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.

[Guest post] Having my say: Griffin on QT

This is a guest post by Nelson of spEak You’re bRanes.

Do you think I don’t understand what my friend, the Professor, long ago called The Hydrostatic Paradox of Controversy?

Don’t know what that means? – Well, I will tell you. You know that, if you had a bent tube, one arm of which was of the size of a pipe-stem, and the other big enough to hold the ocean, water would
stand at the same height in one as in the other. Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way, – And the fools know it.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Image by Beau Bo d'Or (click for link)Like any thoughtful person, I think the BBC’s “Have Your Say” (HYS) is fucking rubbish. It’s not entirely down to the inherent futility of arguing on the internet, and it’s not just because the BNP appear to be actively targeting it, creating the perception that public opinion is skewed towards hate and stupidity. It’s down to the concept of “balance” which, in BBC world at least, appears to involve treating every opinion equally, no matter how idiotic or dangerous it might be.

Unlike the Guardian site or the Daily Mail site, the BBC don’t often allow all comments (with occasional moderation, of course) but rather tend to hold everything in a moderation queue before making editorial decisions about which to publish. This is apparently done in an effort to keep things “balanced”. Frankly, it does my nut that, somewhere at the Beeb, there are otherwise intelligent people who subscribe to the idea that choosing what to publish and what to suppress is somehow going to make things more representative of public opinion. Presumably these people are so ludicrously impartial, so supremely capable of stepping outside their own frame of reference that they are able to divine the mood of the nation better than the nation itself.

As a result of this highly-educated lunacy, HYS is worse than “Comment is Free” at the Guardian and it’s worse than the Daily Mail, where everything gets published but people can at least vote comments down as well as up.

Everyone knows HYS is shit. It’s why I created the Speak You’re Branes blog and it’s why people read it. We all share this bemusement and a kind of grumbling baseline level of anger that the BBC are wasting our money nurturing the awfulness. But this is not why I’m having my say now. I’m always a bit angry about the BBC (BBC news specifically) whether it’s their refusal to broadcast a charity appeal when Palestinians are being murdered or the remarkable deference and credulity they extend to powers who’ve been caught lying and cheating over and over again. Today, however, I’m very angry at the BBC. Angry enough that I finally have to say something serious about their craven behaviour.

Tonight the BBC will host an episode of Question Time on which they have invited the ex-National Front, holocaust-denying, criminal, racist Nick Griffin to appear. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m not bang up to date with the fucking news but as I understand it Peter Hain tried to mount a legal challenge to this and has sadly failed. I’m very much behind the idea that, as a criminal “whites only” organisation, the BNP shouldn’t be accorded the same status as other political parties but what if, as seems likely, they change their rules to fit within the law? Much as I’d love to see every last brown-skinned person in this country join the BNP and destroy it from within, I doubt that will happen. We cannot oppose the BNP on legal grounds alone.

I think the BBC is presenting two, equally facile, arguments here. Firstly, let’s get the free speech thing out the way. The issue is not free speech. Free speech is what I’m doing right now. It doesn’t entitle me to get on Question Time. In fact, the kind of language I use would be deemed too offensive. Unlike that revolting wanksock Nick fucking Griffin. By preventing Griffin from appearing on Question Time they would be making the same class of decision as when they decide not to invite Gok Wan on. It’s an editorial decision. The BBC trust are mostly fairly clear on this themselves, but when the point is pressed, Mark Thompson starts to talk about democracy, censorship and free speech. Free speech does not mean providing a platform, on Question Time, for anyone that would like one.

The second problem is the idea that, just because the BNP exist and are a political party, they are somehow entitled to be listened to. This is all down to the BBC’s retarded idea of “balance”, only now it’s not funny. It’s moved from creating a comically stupid comments board to legitimising a bunch of far-right racists and, almost certainly, contributing to their future electoral success. As Wikipedia puts it:

Because voters have to predict in advance who the top two candidates will be, this can cause significant perturbation to the system:

* Substantial power is given to the media. Some voters will tend to believe the media’s assertions as to who the leading contenders are likely to be in the election. Even voters who distrust the media will know that other voters do believe the media, and therefore those candidates who receive the most media attention will nonetheless be the most popular and thus most likely to be in one of the top two.

[…]

* If enough voters use this tactic, the first-past-the-post system becomes, effectively, runoff voting – a completely different system – where the first round is held in the court of public opinion.

You may even be agreeing with everything here but think that the BNP should still be allowed to appear, in which case I’d ask you to have a think about where you would draw a line. Would you allow a platform to a party that wanted to bring back slavery? A party that wanted to take away the right of women to vote? A party that wanted to lower the age of consent to 14? What about 10? 5? 2? I’m hoping we’d all draw the line somewhere. My point is simply that we can’t pretend there’s some kind of universal accepted threshold, written on a stone tablet by an omniscient moral arbiter. We have to decide, as a society, what is and isn’t acceptable and draw the line at that point. Everyone I know would agree that all humans, regardless of nationality or skin colour, are equal. Yet the BBC, by allowing the BNP a platform on Question Time, have drawn that line in such a way as to make racism appear acceptable. It’s not a forced move, they’ve made a disgusting, cowardly choice. Fuck everyone involved.

Text © Nelson, 2009. Image © Beau Bo d’Or, 2009.

Hysteric

Peter Stringfellow, who knows literally nothing about being funny or sexy, told poor old Kirsten O’Brien that “Funny girls aren’t sexy” when she went to him for advice about whether she should, um, be funny or sexy. Now, normally (and unlike Kirsten) I don’t include Stringfellow on my list of people to query when looking for insights into the male psyche, but in this case he’s probably speaking for more idiots than just himself: when Esquire decided to run a “Women of Flight Of The Conchords” piece they brilliantly invited some cameo-girlfriends, but not Kristen Schaal, the “only pair of recurring tits” on the show. She’s the funny one, which gets her struck off the men’s mag beauty-shoot roster.

Kristen Schaal (photo by Murdo Macleod)

Even if I’m generous to Esquire and say that lovely Schaal just didn’t have the look they wanted, they still excluded her from being a woman of the show in which she’s a lead actor for being either the wrong sort of pretty, or the wrong sort of funny. Ouch. And – if you’ll follow me into my darkened den of close reading – even the way we talk about humour is gendered. If something makes you laugh hard, you’re hysterical, figuratively be-wombed and penetrated by the wit that’s working on you.

Given that sort of bullshit, it doesn’t seem especially controversial to say – as Jo Brand did – that women don’t get a fair crack at TV comedy. They don’t. The common guiding principle that funny and pretty are mutually exclusive, while TV exposure is dependent on pretty, puts a fairly substantial bar on funny women making it through. So it’s not necessary to go in for some weak-brained evolutionary psychology about how women are ‘differently funny’ because men are like aggressive hunters and shit while women are all nice and collaborative and conversational (taken down here). That goes for Kathy Lette on the Media Show as much as it does for contrarian little TV-reviewing pricks.

Lette:

I think secretly men think women aren’t funny, and I presume it’s because they’re frightened of what it is we’re being funny about. I think they think we spend the entire time talking about the length of their member, which is not true – because we also talk about the width which after childbirth is much, much more important. But we women are starting to be annoyed by the fact that we aren’t ever invited onto these panel shows, and if we are, we’re over-run by the men in this testosterone fueled environment. We need our own quiz show. […] I do think there’s a difference between male and female humour. I think men tend to have black belts in kung-fu and they can fire off one-liners and gags. Women’s humour is much more confessional.

Lette’s brave new world of gender equality is women cracking gags about the laxness of their pelvic floor. You know, if Lette really wanted to speak up for witty ladies, she could stop pulling her idea of funny out of her vagina.

The stripped-down documentary

Kirsten’s Topless Ambition sounds like the sort of programme BBC3 doesn’t want to be associated with anymore: a prurient exploito-doc about a children’s TV presenter agonising over whether to take the career changing decision to do a sexy lads’ mag shoot, whose research involves shaking her tits around a lot and  meeting women with really nice tits who shake them around for a living.

Kirsten O'BrienThis is your standard mission documentary, alright. Starting out with a leering to-camera piece in which Kirsten demands if we want to “see these puppies in print”, it’s immediately awkward. When it lurches into scene of Kirsten looking at photos of Mark Speight (her late co-host on SMart) and explaining that his death convinced her that she needed to move into mainstream TV, it’s suddenly horrible: she’s obviously genuinely grieved by the death of a colleague and friend, but presenting it as a motivating factor in a quest to strip off feels opportunistic.

Other stuff feels not-quite-right too. For one thing, Kirsten’s got a secondary career on the go already – she does stand-up comedy. For another, she raises lots of questions about whether kids’ TV presenters set a bad example by doing glamour shoots, and doesn’t answer any of them before heading out to try on bikinis and learn poledancing. And critically, she doesn’t project sexiness. She goofs off charmingly when trying out page 3 poses, and she puts on a game show in the Carry On-environs of a branch of Hooters, but she doesn’t have a steamy lads mag cover look – she just isn’t that committed to going all Gail Porter and showing off and showing off a “scrawny Kentucky Fried Chicken bargain bucket breasts airbrushed bum newly-hatched raptor-foetus body“.

So it’s a stacked documentatary moving to a preconceived conclusion every bit as much as if Kirsten had been intending to flash her nipples all along, and like any mission documentary, the narrative tramples moronically all over the factual content. Do young girls really see Jordan as the pinnacle of success? Can CBBC presenters influence the aspirations of their audience? Does the transition from kids to adult telly really depend on clinching that bikini shoot? Are women in the media coerced into objectifying themselves? I don’t know, because everytime Kirsten starts googling something she’s concerned about she gets herded along to another instructive encounter like a confused sheep trailing through the gates on the way to the abatoir.

It’s the fictional structure that makes the truthful moments so hard to grasp. When the climactic trip to the FHM offices comes around, Kirsten sits in an office with the editor and has him tell her that she’s got an “adequate” face and an “adequate” body and wouldn’t cut it as an FHM girl. He’s right. The audience never expected him to say anything anything else. I’m pretty sure that Kirsten knows she’s not FHM material and never expected or intended to go into the shoot (if a shoot was what she wanted, dirty little Front magazine had already made her an offer).

But it’s still massively bruising to be told you’re not hot enough and Kirsten cries, miserably, for ages before deciding to stick to the stand-up. Which is what she was going to do anyway. You know what? I didn’t want to see Kirsten’s boobs that much but all of a sudden I feel like I’ve been played. That wasn’t a documentary, it was Kirsten O’Brien’s career relaunching on a sea of self-deprecation. Godspeed, little Kirsten. Godspeed.

Shoved

Newswipe, episode 4 on iPlayer (until 15 April 2009)

This week, Charlie does the reporting of the G20 protests, which during the live feeds actually comes out pretty balanced. Buffoonish (there’s a quote in there from Tony Benn, asking Sky News why they weren’t broadcasting the speeches so viewers could understand what people were actually, you know, protesting about), but giving an even hand to the aggressive flare-ups and the largely peaceful majority. In the bulletin reports, the standout images of bleeding heads and breaking glass took precedence and gave the impression that over-heated predictions of rioting had been realised. But this mass coverage did nothing in the way of explaining events overall, or capturing the biggest story of the day:

And here’s the irony: at a public event granted absolute saturation coverage, with all the press photographers, live feed images, Skycopters, preposterous Skyboats and all, the news had missed perhaps the most important image of the day. In the end, it took some old-fashioned investigative reporting and member of the public to bring this image to the nation’s attention: some disturbing footage of a man being pushed over by the police. Shortly after, he died of a heart attack.

(That was Wednesday. As of yesterday, we know that Ian Tomlinson’s death was a bit more complicated than that, and there are two other similar cases now being looked at by the IPCC.) I like Truman Capote’s crack about the beat poets – that they were typing, not writing. And 24-hour news coverage is just broadcasting, not reporting.