Girl TalkAbout Last Week's Controversies, And About TV's Massive Fail In GeneralJulia Gazdag

Last week I talked about the show ‘Girls’, the backlash surrounding it, and why I thought calling racism on just this show was actually misogyny wrapped in self-righteous blogging. Truth is, all of us, including me, missed an opportunity to talk about the real issue here: all of television, not just this show. We missed a chance to examine how much TV has lost the diversity it worked towards for decades, and the fact that that in itself is a conversation that needs an opportune moment, when people of color are constantly discussing it in non-mainstream forums, is upsetting.

I want to apologize not only for missing that chance myself, but to everyone who misunderstood my meaning. I did not intend in any way to dismiss the relevance of show’s lack of diversity, nor imply that the feminist element of this issue in any way took precedence over the racial aspect. A friend asked me what I thought the difference was between not dismissing the show entirely and asking everyone to give it a chance: dismissing the entire show means also dismissing the aspects of it that involve an amount of female empowerment that doesn’t exist anywhere else in television right now, and makes it easier for women (and by proxy, other groups) to be marginalized. Giving it a chance implies that the issue of homogeneity isn’t all that serious and people should just lighten up, which I did not mean to convey in the least and frankly, anyone who doesn’t like or connect with the show has their reason to, as with anything. Homogeneity is an issue in the show’s casting; sexism is an issue in the blogosphere’s reaction to it. The two are not mutually exclusive, are not competing for attention, and reflect valid issues that all of us need to discuss, educate ourselves on, and resolve.

I have been thinking about so many things this past week, because this issue is layered, complex, and saturated with emotion and history. It’s not that I’m ok with the show being about white privilege, I just didn’t expect anything different after seeing Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture. I think the bigger problem is that HBO commissioned a(nother) show about white privilege. The bigger problem is everyone working in television programming who chooses to reflect only a fraction of their viewing audience in the shows they choose to develop, and even worse, limit the development of more “diverse” programming because they underestimate our intelligence and interests as viewers.

When a show like ‘Awkward Black Girl’, that has an enormous YouTube following and is about universally relatable experiences, is told in a network meeting that it would only be developed with more “mainstream” actors, the point is clearly missed. Hollywood still has a problem telling universal stories through non-white characters, and the excuse of needing more recognizable faces in television is a weak one. Television has historically thrived on new talent – most successful shows (‘Freaks and Geeks’, ‘Friends’, ‘Will & Grace’, ‘Modern Family’, ‘The Office’, ‘Ugly Betty’, ‘Seinfeld’, shall I continue?) started with a cast of previously unknown actors and launched their careers. So for a show like ‘Awkward Black Girl’, which is just one example, to be told that it wouldn’t bring in viewers when its YouTube numbers and wildfire-like spread across the internet clearly shows that audiences are interested, we have to seriously wonder where network executives are getting their ideas from.

I’m not going to speak for anyone else, and for the sake of this conversation I will put aside my self-identified marginalized heritage as an Eastern European Jewish woman (generation zero, grew up behind the Iron Curtain). Because while I may have grown up under very different circumstances with a pretty intense family history that had its fair share of violent oppression, for the purpose of this conversation I’m a white woman between the ages of 18-35 living in the United States and watching television. Do you hear that, networks? I’m your target demographic, and you’re missing a huge opportunity by assuming you know what I want to see instead of listening to me. Maybe it’s because you don’t understand this newfangled technology of tubes called the interwebs. You probably feel threatened by it, because more and more of us are watching TV on it, increasingly shows made by regular folks who raised the funds for it themselves, ie. stuff you can’t profit off. That must be really hard for you. You probably don’t care, but I’ve had a pilot script for years and I’m waiting to develop it myself because I just don’t trust you with it, and I’m probably not the only one.

As a member of your target advertising audience, I want you to know that you’re missing a huge opportunity every time you deny a person of color to tell any story, especially when its one I can relate to myself. I loved ‘Queer as Folk’ and ‘The L word’, but if someone comes to you with a less raunchy high school drama about LGBTQ kids, please remember that high school is always relatable, whoever’s lens you see it through, and you don’t need to saturate shows about non-straight/white people with sex just to get viewers. And with all this bullying in the news, these are probably stories a lot of people would relate to. I loved ‘The Bernie Mac Show’ because it was a hilarious sitcom, not because it was about a black family – if the talent is there, the demographics will follow, if you’re willing to support it. My favorite character on ‘My So-Called Life’ was Ricky, the gay Hispanic boy, but you cancelled that after the first season they way you did so many other iconic shows.  I hope you don’t think you’ve done your part for the Hispanic community with 4 seasons of ‘Ugly Betty’ and the ‘George Lopez’ reruns on Nick at Nite, because there’s no quota to meet – the sky’s the limit! Ps – every time you develop a show like ‘Outsourced’, ie filled with slurs about brown people overseas who have to answer to a white man, you lose me as a viewer because I’m already on YouTube finding a show that’s worth my time and intellect.

I’m a white girl in my 20s and you know what? I don’t want to see myself on TV. There’s enough of me on there already, and I spend all day hanging out with me. I want to know what other people are doing, what their lives are like. I want to know how someone with a different experience views the same problems I deal with myself, but you won’t let me do that when I come home at the end of the day and just want to watch something interesting. I want to see more films like ‘Sin Nombre‘ and ‘Pariah‘, which speak to the experiences of thousands of people who I pass on the street, share buses and trains with, stand next to at the supermarket, go to concerts with and – surprise! – am friends with. That’s right TV – all of us out here interact with each other! Gasp!

I apologize that as a blogger on a widely read site, I missed the chance last week to talk about race and marginalization on TV as a whole. I apologize that I contributed to keeping the conversation focused on a female writer/director/actor instead of shifting it to the programmers who intentionally sought out another story about white women, perhaps thinking that the “women” part was “groundbreaking” enough. I apologize that even with my focus on this one show, I missed a chance to talk about the unconventional choices it made with regards to portraying female bodies on television, and the myriad of men who denounced that as “ugly” and “fat.” Most of all, I apologize to all the people of color who misinterpreted my intentions and meaning to be disrespectful of their voice and experience, and I can only hope that the conversations they have been having all over Tumblr and the rest of the internet way before this show came along will be heard and voiced so we can all learn from each other and share our stories in wider-reaching mediums. It’s time to get with the program, TV.

 

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  1. I’ve been mentally reading my comment on repeat for this past week, along with deeper lines such as: What drove me to sit back and comment on it? Was I missing the point entirely? To the extent of hesitating to watch the second episode, which I did do of course, as I delved for a different, more impartial perspective. Anyway, I believe self-questioning is healthy at all times.

    I was genuinely glad for your previous article, voicing a reasoned opinion and not simply going with the flow of backlashing – even if there was in fact a lack of diversity, which was acknowledged. And I still stand by it. Yet I felt embraced by this missive.

    As I read this piece I kept thinking of all the shows that were so important to me growing up: ‘My So Called Life’, ‘The Cosby Show’, ‘Popular’ and the teen movies ‘Save The Last Dance’ and ‘O’ (not a Julia Stiles thing, I must say) that by far were the ones I anticipated the most. I’m long past my teen years so my interests lie elsewhere, but I don’t see mass media plugging productions like those anymore.

    I do not think Hollywood was more pro-diversity ten or twenty years ago. But perhaps people (media execs for that matter) were bolder. They used to give it a shot. Maybe they still didn’t know for sure what would be a success and what wouldn’t. Unfortunately, it all comes down to ratings. Reality shows and UFCs are case-resting, I believe.

    Yes, we’ve had some further advance in human rights – gay marriage, for instance, is something happening across continents (with some obvious exceptions). But at the same time, neonazism and extreme religious beliefs are escalating. In difficult economic times society as a whole tends to be more uptight, giving room for masqueraded (and often blunt) prejudice. I’m a little afraid of what to expect for the next decade.

  2. lord. it’s a good show. yes they’re white. big deal. most shows are mostly white people. i think the show is an honest empowerment of women. goodness ladies you don’t need to write a thesis about it. i like it. it is entertaining. IT IS A TELEVISION ShOW GET OVER YOuRSelfs!!!!

    • …but what if I am writing my thesis about it? Comments like this really emphasize why this discussion is so important and I was experiencing race fatigue re: my thesis but now I’m amped. So thanks!

  3. Just let me say first that I am not necessarily voicing my own thoughts/feelings on the BET thing. I am perfectly aware of why it was created and why it still does exist. I just am pointing things out that I think people do think about. And Julia, I think you are proving my point. I think the further existence of these homogenous media channels allows for the cycle to continue. Like you said, “having culturally segregated entertainment outlets is not diversity, it’s an excuse to perpetuate segregation.” It makes perfect sense for someone to say “why do I need to air this diverse TV show when they have their own network to do so?” Following that logic, wouldn’t it make sense that the first step to demolishing entertainment segregation is to abolish channels that adhere to it? Of course that is an extreme example, but worth thinking about, no?
    Honestly, I think there is a book in this, and it has probably already been written. But, there are a lot of outside factors you should consider with TV and demographics. For one thing, HBO is going to create a show that meets the wants and needs of their target audience. Obviously with shows like Girls, Entourage, Sex & The City, etc… it’s pretty White. HBO is a business, they don’t care about how Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ, etc.. think. They want to make money so they’ll supply their demands. Is it right? No. Is it how the business world works? Yes. But why doesn’t HBO have a more diverse demographic? That requires even a bigger explanation. But I digress… I think the question “Girls” begs is the classic, does art imitate life? or life imitate art?

    • I think that it can be an organic process, no network has to be “abolished.” After all, if there is no longer a need for a network like BET because its purpose has been absorbed by mainstream media, then commercial darwinism will take care of it.
      However, the point I’m trying to make (in part) is that HBO isn’t creating a show for target audience, at least not neccesarily. The example of Awkward Black Girl shows that through democratic tools like YouTube, audiences are showing what it is they want, and networks are not listening. They may get certain answers from focus groups, but who knows if those groups are even representative of the viewing audience? And with the internet, even shows on networks like HBO get seen by more people than just their subscribers, extending their influence.

  4. I commend you for revisiting this issue. I feel as long as lines of communication remain open, especially among women, then we can still progress. Kudos to all the commenters above as well.

    • Agreeeeeeeeed (totally got your meaning)

    • Reading my own comment back my meaning seems unclear even to me. What I meant is that issues of race and misogyny in this country will probably ultimately be solved by women. Let’s keep at it with honest and open communication such as this.

  5. I think the thing that made me most angry about this whole situation was that, as you pointed out, white critics were constantly complaining about the lack of minorities on one show, and to me, that seems like a really ineffective way to make any progress, Not only were they only addressing one show, but it seems like they were attacking Lena Dunham for something that many others have done. That said, this is a great opportunity to start a dialogue on the lack of minorities on TV in general, which you’ve done an awesome job at. Your article seems like a much more effective way to change things than the articles that were so critical of Girls, so go you! :)

    • I just wish we could all get along like we used to in middle school. I wish I could bake a cake out of rainbows and smiles and we could all eat it and be happy.

  6. This is a very complicated matter, with many facets but… what about the fact that sometimes in art, literature, film etc… certain things are left out, and they are left out for a purpose. Because by not including them you are making a much bigger statement. Yes, perhaps the fault does lay with HBO’s decision to keep cranking out shows that deal with White people and their problems.
    But maybe this is a much, much bigger problem than execs who run TV. We have a story about four very stereotypical girls…
    1) Miss Understood, awkward girl trying to be a writer who comes from a probably liberal upper-middle class highbrow background.
    2) Anal-Uptight-Type-A white girl whose background we are yet not aware of.
    3) JAP who is a virigin and lives vicariously through her friends.
    4) Upper-class model-type who has that “je ne sais quoi” and despite the fact she’s blonde, has a certain exotic appeal. Again, white.

    These stories are, from what little I know about the show, come from real life experience. Maybe the problem doesn’t come from the creators or HBO… but the problem comes from the fact that our society doesn’t make room for multicultural relationships to naturally occur, and what “Girls” really is, is an honest look at our society. Maybe because the main character has probably not been exposed to diversity she is the way she is (an entitled brat who has a lot of living to do? And maybe the show will touch on this?).

    Let’s also not forget that Girls has only aired TWO episodes. Who knows what is to come.

    And I am also playing devils advocate here but, whenever I hear people harping about the lack of diversity on TV, I can’t help but think why it’s okay for something like BET to exist? Why don’t we demand Tyler Perry to use a white person as the star of his next play? I am not saying that this is the stance I take, but it’s something to think about in regards to this conversation.

    • You know what, Lindsay? I’m gonna agree with you on something here. I think I’m one of the very few people who have said that this depiction of the all-white, all-privileged clique is representative of a chunk of New York ladies. I’ve been The Black Friend pretty much all my life and I’m sure I could name a handful of ladies living in New York right now who have very little interaction with POCs. I was just thinking the other day how I have ONE Black female friend with whom I keep in relatively constant contact with. ONE. And I’m Black. So I think that you may be onto something here in that maybe a lot of this response is that perhaps we’re a little embarrassed by how White our lives are. The BET and Tyler Perry comments though? Nope. Julia did a good job on this and there isn’t really much more for me to offer, except that networks like BET were created to correct a problem, that being the lack of representations of minorities on television. And it is incredibly mindboggling how backwards we seem to have gone in the past couple years. We used to have choices of shows with minority represenation (Martin, Living Single, A Different World, etc.), and now there isn’t much. The Tyler Perry’s and BETs exist to fill this gigantic gap. And this is the perfect time to remind everyone to watch Scandal tonight on ABC which features a very powerful and bad a** Black female lead in Kerry Washington!

    • Lindsay, a lot of what you just said is exremely problematic. For one, the implication that Girls reflects middle class New York in which white girls don’t befriend girls of color and vice versa is just not true. HBO’s choice with this show is just helping feed a false image that the only people worth listening to and seeing are white.
      Second of all, if people of color were not marginalized, and did not have such a violent history of marginalization at that, there would be no need for channels like BET and vehicles like Tyler Perry’s films, because everyone would have a fair chance at creative expression in the mainstream. Why don’t we demand Tyler Perry use a white actor as his star? Because white people already hold so much power and privilege, and have so many more opportunities than ANY person of color or openly LGBTQ identity. Having culturally segregated entertainment outlets is not diversity, it’s an excuse to perpetuate segregation. Unlike 5-10 years ago, there isn’t a single show on TV right now that features a non-white or even non-heterosexual person in a leading role. Except maybe Community, where the main cast seems to have an equilibrium of prominence between all six characters.

  7. I probably shouldn’t say this as my contribution application for HelloGiggles is still in limbo, but I feel like it needs to be said: I think it’s great that you brought your experience to the table, and that there are people like Grasie who can bring a POC point of view to the table. That said, I think someone of color needs to respond to this issue. As much as I appreciate and learn from your views on the matter, I’m the one directly affected by it (I–as in a black girl in her 20s desperate to see herself replicated in the media). I think you’re right–nepotism and race issues haunt this show for unknown reasons considering the television media widely portrays the same, but I’d really like to hear exactly why and how it’s damaging from another racial minority. (No disrespect meant, I love HelloGiggles).

    • I would love to hear responses to this post (not just my last one), and I agree. We’re actually looking for more women of color to contribute, as far as I know, and I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’m a white girl writing on a very white, hetero-normative blog. That being said, I also feel like that’s exactly why it’s important that we write about these issues as well, and while Ramou’s comment was wonderful to read, I hope that this reaches more women and people of color. More importantly, I hope that people of color will have more voice in the mainstream (in general, not that I assume to have any influence), and I think that if they did, aside from enriching mainstream culture, it would also weaken the current strength of the conservative extremists who seem to have an endless stream of stupid things to say these days. All of us need diversity in the mainstream, desperately, and urgently.

  8. You are fantastic! Being an actor, a female, Latina and from NYC I am still going through my very own “How I feel about ‘Girls’” syndrome.
    As an actress and female, I could not be happier for the show and Lena.
    As a dark-skinned Latina (often casted as the BFF and not the lead or stereotypically “Urban”) I’m disappointed with the show but have been in the past with plenty of programming I’ve loved who’s main cast was all white (ie: Sex & The City, Friends, Seinfeld)
    As a New Yorker…I’m like really?!. I was born and raised in NYC until age 25 and granted I’ve always been more of a downtown gal…there are few NY circles in my (and this) age group that exists without a member who’s black, latin, indian, gay, asian or some combo of all 5 and beyond.
    I could go on and on but I won’t. Just wanted to drop a line and say thank you for the 2nd piece! xo

    • Thanks, Grasie! I totally understand. It’s frustrating because there are so many things going on, all valid in their own way, but still clashing with one another. I have several brilliantly talented filmmaker and actress friends, all of non-white backgrounds, and they all struggle to have their stories told and get cast. One of my best friends is constantly getting typecast for being Indian, and overlooked for roles she’d be brilliant in because of her looks. It’s 2012 — how are we not over this shit yet?

  9. It is also extremely important to recognize that even in many of the showson television which contain diversity follow the premise of the “black best friend”. Even when the diversity occurs the person of color does not have a leading role but one of less significance (e.g. rickey in ‘My so called life’). The marginalization only leads to extreme esteem issues in the people watching these shows, especially if you happen to be a person of color in an urban environment attending highschool, a period of one’s life splashed with celebrities, television, movies, magazines, etc. These young adults are engaged by the media which marginalizes their experience. A great NPR story about this can be found here…http://www.npr.org/2011/10/11/141227508/on-tv-the-black-best-friend-concept-is-growing

    • Yeah, Ricky was an absolutely central character, and got a lot of focus on his story in several episodes. I think he’s also largely responsible for the cult following the show garnered.

    • I agree with all of this except for the part about Ricky being a marginalized minority character on MSCL. He was very much an integral part of that show and, sadly, probably had something to do with the show not lasting long. We weren’t ready for a lot of what was going on on MSCL or, rather, ABC didn’t think that we were ready. Which furthers the point about why it’s so important to support minority films and television and media like Julia mentioned.

  10. I want to wrap my arms and legs around this post (like, not in a creepy way). For weeks I’ve been trying to pinpoint what has frustated me so much about the Girls discussion and while I’m still working it out, I think that a lot of it came from the failure for many White writers to see the big picture and to use this as a chance to engage in a mature and critical discussion about the lack of diversity on television. And this is true for pretty much every discussion about race – things get heated, people get angry and forget how to have respectful discussions, emotions are high and defenses are up. They’re tough conversations to have, but we need to have them. I’m hopeful that this can turn into a conversation that all of us are interested in engaging in, not just people of color.

    • Yeah, I just wanted to be like, “noticing racism in one show doesn’t make you an expert, it just makes you self-righteous and misogynistic for only pointing it out RIGHT NOW”

    • Yes! For some reason I keep forgetting to mention (in my million comments on this) the surprising amount of White writers who spoke out about this show. It left me a little bewildered. Like, why this? Why right now? I’ve been very skeptical lately about any White person saying anything about race and this worries me a bit because while I do think that there is very much a place for my Angry Black Woman, I try to keep her in check when she is not necessary. And I had a really hard time with that during this whole mess.

    • And most of the critics WERE white — that was a point of frustration that took me a while to figure out. That significant number of the people writing about the show critically for its lack of diversity where white writers who had previously been uninvolved in conversations about race on television, and weren’t taking the opportunity to become involved now. We all missed something, and in the process tore down something that was hard enough to build in the first place.