On the supposed racism of the TV show Girls
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.
A few Girls critics, including the black writer who exists, tried their hand at a statistical argument, noting that Brooklyn overall is only about a third white — saying, in effect, that Girls wasn’t representing reality, but distorting it. But this argument is at best daft, and at worst disingenuous: People do not live and interact with a random sample of people from their city or borough; they live and interact with the people they get to know in various settings — settings that are often segregated, such as neighborhoods, jobs, and university alumni communities. Indeed, there are many whites, many blacks, and many Hispanics in Brooklyn — but in large part, each group is tucked away in its own bubble, as the briefest glance at the Census data reveals.
Girls writer Lesley Arfin fought back at first, tweeting a joke that was both more insightful and funnier than anything on the show: “What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.” She perfectly captured the absurdity of the idea that every story should represent everyone, not to mention the self-centeredness of the demand that every work of art include someone who looks like you, and made her observation cut by choosing an extreme example of a movie that did not include her — a movie that no “diversity” advocate would dare suggest should have included her. Precious is a movie about a black teenager in Harlem who suffers horrifying abuse. It didn’t need a smart-mouthed white girl for comic relief.
The Left was not amused. After Arfin tweeted an incoherent apology, deleted the joke, and then deleted the apology as well, blogger Elspeth Reeve of The Atlantic informed her readers that Arfin was “learning there’s no such thing as ironic racism,” and highlighted some other jokes Arfin had written that touched on race in some way. (For example, she once suggested “taking Obama to the White House” as a euphemism for defecating.) Reeve offered no explanation as to why this particular humorist was not allowed to use edgy racial material, when these types of jokes are nearly ubiquitous among American comedians of all colors and creeds.
Seven excruciating days after Reeve’s post, the fury reached a peak with Lindy West’s “A Complete Guide to Hipster Racism,” an article on Jezebel, a website that bills itself as being about “celebrity, sex, fashion for women.” In this brief against humor we are informed, more or less, that where race is concerned, there is no such thing as a joke. For example, it is racist to introduce someone as “my black friend,” even if you say it with a smile on your face and know that your black friend won’t be offended.
The most amusing section of West’s article pertained to racism of the “tee-hee, aren’t I adorable?” variety. This is when white girly-girls find humor in pretending to be gangsters. We learn it’s racist for a white woman to perform a quiet acoustic cover of a violent rap song, and for “suburban white girls” to flash gang signs. It was also racist when the cute white actress from the sitcom New Girl, Zooey Deschanel, retweeted this joke from the cute white pop singer Sara Bareilles: “Home from tour and first things first: New Girl episodes I missed. #thuglife.” “Thug life” is a gangsta-rap theme popularized by Tupac Shakur.
If the Left expects Americans to take its crusade against modern racism seriously, it will have to find better examples of bias than the predominantly white cast of Girls and some harmless jokes from adorable pop stars. And just as important, young liberals could benefit from lightening the hell up.