Calling Girls racist is a problem for everybody because Girls is racist insofar as everything on TV is racist, and insofar as everyone is racist.
My friend—who is half Indian and half white, maybe Swiss? French? Who cares, he’s a babeatron—once kept a “racism journal” where he wrote down all of his own noticed, racist impulses, like feeling for his wallet when a black man sitting next to him on the subway stood up. We live in Toronto, which is similar to New York but more, like, everybody all at once. (Toronto is simultaneously really corny and clean and also houses a galaxy of brand-new immigrants from every conceivable place and you still best say “Excuse me” and “Please” and “Thank you” constantly. I love it.) My friend’s journal is maybe the only thing I’ve ever liked that was explicitly about race—not about an individual experience of race, but about its fact and city-function.
Girls, the show, my show, is racist. It’s mostly but not entirely passive racism, or racism of omission, but a show about New York City—or Toronto or Los Angeles or Houston or London—that is white-on-white-on-white-on-white ad infinitum except for cartoon nannies is just racist. Calling Girls and its creator Lena Dunham (and one of its writers, ex-VICE contributor Lesley Arfin) racist is the newest, easiest meme, and has in one month aroused the internet’s collective resentment, fear, anger, shame, and guilt. All of it is between 10 and 25 percent legit. That’s not my thesis or whatever, that’s just what happened.
Calling Girls racist is a problem for everybody because Girls is racist insofar as everything on TV is racist, and insofar as everyone is racist, in degrees (what does your racism journal say, dummy?), but especially because calling racist Girls “Racist” is a red herring for how all of this is Lena Dunham’s pre-destined public whipping for being a tattooed, tits-out 25-year-old woman in a very cool position of cultural power. If she were anyone else, making any other show—any other show!—we wouldn’t be inside of a misogynistic—secretly jeally girl-on-girl misogyny; rage-jeally guy-on-girl misogyny—and overcritical maelstrom intent on punishing Lena, if not Lena the person then Lena the Idea (that’s her rap name) (racist!).
To review: Sex and the City was amazing and the most racist show eeeeeever; when black people appeared, right before they led Carrie and company by the hands into a boiling pot of water for a sinewy human stew (flavored by NARS cosmetics and Vagisil! #ageism), they were uniformly and outrageously and super-fetishistically Others. (No browns, obvi, too weird!) Miranda dated a black dude (a sports doctor, cannily encapsulating a stereotype and a counteracting anti-stereotype with one smooth stroke) after watching a black-on-blonde sexy soap opera; Samantha dated a black music executive (they talked about their respective “bling”) whose sister was a soul food chef (HAHAHHAHAHAHA); Carrie and Charlotte were all “Ew, black guys!” or whatever you say when you’re explaining why you only date abusive, unfun white men.
Girls is Sex and the City for girls who wear flats, which it is supposed to be and totally is (and other than the institutionalized racism, it’s exceptionally good). Except, Sex and the City was made up by a pack of glossily unrelatable older women and gays—nobody you follow on Twitter—instead of a peer. I saw Lena Dunham at the movies and started walking toward her before I realized we’d never met and weren’t actually friends, which is super gross of me, and super-why Lena the Idea, established first in her movie Tiny Furniture, is working and ongoing also making everybody soooo mad.
A better/the best example of what’s wrong with Girls-as-racism is that Bored to Death was about precisely the same shit but was not smart and barely funny, and yet, existed unremarked upon for X seasons (too disinterested to look that up, but… Three?). I think both Rachael and Monica periodically had sessssss-shual Latin lovers on Friends, and maybe there were black people at Central Perk sometimes? Seinfeld was racist too, as is my favorite nu-New York show, Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Just like pre-sequel SATC, which was just tooooo not-incidentally racist, TV is both amazing and the worst.)
All this has been noted (my friend Cord Jefferson said it the best, listen: “When we look at Lena Dunham and Jerry Seinfeld, we see people with whom we have a lot in common. When they look at us, they see strangers.” Maybe he can teach me how to write an ending?), but what else has been noted, quietly but everywhere, is the idea that because Girls is supposed to be what a professional television writer called “FUBU” (again, with the HAHAHAHAHAHA) it’s supposed to be better. Because, while Jonathan Ames gets to make a shitty, whiny HBO show about creative, selfish, privileged white people fucking up, Lena Dunham has a pusssssaaaaay and is therefore not allowed to do it, too.
What’s extra-hilares is that Girls has yet to even address the actual, persistent racism of white city girls. So far there has been no incidence of the white-girl-patois, a sociolect formed by a Hold My Gold-style daddy’s girl hip-hop re-appropriation and kewt post-Valley Girl intonation and this new, disgusting element of street-style video-blogging-commentary simulacrum-voice (*spits*). You know what I mean, right? Because every girl who goes to art parties and knows a little bit about official fashion also knows every Kanye lyric, maybe even Dead Prez. I do. It’s fine, it makes fundamental cultural sense (think it through; your Google words are “disenfranchisement” and “alienation from dominant culture”) but, much of what characterizes the dynamic between two city-rich bishes is black culture, and that Girls has shimmied past it, all things considered, is kind of… unreal.
And that is the thing about asking for verisimilitude from a half-hour HBO show: yeah, Lena-as-Hannah and her Girls-friends in an advanced economy would for sure have not-white pals, would be comfy-cozy with other-colored, never-Othered besties, and yet all of them white or otherwise would also be worse and grosser and cruel and sometimes fucking racist, sexist, classist, because of how girls are people-human-regular with endless racism journals, too. An aside: a related/gigantic bullshit of the Girls-racism ordeal is the appeasing suggestion of “hipster racism” or “ironic racism” where there’s just racism; ours is collectively less visceral, maybe, but no sweeter. (Suggestion for a new rule: if you can’t say the n-word—I will not—you can’t say “wigger”—which I do. I just know so many! SEE!)
So, most TV shows are astonishingly racist, more racist than any real life I deal in, and demographically Girls is somewhere in the middle. Everyone is racist, including Lena Dunham, and everyone is sexist, including everyone who is putting all of this on her. (Consider the hand-wringing stuff about the name of the show, as if “Girls” is/was intended to be representative of all girls all at once forever and ever amen. I write a column for VICE called “Girl News” and I called it that partly because I am too literal to think up anything else and partly to be unequivocal and partly because I wanted to tilt your pretty eyes toward how little real news there is about girls in the first place. See also: Friends.)
It’s already hard to talk about advanced-economy racism when you’re white—and should be hard, but should be done—because you’ll definitely offend somebody, and it doesn’t usually matter if they are correctly offended or just stupid. Girls (not Girls) especially are wildly, anxiously afraid of being offensive a.k.a. unattractive a.k.a. invisible.
Mostly, all of this reconfirms that what is fucked right now is… everything. The most famous black men in America look like black men; minus Rihanna, the most famous black women in America look like super-beautiful, very tanned white ladies. How To Make It In America was a stupid HBO show that had lots of not-white people (or, a few?) but as ush most of them were criminals (all of them?). It’s fucked. And look, white women, especially upper-middle-class, attractive, educated white women, are delivered every socioeconomic bounty, but are still being told about what they’re doing wrong and how, and instead of calling it out they get real, real smug about their whitegirlproblems, which is defensive, and another way of apologizing for something instead of talking about it.
So Lena Dunham went on NPR (NPR!) a couple days ago to talk about how white her show is (HAHAH!) and did what is, I guess, the right thing to do in terms of quelling the unwanted hot-white attentions of too-proximal strangers to whom you apparently owe something, which is apologize, be “contrite” like Gakwer called it. Like it’s her fault. A non-question: was Judd Apatow, who is the executive producer of Girls, equally contrite and “open to criticism” after his She Would Have Aborted It For Sure movie came out, which was as lily-white and black-auxiliary as Girls, plus sexist? When girls come in the room, the rules change.
I guess, apologize when you are being the worst. But we’re all the worst, all the time. (My classism journal would be way worse than my racism journal, I can tell you that for sure.) But being all “contrite” about a conscious expression of being the worst—I don’t believe that back in March, while L.A. was being re-constructed using only high-art-Photoshopped posters for Girls as infrastructure, Lena the human or Lena the Idea didn’t notice that it was a white show—is even worse.
Just, go on NPR and be like “No” instead of “Sorry.” You can’t make that show and still be a scaredy-mouse. Because fuck no. Be like “Holding me/us to a standard that my/our boy-similars are demonstrably not held to”—Bored! To! Death! – “is not on.” Be like “Yeah, I’ll talk to you about the ways in which someone who is still basically a kid might be unable to broach the confidence necessary to write for not-me voices while doing what amounts to my first real job out of school.” Be like “You don’t even know.” Be like “I’m 26, what the ass did you do for me?” Then drop the NPR microphone and moonwalk the fuck out of there.
Follow Kate on Twitter @KateCarraway
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