Girl Talk The ‘Girls' Backlash Addresses Nothing New to Hollywood, But It Sure Was Quick to Hate on Women Julia Gazdag

I’m not sure what crawled under everyone’s skin so hard after HBO’s ‘Girls’ premiered on Sunday, but I am not pleased. I am not pleased at all, Internet. Do you hear me? That’s the sound of my head swishing to and fro in saddened disappointment. The basic complaints are about how the cast of the show is nepotism central and that racial diversity is thin on the ground. While both points are valid, they also hold true for everything that comes out of Hollywood, but I guess such a female driven show gets special treatment.

If it weren’t for nepotism (and let’s expand that a smidge to include folks who may not be directly related to, but are friends with, someone), nothing would ever get made in Hollywood. I’m not condoning the system as it does favor privilege, but I also know that I wouldn’t recommend anyone for a job worth the amount of time, work, and money TV and films entail who I didn’t trust to not make me look like an idiot by proxy, and the people I trust tend to be ones I know.

I guess we’re at a point where having a cast of women who have all individually proven their talents in previous roles can be reduced to who their parents are, and while I don’t intend to make a sweeping generalization, I would like to mention that the majority of the people who shared the photoshopped “nepotism” poster on my personal Facebook feed were men. I am also curious as to where this outrage was over the past ten years when Judd Apatow (the producer of ‘Girls’) cast the same handful of white dudes in every TV show and film he made, but I guess it’s only an issue when women do it? Surely Hollywood has no double standards! Ultimately, anyone who is financing a TV show has too much at stake to hire talent they are not reasonably confident in – they wouldn’t risk ratings and the investments thereof just to do their buddy a favor. Both Apatow’s casts and that of ‘Girls’ are filled with great actors, regardless of who knows who.

As for the issue of the show being mono-racial, representation is a serious issue on screens both big and small. It is absolutely valid and necessary to criticize the lack of diversity on TV, it’s just interesting to me that while women of color have been criticizing this for ages, white female and male bloggers have decided to join the fray all of the sudden (surprise, it was over a female dominated show!). Most shows barely have any diversity, and if they do it’s often manifested in a token secondary character or a fleeting one. I don’t think it was intentional, but the lack of diversity in the main cast also speaks to the overlap in racism and classism that exists in the social strata being represented – I don’t mean to say that there is no diversity in higher tax brackets, but it is definitely harder to find the further up you go, and that’s not only a serious issue in general, but there is a sad truth alluded to in the casting of ‘Girls.’ They had an opportunity to challenge that norm, but then, so did every other show that has failed to do so and didn’t get an endless tirade of appropriate backlash.

One review of ‘Girls’ was disappointed because there wasn’t a black woman in the main cast, which is a great point, but  just one tip of a massive iceberg. Sure, Hollywood only cares about African American stories when they represent black struggle (frustratingly often solved by oh-so-kind white folk), and I guess Latinas don’t really need to be cast in anything. Asians – what? LGBTQ women can’t be classified by race so that’s just too hard, and Native Americans already got their fifteen minutes this year when America’s Next Top Model featured one of their own just long enough to shove her into a Pocahontas costume before sending her home. But ‘Girls’ is clearly at the heart of the problem and deserves to be tarred and feathered for imposing whiteness on the otherwise overwhelming diversity of the small screen.

As for the pilot episode itself, we’re introduced to Lena Dunham’s character as she is stuffing her face fervently in a parentally financed meal at an expensive restaurant. She comes off as greedy and entitled, not without reason – she is writing her memoirs at the age of 24 and throws down quite the privileged tantrum when her parents decide to cut her off financially. Anyone who assumes that we are supposed to like or respect this character needs to spend some time with their thoughts and maybe note that this was the pilot and there is a whole season of character arch to go, with growth possibly foreshadowed by the painful vulnerability we glimpse in her later in the episode.

Dunham’s character has also spent the last two years working as an unpaid intern, something many offices have taken advantage of via the anxieties spurred by the recession and parents’ ability to support their children post-college. It may be a product of privilege, but is nonetheless exploitation. What I found interesting was the parallel of the entitled 24-year-old who takes her parents support for granted, and her employer who takes her work for granted – both have entitled expectations that take advantage of someone they rely on.

None of the characters are really likeable so far, and yet the show is wonderful to watch, an achievement unto itself. The conversation between Dunham and her skeevy non-boyfriend is viscerally relatable, as are several other great moments, and I can’t help seriously raising an eyebrow at how such a well-made show has gotten such a strong backlash. Maybe because the middle class, parentally-supported, self-involved characters hit a little too close to home for the show’s target audience?

As for scoffing at such outlandish moments as eating a cupcake in the shower, I can’t even muster the energy to roll my eyes. First off, she was eating away from the water stream, no cupcakes were harmed. Second, am I the only one who’s eaten in the shower? Because everyone is missing out. I didn’t even notice the cupcake, I was too busy being excited seeing girls on TV hanging out in the bathroom. I regularly hang out while my best friend showers and vice versa, and if someone happens to be on the toilet, whatever. We have stuff to talk about, we can’t waste precious time worrying about nudity and bodily functions! The other nerve pincher seemed to be Dunham’s character calling herself “the voice of a generation,” which, come on, it was intentionally ridiculous and the character was high on opium when she said it.

The show ends with the appearance of the first person of color, a homeless looking black man. There is indeed something unsettling about that fact. And yet, all I could think of was how much I know that experience. I lived in New York for half a decade, and every time I walked down the street miserably contemplating my life, a black gentleman with whom I was unacquainted would tell me to smile, like that would fix the fact that I had a massive ear infection but no health insurance and wasn’t sure how I’d be able to afford to eat whatsoever after the 24th of the month unless I made a burrito last for at least 4 meals. That moment wasn’t about degrading black people (though I see how it unintentionally sent the wrong message), it was about a specific part of the experience of a young white woman in New York. The issue is not that the only person of color was homeless, but that there were no diverse characters preceding his.

The amount of backlash ‘Girls’ has garnered from men and white women, most of whom have yet to notice that their criticisms not only extend to the rest of the media, but have a history of being voiced by women of color, is frankly stunning. Is anyone serious in implying that Lena Dunham’s privilege, as well as her cast’s, is the only reason this show exists? The fact that she got a blind script deal from HBO based on the award winning film ‘Tiny Furniture’ that she wrote, directed and starred in herself at the age of 24, or that she wrote it while working in retail and writing on a rigid schedule from 8pm-2am is clearly not worth mentioning because her mother is a well known photographer. Now that the show she also wrote and directed has proven to have the same shortcomings that the rest of television does has also oddly overshadowed the reaction to her showing off her non-standard-for-Hollywood body, which has gotten little support from women and much hate-commenting from men, a bold move with an appalling reaction that deserves more mention.

How does it makes sense to hold people in a socially disadvantaged position, in this case, women, to a higher standard than the rest of an industry dominated by men? As far as I can see, the backlash over ‘Girls’ is putting the weight of the racism and classism of TV on the shoulders of women, who are already marginalized in the entertainment industry. The fact that a 25 year old woman could write, direct and star in this show with a mostly female cast is a hard enough achievment on its own, yet overlooked in favor of quick and harsh criticism on such a female dominated project, more so than male dominated ones. Personally, I would like to watch the rest of the season before evaluating it fully.

A follow-up to this post can be found HERE

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  1. Therefore, all who complain about the lack of diversity/social class representin’ can shut it, wait for the next season, and then grab a bag of popcorn sit down and watch to find some fresh complaints.

  2. “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, and I want to avoid classic network tokenism casting because although I think that people of color are SEVERELY underrepresented on TV I’m not sure that’s always the solution. That being said… we have second seas0n coming up, and that will be remedied… I’m really excited.” -Lena, NPR

  3. Here’s an alternate view about this show from the POV of people of color:

    http://www.racialicious.com/2012/04/19/girls-that-television-will-never-know/#more-21935

  4. I have to say it’s pretty great that the commenting on this article has so far been mostly thoughtful response and hasn’t devolved into YouTube-style all caps hate rants punctuated with forty exclamation points and random Hitler references. As for the main character of Girls, she’s one of the most realistic depictions of a twenty-something I’ve seen on television. She claims to have taken control over her life and her body in the way that she tattooed herself while being overweight and feeling out of control, but is a sex doormat for her indescribably creepy non-boyfriend. Her youth leads her to make bold outward statements but inwardly has little self-esteem or drive to live up to her potential. It hits close to home, and makes the viewer who sees herself in the character uncomfortable.
    The issue with non-diversity in media is that the people with the power to create are of one color, and they produce what they know. Tyler Perry makes films with all black casts. Maybe what he knows is all black friends. Judd Apatow makes films with all white casts. Maybe all his friends are white. They stick to what they know. In that sad way, art imitates life. Being multiracial, and having grown up overseas in a small American community where everyone dated each other in high school regardless of race, I myself can’t identify with gravitating toward a group that resembles me for comfort. I was incredibly sheltered growing up, not knowing that in America racial tension runs beneath almost everything, or that women find themselves still fighting for recognition in every facet of life. I love this article (and others like it) for its continuation of an important conversation that’s been started. The funny thing is though, that until we change our own interactions with each other, our depictions of life won’t change on the screen. And the ways we depict life onscreen won’t change until we change our interactions in life. Television won’t get more diverse until we do. It’s a catch-22 that’ll only get fixed with acts of human kindness.

  5. I love this article you wrote, and I also love the show. It’s a perfect representation about over privileged white girls in NYC who are taking their money for granted… Who are in this awkward time in their lives, finding real work and getting off of their parent’s financial support. Girls is a great show, I am happy HBO grabbed a new demographic for their programming. While yes, there really isn’t any racial diversity, it is supposed to be mocking these girls. I think this show needs to develop more before I make additional judgements… I mean it’s only been two episodes.

  6. wow. I could spend more time reading these great comments than I did reading this great article.

    One thing that I didn’t see in the article or the few comments I read is that we’ve forgotten about one very important point here… Perhaps there were no people of color in this situation, because it’s suppose to be ABOUT girls who are not of color? Is that not allowed? Don’t those exist too? There is such a thing as reverse racism, and the whole thing about diversity has definitely exhausted itself as well as me, when it comes to lording over the art form. Even if the commentary on racism was from a white perspective, aren’t white people allowed to have a perspective anymore? I’m just playing devil’s advocate, because clearly the stereotypical “white” viewpoints and perspectives have been done and over done.. But even if a fresh perspective from someone white came out, I’d venture to say that people would struggle to get anything out of it, for sheer inability to get past the fact that a person of color didn’t say it. And truly – isn’t that racism as well? To assume that just because a person of color expresses something on racism, that it is accurate or the authentic perspective or real deal? Just sayin’…

    • Lisa Jey Davis, racism is racism period no matter who is spouting it.
      And reverse racism… really?!
      I think you should look up and study the term “FALSE EQUIVALENCE”.

  7. I’ll go ahead and tag onto Amanda’s statement, anyone who doesn’t like it can change the channel…although I did cringe at the final scene of the homeless dude telling her to smile or something. That cringe was natural for me because it did strike me as painful and unnecessary buuuuuut at the same time how much did that one scene impact my life? Not at all. If I’m honest though I too have had that same exact thing happen to me on the streets of NYC. On a different note, one thing I’ve been taught about writing is ‘write what you know’, not pretend to write what you know and come off sounding ignorant. I must say that all of the commentary and conversation around this one episode is a powerful statement as to how many viewers ‘Girls’ must have had. Personally I was horrified mostly by the male/female relationships because I’ve experienced the horror of realizing the guy you’re dating likes you more than you like him and the shame of being disrespected and used (in the case of the couch scene with shirtless dude). To me this ‘horror’ was good because that seems to be the point of the show, watching the characters develop into grown women. Hopefully this show will stick around long enough for those who are interested to watch these characters develop. I’ve enjoyed reading all of your comments, I felt like I was back in college having a round-table discussion. Great ending to a well-written and thoughtful article.

  8. I agree with you, and I’m just saying, no one was complaining that sex and the city had four white women. It’s a TV show, entertainment, if someone doesn’t like it they can easily change the channel.

    • I watched Sex in the City and I am a black woman.
      Why did I watch it?
      Because I could see and relate to Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha and parts of their story spoke to me and I could see myself and my friends who are all diverse and from different backgrounds as well.
      I stopped watching Friends after the first season because I truly did not believe that they lived in New York, they did not even sound like New Yorkers, and as for Entourage forget that action, I do not want to see the inane adventures of four white guys.
      This show Girls just shows one voice, and it seems to be the same voice all the time. and in this day and age that is not cricket.

  9. Hi all! I have to say that I’m a mexican majoring in communication and media, and that really enjoy to see some different types of narratives print it out in television.

    In my perspective, the critics about the racism in television it’s a fact, and it’s related with too many factors in the american television. But, we can see some other TV shows like “Modern Family” that symbolizes the minorities and disfunction of a new generations. Even though, I really enjoyed to watch “Girls” ‘cuz shows another prototipe of girls that are not the skinny, super duper hyper goodlooking girls. I liked that they represent day-to-day problems that even at certain age girls have to face it… like been succesfull in our professional careers.

  10. all these comments are so… white… leave it to white feminists to argue that male privilege gives white women a pass to be racist because we can’t be expected to consider WOC as women also, since men are so oppressive! it’s just too hard. we can just stay white supremacists until we’re equal with white men! then we might be a little more open to associating with WOC.

    no wonder so many WOC say that white feminists are not their sisters.

    also, the author’s comments about the homeless black character are just appalling.

  11. I wonder if the backlash to “Girls” has nothing to do with race, gender, etc. but because it is just plain bad.

    Hear me out… If this show was really, really good, then none of us would be writing about the other stuff. Look at Bridesmaids, it was a good film. No one complained because it was written by a female voice. No one complained it did not have a diverse cast. Why? Because it was a good film all on its own. (P.S. I am Latina.)

    I can only speak for myself here, but I found “Girls” to not be clever or witty. Now granted, it is only the first episode. There is still time for improvement. A lot of shows have a crappy pilot only to turn things around later in the season.

    First and foremost, there was too much hype around this show. The line I kept seeing was “Bridesmaids producer Judd Apatow”, which implied that it would have some resemblance to a Judd Apatow show (e.g. Freeks & Geeks- which I heart tremendously) or the film Bridesmaids. Neither of which were true. The show… it is different. (I am trying to be nice.)

    Unlike Freeks & Geeks, the characters are not compelling. Are they flawed, yes. Are they relatable. Maybe. Are they likeable, not really. The latter is a problem. You can have flawed characters, that you can relate to, but they have to have some likeability to them. Personally, I did not connect to any of the ladies from “Girls”. Even the writing was just “meh”. Again, I did not care for it.

    Let’s take another female driven cast with no diversity in NYC: Sex in the City. You had SJP’s character Carrie that everyone related to (altough 99% of us are nothing like her). Then you had Kim Catral’s character Samantha. who 99% of us would say we are nothing like, but she was still relatble to.

    In Girls, I could not find a character I liked or related to. The main character is a spoiled, privledged girl/woman who has yet to find herself. That is fine, but she is also not very likeable. I have no reason to root for her or invest in her success. That is a problem.

    Again, this is just the first episode. Maybe things can turn around. But also, maybe they won’t.

    • Maya Rudolph the woman who was the bride and the best friend being fought over in Bridesmaids is mixed race half black half white. So there was a smidgeon of diversity there.

  12. Honestly, I really was not impressed with ‘Girls.’ For some reason it just didn’t captivate me like other shows. Maybe it gets better as the season goes on, but already I’m pretty turned off by it. It’s unfair to assume that all girls have some “sex partner” at their disposal and, even more degrading, that they let some guy have anal sex with them when they’ve had a crappy day. That really bothered me. I mean how many girls actually take pleasure in that?! Also, how many girls actually bathe together while eating cupcakes? They make it look so blase, like yeah we’re cool I can shave my legs while my friend bathes and eats a cupcake and not be bothered by it. Not that there is anything wrong with that but it just doesn’t happen. I mean sure I walk around in my underwear and change in front of my roommate but we don’t bathe together. And who even does opium?! Maybe I’m naive but that was a really lame part of the plot. If this show is trying to appeal to “normal, average” girls, that is not the way to do it. Nor is having disturbing hook-ups. And a girl is already pregnant?! Really. That hasn’t been done before. I see an abortion on the horizon. So I guess I don’t really get why everyone is saying it’s so realistic and speaks volumes about girls of today. If that’s what the girls of today are like, then I don’t want to meet them.

  13. to post a comment

  14. Also, I don’t see the show as glorifying entitled white girls. I see it as poking fun at themselves, us,…a generation that may not like seeing themselves that way, but for a lot of girls it’s rings as authentic. Am I proud of the fact that I was sheltered & a recent college-grad still being supported by my parents while I work & have an internship? No, but that’s how it is for a lot of people right now. I don’t relate to nor particularly care for Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Desperate Housewives, etc. but my opinion doesn’t make those shows empirically bad. If you don’t like it, then don’t watch it.

  15. I think people had high expectations for Girls, & that’s just setting it up to fail. It can’t represent every single ethnic group. The writer wrote what she knew, & I think it’s more racist & less honest to just add a token character to be PC.

  16. agreed all around ladies. I’ve gotten some crazy emails about my webseries and her show. to this I say “I think a lot of people want women to find each other threatening, it’s just like watching kittens wrestle – but hotter”
    @shesamess
    http://www.shesamess.com/2012/04/re-lena-dunham-youre-screwed/

  17. i’ve read nearly all the comments on this post so far, and i’m not going to embarrass myself by attempting to offer something to the conversation that would ultimately be inadvertently shallow and/or racist. the quality of the discourse on this post has been very high. I’m glad to see that and I’ll leave it to the people who have a much firmer grasp on the issues at hand to continue it. my contribution will be this: it does strike me as odd that THIS show, at THIS time seems to have tipped the scales on the conversation. this doesn’t give “Girls” a free pass from any transgressions, but i nonetheless find it curious. and i found the point about female-centric productions facing greater scrutiny than male-centric productions very… well… poignant. and i think that scrutiny is applied in both negative AND positive ways. Girls is a negative example and Bridesmaids a positive example – it was hailed as this “AHA-moment” for some people where they suddenly realized women could be funny (rather than the fact that they ARE and always HAVE BEEN). that’s a back-handed compliment if i’ve ever heard one.

    • Yes. To all of that. I think it’s amazing how intelligent this whole discussion has been (for the most part), and how civil everyone has been! I don’t think I ever gave Girls a free pass, though some people seem to think so? In any case, the overblown reaction made me think of Ashley Judd’s recent article and what she said about women getting judged all the time, from every angle. This show does have a lot of positive things to offer, and yet it’s getting ripped apart. Funny how I don’t remember this kind of backlash on a show like Entourage (also white upper class privilege except with men), but then, maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.
      And well said on the Bridesmaids comment — that made me think of Tina Fey’s line about take your daughter to work day from tonight’s 30 Rock, and how it was condescending to think it was doing women a favor to show them what a workplace was like, as if they couldn’t figure it out. Does that parallel make sense? My point is backhanded compliments. It’s late. Words are getting hard to use.

  18. I haven’t watched ‘Girls’ yet, but what I’m seeing here is a lot of people complaining that a woman, who has had a major achievement of breaking into a primarily male dominated field, hasn’t done enough to meet everyone’s needs and wishes. How about we congratulate and support this woman, in a hope to pave the way for more women and minorities to be able to achieve such things. ‘Girls’ was intended to represent real women, and it may have missed some aspects, but it definitely got some right. Any progress is still progress, and hopefully next time we can move a little further in the right direction, but in the mean time, be happy that people are trying to make waves.

  19. I’m sorry I meant “Tyler Perry makes movies with only black people in them”

    • Hold up, I wasn’t the one with the inappropriate Tyler Perry comment, for the record. I don’t think that ghettofying entertainment by making films for black audiences solves anything by any means, though for everyone who’s entertained, yay for watching fun movies and all. I feel like I said this in both the article and several comments, but I feel that the biggest issue with diversity in Hollywood is that straightforward human experience stories are only told from a white perspective. POC are often tokenized, and if not, they still rarely get a lead role unless the film is about their cultural struggle. Unless you’re Will Smith, I guess, but that’s not a very good example of diversity.

  20. I just have what may be a silly question. Does Julia not agree that this show is unrealistic and unfair in it’s portrayal (or lack thereof) of people of color in NYC? It’s frustrating to me to read all of these comments chalking the criticism strictly up to sexism and the fact that the creator is a woman! The points that are made about the show are true and regardless of whether or not these issues have been brought up with regards to other shows doesn’t make it any less true it just shifts the blame.

    I was a huge fan of Sex in The City regardless of the fact that it didn’t have many people of color represented because at least I felt like I could see a portion of myself in each of the characters. Perhaps this show not only struck a cord because it doesn’t represent people of color but also because people of color can’t even see themselves represented in the voice of the main characters. You don’t have to be the same race as someone to identify with them, there are certain topics that are universal and maybe this show isn’t tackling that well. It seems that it was heralded as this cutting edge take on 20 something women and it failed to deliver. I actually read an article about the show in Entertainment magazine and was excited to tune in because I thought that it would be what it made itself out to be and that perhaps regardless of whether or not I saw a black character in the show I would at least identify with one of the characters. The struggles themselves not only the lack of a cultural perspective seem very skewed to that of a particular type of young white women. The type that is self absorbed and oblivious to anything going on outside of their own world. The kind of women who if they’ve not grown up around black people or were not introduced to any in their childhoods feel it justifiable to say “well that’s just her experience she’s speaking from what she knows” or “Tyler Perry makes movies with only white people in them” (which by the way have you even seen a Tyler Perry movie ? Because if you had you would know that is not true). It’s this sense of entitlement that gets me and it’s something that disgusts me and angers me because no matter what you will never get it Julia. You will always deflect, you will make it a point to say you understand but still deflect and ask that passes be given on the merit that it’s the first episode and that other shows do it too. I’m sorry but welcome to my world honey, where I have to knock it out of the park the first time I do it and I have to show up and show out and do things better than my counterparts because EVERYONE is watching and wants me to secretly fail. The show is not just failing in it’s representation of POC but also in the fact that no one is identifying enough with it’s heroine. I’m sorry but even Tony Saprano & Miranda Priestly gave you a little humanity.

    • I absolutely felt humanity in Dunham’s character. She is entitled and spoiled, yes, but she also is starved for affection and has no idea how to get it. What I saw in her character was a person who was raised with entitlement not only for things like being handed money with which to “become herself” but also affection without deserving it. She’s in a terrible relationship with this skeevy guy because she’s so eager to grab at the morsels of affection he throws her. Every second from when she walked in his door to when she kissed him was palpably loaded with emotion and nuance. She’s fascinated with her friend who doesn’t even know what to do with the affection her boyfriend has for her, which is another form of entitlement.
      What I see in the show is the criticism of the entitlement and privilege that pervades the upper middle class trust fund crowd. It doesn’t glorify it and make us pity the poor little rich girl like Gossip Girl does. Personally, I was never a fan of Sex and the City – if ever a show glorified entitled, self absorbed white privileged women, that was it. But it’s fun to watch rich people be fancy, and I guess Girls lacks that.
      I clearly take issue with the show’s homogeneity, but I also take issue with all of television’s homogeneity. I don’t think that’s reason enough to dismiss it outright when it is well written, well directed, and well acted. As for getting it right from the get-go, as well as the hype, Dunham was asked to write this based on Tiny Furniture — I’m not sure what people expected after seeing the film, but I guess most of them haven’t. She did what she does well and she’s a young filmmaker. Personally, I put more blame on HBO and the rest of the networks for not pursuing more diverse programming. I don’t know if you follow the online series Awkward Black Girl, but after immense online popularity, the networks that wanted to turn it into a TV series told Issa Rae that they would love to make the show Awkward Black Girl, but wanted to replace the main character with a white girl. I mean… Girls reflects a major problem, but it is by no means the source of it.