Lena Dunham Responds to “Girls” Criticism

by Intern Kerishma

To say that there’s been cultural debate about HBO’s Girls would be a major understatement. Journalists, TV critics, and bloggers alike have all put in their two cents about its shortcomings–its apparent lack of racial and ethnic diversity in particular.

Girls, which is written (and directed and produced) Lena Dunham, focuses on the lives of four close twenty-something friends as they live and attempt to make their way in New York City. Those ladies (played by Dunham, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, and Jemima Kirke) have attracted considerable attention because in a show that seeks to show “real life” in New York City, every one of the protagonists is white.

Dunham recently spoke with NPR’s Fresh Air, and addressed the show’s lack of diversity:

“I take that criticism very seriously…this show isn’t supposed to feel exclusionary. It’s supposed to feel honest, and it’s supposed to feel true to many aspects of my experience. But for me to ignore that criticism and not to take it in would really go against my beliefs and my education in so many things. And I think the liberal arts student in me really wants to engage in a dialogue about it, but as I learn about engaging with the media, I realize it’s not the same as sitting in a seminar talking things through at Oberlin. Every quote is sort of used and misused and placed and misplaced, and I really wanted to make sure I spoke sensitively to this issue…

Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls. As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, ‘I hear this and I want to respond to it.’ And this is a hard issue to speak to because all I want to do is sound sensitive and not say anything that will horrify anyone or make them feel more isolated, but I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately.”

The debate over Girls has occurred more than once in the BUST office, and while I personally find the lack of diversity off-putting, most of us agree that Girls is not the only whitewashed show on TV, and seemed to be bearing the brunt of way more criticism than other diversity-free shows.

Fellow intern Ginny and I were talking about Dunham’s desire for authenticity in Girls, and as she had no close friends of color, to write about it for the sake of it would be “tokenism.” While it seems like a fair enough statement–much better than the b.s. response by Girls staff writer Lesley Arfin–I still raised a skeptical eyebrow. Ginny brought up the excellent point that a more diverse cast of writers could have been hired; you write what you know, and if you don’t know, find people who do.

Ginny and I were both reminded of Community creator Dan Harmon’s experience with having more diversity in the writing room:

“It was conscious on the part of [former NBC programming head] Angela Bromstad, before she left NBC. Angela said, “Get more women on your staff. Make it half women.” I remember going, “Are you fucking kidding me?” to myself. “Okay, I got a sitcom, and this is as far as you go,” because I’ve just been told that half of my staff needs to be a quota hire. From the mouths of bureaucrats come the seeds of great things…

Now you have a staff that is just as good as the staff you would have had, but happens to be half women. And it seems like the greatest thing in the world, because the world is half women. And the male writers across the board, from top to bottom, in their most private moments drinking with me, when they’re fully licensed to be as misogynist, reactive, old-boy network as they want, all they can say is, ‘This turned out to be a great thing’…I don’t have enough control groups to compare it to, but there’s just something nice about feeling like your writers’ room represents your ensemble a little more accurately represents the way the world turns.”

I think Harmon’s outlook is fantastic–and it doesn’t hurt that Community, even beyond it’s three female protagonists, has one of the most diverse and well-developed casts on mainstream TV. I believe that it’d do Girls well to diversify its writer’s room, too.

You can listen to Dunham’s interview here.

(Image via HBO)

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