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A Black Woman's Reflection On (White) 'Girls'

I used to hate-watch “Girls.” Six seasons later, I realize it was an outlet for much more.

14/04/2017 23:59 SAST | Updated 15/04/2017 00:16 SAST
Jim Spellman via Getty Images
Actresses Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet, Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke attend the the New York premiere of the sixth and final season of "Girls" at Lincoln Center on February 2, 2017.
Jim Spellman via Getty Images
Actresses Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet, Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke attend the the New York premiere of the sixth and final season of "Girls" at Lincoln Center on February 2, 2017.

It took six seasons for me to kinda sorta get into HBO’s “Girls.” And now that it’s over, my feelings about its ending are mixed. I grew up with “Girls” ― or rather, my relationship and expectations of how shows like “Girls” represent women like me, black women, has grown. 

Like “Sex and the City” before it, “Girls” will forever be a vivid portrait of a particular moment in time, an immortal pop cultural image of being a 20-something woman in New York. Even now, it’s a little surreal to go back and watch season 1 of the show ― where the clothes already seem weirdly dated, the pop culture references (like Marnie’s cringe-worthy Kanye cover) of another era. 

But what’s also strikingly dated is how the show did, or rather didn’t, deal with race. From day one, “Girls” received a swift backlash from people who didn’t like how abundantly white the show was.

“Girls” never really made any powerful insights about race. It couldn’t. And more importantly ― it didn’t really have to.

It didn’t help that “Girls” creator and star Lena Dunham, just 25 when the show premiered, was messily figuring out race in the public eye ― and failing. 

“The race stuff blew up first,” Dunham recalled in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter back in February. “The second night we aired was the first time I met my boyfriend [Jack Antonoff]; we were on a blind date. I had been metabolizing the criticism all week, and I made a really, really dumb joke that I’m perfectly fine to repeat now ’cause I was f–in’ 25. I said, ‘No one would be calling me a racist if they knew how badly I wanted to f–k Drake.’” 

It’s an anecdote that makes Donald Glover’s cringe-worthy appearance as Hannah’s black Republican boyfriend in Season 2 all the more telling. And the black female characters on “Girls” in particular, from Jessica Williams to Danielle Brooks, were always so unsatisfying, so one-note. 

“Girls” never really made any powerful insights about race. It couldn’t. And more importantly ― it didn’t really have to. 

It took me awhile to accept this, of course. At 23, when the show first came out, I wasn’t thinking about the nuances of race, of how Lena Dunham was writing what she knew and, quite frankly, she probably didn’t know many black people. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that while, yes, New York is diverse, on any given Sunday in Williamsburg or Bushwick or Bed-Stuy you will see throngs of white girls doing brunch at trendy cafes with nary an OG Brooklyn black or brown face in sight. 

Back then, I was one of those women of color who called out the show when it first came out, who balked at the idea that a series set in Brooklyn had not a single prominent black character, who didn’t find Lena Dunham’s body radical or revolutionary, who couldn’t “relate” to any of these characters, who got that they were supposed to be obnoxious but found that in itself obnoxious. 

Something it took me awhile to figure out is that a lot of my issues with the show really had nothing to do with it or with Dunham. It was the bubbling up of a frustration that had always existed but perhaps hadn’t been given an outlet. Hate-watching “Girls,” for me, provided that outlet, a way for me to navigate my feelings ― not just about buzzwords like “representation” and “diversity” but, quite honestly, about white girls. 

I knew (and know) women like Hannah, Shoshanna, Marnie and Jessa. White girls who are complex and messy and imperfectly human. White girls who are also hopelessly clueless about the ways in which their whiteness takes up space. White girls whose feminism often makes no room for me, and indeed sometimes leaves me feeling alienated, even when they purport to “mean well,” or are “just figuring things out.” That tension has always been a difficult thing to define, and even more difficult to process when the “white girl” perspective has always been the default perspective. 

I knew (and know) women like Hannah, Shoshanna, Marnie and Jessa. White girls who are complex and messy and imperfectly human. White girls who are also hopelessly clueless about the ways in which their whiteness takes up space.

Because of this, I could never connect with “Girls.” Not relate, but connect. I saw all the pieces for what they were and I appreciated them on a certain level, the way one appreciates a piece of valuable art in a museum ― with distance. There were episodes of the show that are truly brilliant, and that I would marvel at and admire. But even watching these well-written, expertly directed vignettes, a general sense of apathy never left me. I didn’t want or need “Girls” to represent me. But I still wanted to be represented. Somehow. 

And strangely, that’s what I took away most from this show. It gave me an understanding, a peek into a perspective I didn’t understand. And it also helped me to find the language to express my frustrations about why I couldn’t relate or connect to it.

Because “Girls,” for better or worse, marked a seminal moment in the representation conversation.

It came out just as Shonda Rhimes’s “Scandal” was blowing up ― the first primetime drama with a black female lead in 30 years. Think about that. Post-2012, we have “How to Get Away With Murder,” and “Being Mary Jane,” and “Queen Sugar,” and “Shots Fired,” and “Empire,” and “Black-ish,” and “Rebel,” and “Underground.” We’re not there yet, of course, but it’s a testament to the beauty and power of shows starring black people, made by black people. 

In 2017, ["Girls"] leaves behind a TV landscape full of increasingly diverse, intelligent, messy, complicated, smart and funny women.

It feels appropriate that as “Girls” heads out, Issa Rae’s “Insecure” is just beginning to hit its stride on HBO. “Awkward Black Girl,” Rae’s web series which provided the template for “Insecure,” was for me a badly needed answer to an industry that had yet to tackle the black female 20-something experience.

In 2012, it felt like “Girls” needed to be more than what it was, because there just weren’t many shows by and for young women on our screens. In 2017, it leaves behind a TV landscape full of increasingly diverse, intelligent, messy, complicated, smart and funny women. What a full circle moment. 

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