Open almost any major magazine’s “year in review” issue and you will undoubtedly find HBO’s Girls listed as one of the best television shows of 2012, and its writer/director Lena Dunham as one of the year’s most promising entertainers.
The show, which follows four 20-something women in New York City, garnered only moderate ratings, but was nonetheless renewed for a second season, which begins this Sunday. Critics cheered the first season of Girls for its fresh, unabashed honesty and racy humor. Dunham's spirit of scathing self-deprecation is both shocking and disconcerting, and often absurdly entertaining; one is both drawn to the show's quartet of young women and their punchy dialogue, and repelled by their narcissism and desperation. It did, however, receive one specific criticism: its absence of racial diversity.
One of the outspoken critics of Girls’ whiteness is Hairpin blogger Jenna Wortham, who said, “My chief beef is not simply that the girls in Girls are white ... The problem with Girls is that while the show reaches – and succeeds, in many ways – to show female characters that are not caricatures, it feels alienating, a party of four engineered to appeal to a very specific subset of the television viewing audience, when the show has the potential to be so much bigger than that.”
Dunham, 26, scurried to satisfy, saying she felt “heartbreak at the idea that the show would make anyone feel isolated,” according to Rolling Stone. Now, she has publicly promised that Girls will feature more diversity in the second season.
Herein lies the source of my concern and also genuine anticipation for the new season of Girls. Dunham, who was lauded as a “bold” new voice, chose to pacify critics rather than stand by her show. Girls, which once seemed a largely autobiographical glimpse at the trials and tribulations – however profound – of a certain socioeconomic female group, is at risk of becoming a contrived, media-pleasing invention. Why couldn’t Dunham have explained that Girls is derived from her life experiences and is a commentary on a certain category of girl? Why couldn’t she have told the critics “that’s not what this show is about?”
Dunham was not shy about calling out critics who accused the show of nepotism, featuring actresses allegedly made stars by famous parents. Here, she was quick to challenge attacks on her credibility, calling them unfounded. However, by promising more diversity in the new season, Dunham is putting this self-declared authenticity on the line. The two criticisms are so closely linked, both involving the presence of privilege in the fabric of the show, that Dunham’s contradictory responses are confusing.
John Haas, an undergraduate academic adviser and lecturer for the department of Radio/Television/Film in the School of Communication, said that TV should strive to be inclusive, and Girls in particular could benefit from some added diversity.
"I would hope that [Lena Dunham] would think to herself, 'I need a proper representation of the Brooklyn life,'" Haas said. "No one is going to think that is completely white, 26-year-old women. Anyone that's been to New York knows that it's a lot more diverse in that culture. It all boils down to the misconception that we are living in a post-racial society, and we are certainly not. I think you always have to tread carefully in terms of how you present that. But I do think diversity would certainly help that show out."
Another worry persists for me, however. Dunham’s offerings thus far seem rather homogenous and her overall “shtick” somewhat flat. In August, The New Yorker printed a short story by Dunham, which was about a past “elusive” and probably gay boyfriend she had in college. The story was essentially a retelling of a plot detail on the show itself (Andrew Rannells plays the once boyfriend), with little more to say on the topic or any added originality.
So, if Dunham’s storytelling repertoire comprises largely of a certain type of life experience that she often rehashes, does she have the chops to accurately represent diversity in her show? Is this an unachievable and potentially dishonest expansion of the original concept of Girls? According to Haas, if Dunham is in fact a good writer, then she (and her collaborators, which include Judd Apatow) could pull it off.
"Writers write all kinds of characters," Haas said. "Being a good writer means you can write for all different kinds of perspectives and different people. Men write for women all the time, that's a common issue that people criticize Aaaron Sorkin for, like how he writes women is what some see as very misogynous... can [Dunham] write outside of her box? Maybe. Let's hope so. I would assume that she can do this just fine. I would hope so."