Women in the World

04.20.12

White Girls, Big City: What HBO’s New Show Misses

HBO’s new show ‘Girls’ paints the town white, ignoring the diversity that makes life in New York City so special for young women, writes Rebecca Carroll.

I moved to New York City after college to work at a glossy fashion magazine. My personal life was not so glossy—I made hardly any money, ate Snickers bars for dinner, and lived in a tiny sublet. But none of that mattered because I was full of hope that I would become the literary wunderkind of my generation. That’s one of the reasons people move to New York City, to fulfill their dreams.

Another reason people move to New York City is to hang out with people from all over the world—people of every different racial and ethnic background imaginable. Not that you’d know it from watching HBO’s new comedy series Girls—or Sex and the City, or Friends, or Seinfeld, among other New York City-based shows. In these settings, you rarely see a black person in the periphery, let alone as a main character.

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I noticed it immediately in Girls, although I admit I liked the show’s very real, very funny, depiction of friendships among young women. I’m in my early 40s now, but the show brought me right back to my 20s. I have journals filled with pages written during that time. In some instances, they echo scene-for-scene the narrative plot of Girls, which is basically focused on four young women’s awkwardly insistent efforts to make something meaningful out of their 20s, particularly in regard to sex.

We didn’t have texting, but we emailed and instant-messaged and waited endlessly for the guy to call back. Watching Hannah’s sad and gamely sex scene, which takes place after she calls and lies to the guy about just being in the neighborhood, reminded me of an experience I had not long after I moved to New York.

I was about Hannah’s age. I’d met a beautiful boy at a bar, taken him home, and had likely unprotected, definitely drunken sex that somehow involved hand lotion. I remember feeling particularly self-conscious about my thighs that night, which probably had something to do with wearing a pair of jeans borrowed from my much thinner best friend. The next morning, I woke up abandoned, without a phone number or a last name. I did recall him telling me the general vicinity of where he lived in Brooklyn. That night I went to that general vicinity around midnight and just started yelling his first name from the street. It seems like something Hannah might have done.

And yet, as relatable as I find Girls, I can’t also help feeling, well, left out. There are no black girls in Girls. I feel somewhat cheated. While I have decided that the show is for me, it has decided that I am not for the show.

I grew up in New Hampshire, where there was scarcely a brown face within a 15-mile radius. After college, I could not get to New York City fast enough. Once there, I would walk from the Lower East Side to midtown Manhattan, where the magazine’s offices were located, and quietly marvel at the array of faces that passed me by. The sounds of different languages, accents, and vernaculars being spoken was nearly euphoric to me. It felt like I’d been magically transported into a world where I was living as one of many, as opposed to living as the only one.

This, however, did not always make up for my often feeling out of place, unhip, and unnoticed at the magazine where I worked. Luckily, it was still cool to smoke back then, and I did. In high school, the smokers were the denim-jacket-wearing deadbeats who hung out in the back hall and raised hell. Here, the smokers were the skinny model wannabes who lit up in the stock room, sitting on stacks of back issues, and later went back to their desks to write columns about fashion trends and beauty products. And even though I was just an editorial assistant, I was also about to become an author, which I made reference to far more than necessary.

I grew up in New Hampshire, where there was scarcely a brown face within a 15-mile radius. After college, I could not get to New York City fast enough.

Yet there were always my girlfriends to whom I could vent my bitchy complaints, desperate insecurities, and shallow concerns regarding clothes, money, weight, and importantly, when and what to eat. There’s a fantastic scene in Girls, when the girlfriend of a guest at Marni’s dinner party explains the reason for ignoring her plate of food: “I’m sorry, I’m just not into eating this week.”

The scene reminded me of my girls from back in the day. One evening following a cheery, celebratory supper out, my best friend and I ran into my recent ex-boyfriend. Naturally, he was an aspiring actor who had dumped me, saying, “It’s not you, it’s me.” He spotted us and stopped us midstride. “Hey,” he said. “How are you?” I looked up at him, slightly stunned, and mumbled, “I’m fine.” My girlfriend said I was doing great, and then whisked me away with a triumphant laugh, leaving him standing there alone in the night.

It’s this kind of memory that Girls sparked in me. The show does capture something resonant about the friendships and struggles shared by young women in New York City. But sadly, it misses what makes the city so extraordinary—the diversity of this world. It seems narrow-minded that the show’s creator, Lena Dunham, who was raised in New York City and educated at an esteemed (and diverse) liberal-arts college—would choose to leave this element out.

I’m certainly not the only black girl to notice this odd whitewashing of the show. In a blog for The Hairpin, Jenna Wortham describes the first time she saw the poster for Girls: “I paused at the base of the poster and looked up—it covered the entire side of the building. My eyes traveled up their phosphorescent legs to their faces and back down again. My heart dropped and I swallowed once, hard. Girls. White girls.”

Slate contributor and cultural critic Debra Dickerson feels a bit more strongly, calling it a “cop out” on creator Lena Dunham’s part to create a show with “an abundance of chicks with normal bodies, but somehow no negroes.”

HBO declined to comment, but directed me to an interview Dunham had done with The Huffington Post. HBO told me, “Lena has spoken on this.”

Not really. What Dunham said in that interview was: “When I get a tweet from a girl who's like, ‘I'd love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color.’ You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I'll address that.” One wonders why, if she’s aware of the exclusion, would she wait an entire season to address it?

Actress Martha Plimpton, who appears in the comedy series Raising Hope and who has served as an advocate for issues surrounding race and women’s rights throughout her career, says, “Unfortunately, it's not the least unusual or weird that a group of friends in any city doesn't include a black person—which is in its way actually more depressing. There’s a valid desire for television created by and for women that it serve a larger social function and speak for women in general, which obviously this show does not. But Dunham’s work has a specific style and a specific voice, and it's not for everyone, nor should it have to be, in my opinion.”

I agree that Dunham’s show doesn’t have to be for everyone—I believe that artists and writers should be able to produce and write what they want. If Dunham wants to paint the town white, that’s her right.

Just for the fun of it, I decided to count the number of black faces in the first episode. I counted three random black extras—a black man walking down the sidewalk behind Hannah and Marni in an early scene; a black man and a black woman in the crowd outside the hotel in the last scene. I see more black people than that in the five minutes it takes me to walk to the subway from my apartment in Brooklyn.

Toward the end of the episode, one black man makes a slightly less fleeting appearance: a homeless man who appears to, well, harass Hannah: “Does your heart hurt? Oh girl, when I look at you, I just want to say, Hellooooooo, New York!”

And when I look at Girls, I just want to say, New York? Hellloooo?