In the pilot episode of HBO’s raunchy new comedy Girls, the main character’s parents announce that they will no longer be giving their 24-year-old daughter an allowance. If the young Hannah, a college graduate, wants to keep living in her fashionable, expensive neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, she’ll need to leave her publishing internship for a paying job.
She whines a lot. She visits a muscular unemployed guy she knows and has sex with him. (“You modern career women, I know what you like,” he informs her as they’re getting started, but the experience is in fact quite awkward.) She drinks opium tea. She and her three girlfriends talk about life and texting and student loans. One of those friends is dating a guy who’s too nice to her. Another has a British accent and a remarkable sense of style.
So, Girls is basically a hipster Sex and the City. Which is to say that it’s pretty obnoxious. And also to say that it’s very, very white.
It has never been any secret that the hipster fad among educated young adults — characterized by alternative fashion, apartments in trendy neighborhoods, liberal politics, love of independent music and film, and above all an obsession with irony — does not, shall we say, look like America. The whiteness of hipsterdom is so blinding that when satirist Christian Lander made a blog poking fun at various elements of the hipster lifestyle, he called it “Stuff White People Like.” The neighborhoods of Brooklyn near where the Girls live, Ground Zero of the hipster epidemic, contain some Census tracts that are heavily black or Hispanic — but the famously hipster portions of these neighborhoods are overwhelmingly white, often above 85 percent, with a few tracts above 95 percent. When I went through photos of the “top 10 hipster bands” as chosen earlier this year by College magazine, the only non-white face I found was that of Algernon Quashie, a guitarist for the Miniature Tigers, who’s black.
In turn, Girls doesn’t feature any non-white major characters. Thus the Great Girls Racism Panic.
You may not have noticed it if you don’t regularly read the New York Times website or check snarky liberal blogs, but a debate has stretched on for weeks about whether it’s okay to have Stuff White People Like types played by white people on TV. The Times even ran a “Room for Debate” symposium with seven entries on the topic. (Don’t worry; the contributors were conspicuously diverse.) The leading charge of the Girls critics is that the show somehow has a responsibility to “represent” an assortment of races and ethnicities. “I exist,” a black writer reminded the show’s creator via a post on the blog Racialicious.
But if taken seriously, this constraint puts art into tension with reality and places serious restrictions on freedom of expression. Yes, there is racial diversity in modern American life, but there remains a great deal of segregation as well. Some writers may choose to depict life as being more diverse than it really is — and of course that’s fine. Others may choose to tell stories that naturally lend themselves to a diverse cast. But there’s nothing wrong with telling a story about a group of people who share the same race, either, and it is odd to see liberals — who are normally keen to defend artistic expression, even at its most vile — pounce on a TV show’s creators for choosing a cast that matches their vision.