven tv shows not being challenged first? Why is it seemingly only this young, talented woman, who in all other ways is blazing a trail of awesomeness in a notoriously sexist world, that is being targeted?

    As for Caitlin Moran… Sigh. I love her, I love her book and I love her interviews. I like to think she’s not actually racist, but that she doesn’t like being told what to do – especially by strangers via Twitter. I think her defences were up and she lost her temper. However as a feminist I am disappointed, and as a feminist I think she needs to acknowledge that she spoke out of turn, and apologise.

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