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.

Everything red

This post was edited on 12 June 2010 – a commenter on Liberal Conspiracy pointed out that I used “civil” rather than “civic”, and I’ve now put that right.

Things are looking rosy for ResPublica, the Conservative think tank led by official enemy of Paperhouse and original Red Tory Phillip Blond. There’s now a government that’s broadly sympathetic to ResPublica’s aims (Red Toryism occupies the same sort of self-help space as Compassionate Conservatism), and it’s received a hefty injection of support – enough to be recruiting for six new positions offering “competitive + bonus” salaries.

One of the roles it’s looking to fill is “head of the security and civic cohesion unit“. Wait, what? Why does “security” go with “civic cohesion”? I know I’m approaching this from my standard fuzzy left position, but doesn’t “security” mean “people with guns and things that go bang”? And isn’t that a bit of an awkward fit with “community cohesion”, which seems to mean… Well, I don’t really know what it means. People rubbing along together, I guess. Municipal halls. That sort of thing.

Actually, I can have a pretty good guess at what it means in Blond-world. There’s his insidious insistence that the “indigenous white working class” have been “marginalised and ignored” (by whom?); he has a “sense” that “racism is returning”, but he treats racism as a rational response to barely-defined social conditions, rather than a repellent attitude that ought to be publically thrashed.

Blond is not keen on difference. He writes about the “ruinous consequences of state sanctioned multi-culturalism and the lazy moral and social relativism of the liberal middle class” as though those ruinous consequences are absolute and their cause confirmed. Whatever the ruinous consequences are, they were caused by multiculturalism, whatever that is. Clear? Good.

It’s that sort of floppy logic that makes sense of ResPublica’s decision to class civil cohesion with security issues. Things were nicer, in Blond’s view, before the 1940s – and maybe it’s not a perfect coincidence that his British Eden pre-dates Windrush. In Blond-world, security comes from sameness and pockets of otherness mean danger. And that, presumably, is why ResPublica puts “civic cohesion” under the same remit as spies, terror and invasions: because if you’re  not like Blond, then you’re against his nebulous, homogenous little idea of Britain.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010; photo by Kudomomo, used under Creative Commons

Newsbeat and the BNP: complaint partially upheld

Darryl Chamberlain of the 853 blog reports that his editorial complaint over BBC Newsbeat’s presentation of the BNP has been partially upheld. BBC head of editorial Fraser Steel agrees that the report on the website was at fault, both for repeating unchallenged the assertion that Stepney-born Ashley Cole was “not British”, and for only linking to the BNP’s website.

However, Steel maintains that – despite these defects – Debbie Randle’s interview was appropriately challenging. This is where Chamberlain feels the BBC’s editorial policy shows serious strain, and I agree:

On a journalistic level, the BNP is a news story on stilts, because it represents danger to most people – a political refuge for the ignored and misled which also threatens the safety of our fellow British citizens. In crude news terms, the frisson of violence associated with the party makes it interesting in a way, say, the Liberal Democrats aren’t. Even this summer, its leader on Epping Forest council said the party could not have been behind an alleged firebomb attack on a man’s home because: “Firebombing is not a British method. A brick through the window is a British method, but firebombing is not a way of showing displeasure.” As a journalist, why wouldn’t you quiz a BNP member about why they’ve joined a party which has officials spouting that stuff?

This is not a normal political party. To treat it as such is not only cowardice, but a basic journalistic failing. The BBC acknowledged this when it invited Nick Griffin onto Question Time – and the vast majority of the programme was dedicated to his being there, with host David Dimbleby turning master interrogator as well as benign chairman.

853, “Newsbeat meets the BNP: Complaint partially upheld”

Will the BBC decide that “political balance” is no longer an acceptable substitute for rigorous journalism as a result of all this? I hope so, because while I agree that the BBC must avoid adhering to any political party, there is no justification for the neutral presentation of those who endorse hate, harassment and violence.

Related:

The Media Show on reporting the BNP

BBC fails on BNP: AVERT PANDICIDAL CRARROW CRISIS NOW!

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Unsatisfaction: Newsbeat and the BNP

The first formal response in any complaints procedure is the “disappointing brush-off”. My brush-off from Newsbeat arrived yesterday. Understandably, it’s a form email designed to cover all the objections received to the BNP interviews. Less understandably, the reply only refers to the radio version of the story: my complaint was specifically addressed to the online transcript.

On the 853 blog, Daryl points out that this shows a failure to understand the difference between radio and internet journalism:

what Rod McKenzie and his team at Newsbeat need to realise that while radio is a wonderful, intimate medium, it is transient. That lovingly-crafted audio piece will be forgotten next week. But that lazily slapped-up Q&A with the two “young BNP members” will still be there next week. And the week after. And next year. And it carries the BBC logo, so people around the world will think this is quality journalism – slurring the many excellent reporters I worked with in my decade there.

853, “BBC’s website cosies up to bigots”

Furthermore, my complaint was about two specific instances in which the BNP’s false and bigoted reasoning was allowed to stand as fact: the false analogy between species and race, and the untruth about Ashley Cole’s birthplace. It wasn’t a blanket objection to coverage of the BNP. But Rod McKenzie’s reply doesn’t address those issues, it only asserts that Newsbeat has a duty to cover the BNP – which is puzzling, given that I never claimed otherwise.

It’s confounding to be presented with an editor who seems unable to acknowledge that, as well as deciding whether or not to cover an issue, his journalists have the capacity to cover something well or (as in this case) very badly indeed. McKenzie presents editing in this email as a matter of inclusion or omission, not quality control.

Underlining the slightly patronising tone is McKenzie’s expectation that those who complain about the piece would be shocked to discover that the BNP has support: “This may surprise you, but a great many texts we received yesterday – were broadly supportive of the BNP.” (It’s the dash he slips in to anticipate my astonished pause that really aggravates me here.) Whereas it’s that kind of positive reaction to the propagandising Newsbeat interview that many of the complainants will have anticipated, and feared.

After the jump: McKenzie’s reply in full Continue reading

BBC fails on BNP: AVERT PANDICIDAL CRARROW CRISIS NOW!

Newsbeat BNP grabBBC journalism often excels its commercial rivals. For detail, depth and balance, it’s easily my preferred source on many stories. Within a year, we’re very likely to have a Conservative government which has already declared itself hostile to the BBC; as Johann Hari points out, it’s probably more important than ever that the BBC’s supporters proclaim its strengths as often as they can.

It’s also more important than ever for the BBC to display those strengths. But this Newsbeat interview with two BNP activists shows that the corporation is as capable of slack, sloppy, damaging journalism as any other organisation. Roy Greenslade goes over the major flaws in his media column for the Guardian, but it comes down to a willingness to accept and republish BNP beliefs on their own terms, rather than do the dirty work of challenging them.

When the two activists compare white British people with endangered species such as the giant panda, interviewer Debbie Randle timorously suggests, “But we’re the same species which makes it a bit different, doesn’t it?” The BNP supporters reply with:

You could say that but if all of a sudden there weren’t any sparrows and there were only crows, I’d still be sad there weren’t any sparrows.

This not only fails to address Randle’s wholly accurate comment about species, it also repeats the fallacy by using two different species to represent white people in opposition to people of all other races (who are the crows here, presumably because BNP voters think Dumbo is a good treatment of racial politics). Randle doesn’t ask what would happen if the crows and the sparrows were able to mate and breed, or how the crows are going to kill the pandas. The reiterated statement is allowed to pass, and then published unchallenged on the BBC website.

According to the bit.ly link, this article was originally titled “Young BNP members explain beliefs”. It now appears as “BNP members challenged on beliefs” – suggesting that someone in the editorial process realised that inviting the BNP to “explain” their racism really wasn’t going to pass as a probing piece of journalism.

debbie randle status

However, the journalist responsible seems to consider her work acceptable – on the left is a screengrab of a Twitter update, in which she suggests that it’s unfair to judge the interview on the basis of the edited version on the website.

And her editor, Rod McKenzie, is just as clueless: in a post on The Editors (the internal watchdog of BBC news), he argues that the fact that Newsbeat received texts and emails supportive of the BNP shows he was right to publicise their views in this way.

This shrugging off of journalistic responsibility sits badly with my inclination to admire and cherish BBC news. Richard Sambrook, director of BBC Global News, takes the name of his personal blog from the CP Scott dictum, “comment is free, but facts are sacred.” Randle and McKenzie have allowed the BNP’s comment to suffocate facts here: white people aren’t endangered, white and non-white are not different species, Ashley Cole was born in the UK, and so endlessly on.

The Newsbeat interview might be helpful as evidence that the BBC isn’t a fulminating hive of left-wingery; as evidence of the corporation’s newsgathering and reporting prowess, it’s devastatingly poor. Complain to the BBC at this link.

Related: Pickled Politics, “The BBC continues pandering to the BNP”

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Post title by Louise Johnson.

The language of hate

Express columnist Jimmy Young praised the BBC’s decision to invite Nick Griffin onto Question Time:

The BNP is not going to quietly fold its tents and disappear, so surely it is better to allow it to subject its policies to open debate and questioning after which, as the BBC rightly says: “Our audiences, and the electorate, will make up their own minds about the different policies offered by elected politicians.”

The Express, “Jimmy Young: Why BBC’s decision to include BNP will be judged as wise”

Funnily enough, Young managed to write the whole of that column without slipping in a reference to how despicable he considers the BNP to be – leaving readers to draw the conclusion that the BBC will appear “courageous and wise” not because it has contributed to the undermining of far-right politics, but because it has given a platform to a rising moment.

The latter explanation requires the reader to accept that a national newspaper is willing to espouse racist extremism, which seems implausible unless you’re actually looking at a copy of the Express, where today’s headline (“KEEP OUT, BRITAIN IS FULL UP”) is a BNP slogan. Tabloid news feeds public appetite for racist politics, and the language of racist politics feeds back into the news.

Earlier today, I was reading Sarah Hartley on applying the “socially useless” test to journalism, but a front page like the Express’ is not anodyne uselessness. It’s pure harm, driving hatred and dehumanisation. And its existence undermines any arguments that newspapers may make for their own indispensability.

**Edit** This post wasn’t really supposed to be about the QT issue, but as the comments have swarmed on that point, I might as well quote Chris Dillow on why Question Time isn’t going to provide the crushing scrutiny some of the commenters below seem to be hoping for:

But this runs into Paul Sagar’s objection – that QT is not a platform for debate but merely a zoo in which soundbites are vomited into an audience who clap like hyperactive seals. There’s a danger that Nick Griffin could actually emerge well from such a show. His imbecile beliefs lend themselves better to cheap slogans than do arguments in favour of immigration – especially as viewers have been primed by the trash media to give credence to such beliefs, and as his opponents are likely to be discredited ministers who lack the courage to make the case for immigration. Indeed, as Bart Cammaerts notes, Belgian experience suggests the far right does gain votes as it gets media coverage.

Stumbling and Mumbling, “The BNP and our sick democracy”

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

And we’re off…

What’s the best way to deal with racists? Martin Parsons on Conservative Home says it’s to give them a little bit of what they want:

a sophisticated strategy is now needed to win back voters who both agree with the policies of the racist party concerned and have lost all faith in what the mainstream parties have to offer.

Part of that strategy needs to be a recognition that a significant part of the blame lies with Labour’s deeply flawed policy agenda of actively promoting ‘diversity’ in society coupled with the popular perception that certain groups are more favoured by the government than others. In a free society we rightly tolerate diversity, however, active promotion of it by the government is something quite different altogether.

Tolerate differences but not promote them. It’s the weasely language of Section 28 applied to everything – “A local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality.” Or different faiths, languages, lifestyles under Parsons’ direction.

What counts as promotion? Presumably the Local Authorities of the UK haven’t been taking out advertising hording or offering financial incentives to get previously Christian English-speakers into the madrasahs or speaking Gudjarati. So “promotion” must mean something more subtle: if Parsons’ suggestion became a policy, it would probably cause Local Authorities to become wary of funding public celebrations for minority religious festivals or translation services.

Probably that would go some way to appeasing some of the 6% who voted BNP out of the 39% who showed up to vote. It would save councils a small amount of money. It would probably cut down public celebrations of religion to just the two Christian ones, despite the fact that Diwali, Eid-al-Fitr and Chinese New Year are huge public events in the cities where they’re celebrated and enjoyed by people from every background. (Enjoyed by me, anyway. I guess I really like street lighting and unusual sweets.) A bit like Doncaster’s Gay Pride event, which their English Democrat mayor is after axing even though he admits that he doesn’t know how much money it makes the town. And cutting translation would severely and pointlessly penalise first-generation immigrants while their children learn English anyway.

But at least it would bring a few racists home, I suppose.