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.