Does 'Girls' owe us racial diversity?
-- Cornelius Eady
Lena Dunham's new HBO show, "Girls," and its lack of diversity. A significant part of the problem is the ongoing fight to have black America represented in its full diversity. It's worth noting the title to Kendra James' article for the site Racialicious: "Dear Lena Dunham: I Exist." Or consider this from writer Dodai Stewart on the website Jezebel:
"I am a black woman, but I find more in common with characters in 'Seinfeld' than I do with the ones in 'House of Payne.' My world is neither all black nor all white, but a mix -- whether it be race, gender, socio-economics, weight or age."
This is the voice of that tribe that doesn't see itself in Tyler Perry, whose music choices tend to put us in places where there aren't many black faces. As Wyatt Cenac's character Micah put it in "Medicine for Melancholy," our Friday nights generally boil down to one question: "Black folks or white folks."
With that said, I think storytellers, first and foremost, must pledge their loyalty to the narrative as it comes to them. I don't believe in creating characters out of a desire to please your audience or even to promote an ostensible social good. I think good writing is essentially a selfish act -- storytellers are charged with crafting the narrative they want to see. I'm not interested in Lena Dunham reflecting the aspirations of people she may or may not know. I'm interested in her specific and individual vision; in that story she is aching to tell. If that vision is all-white, so be it. I don't think a storyteller can be guilted into making great characters.
This selfishness tends to ultimately serve the writer and the audience. "Friends" was repeatedly dogged by criticism of its all-white cast. When its creators finally relented, they cast two great talents -- Aisha Tyler and Gabriel Union -- but didn't even bother to write separate storylines. They simply recycled the same plot and plugged in a new black girl.
One of the writers on "Girls" responded to criticism of the show's lack of diversity by tweeting sarcastically, "What really bothered me most about 'Precious' was that there was no representation of ME." That comment understandably set off a new round of outrage. But it should also set off some reflection. I don't know Dunham or anyone who writes for "Girls." Perhaps that was a rogue comment that says nothing about the writer's team. Nevertheless, I think it's only right to ask whether you really want black characters rendered by the same hands that rendered that tweet. Invisibility is problematic. Caricature is worse.
Whatever the intentions of Dunham's writer, they are not ultimately the problem so much as the business in which Dunham and her writers find themselves. There has been a lot of talk about Dunham's responsibility, but significantly less talk about the people who sign her checks. My question is not "Why are there no black women on 'Girls,'" but "How many black show-runners are employed by HBO?" This is about systemic change, not individual attacks.
It is not so wrong to craft an exclusively white world -- a significant portion of America lives in one. What is wrong is for power brokers to pretend that no other worlds exist. Across the country there are black writers and black directors toiling to bring those worlds to the screen. If HBO does not see fit to have a relationship with those writers and directors, then those of us concerned should assess our relationship with HBO.
And now comes the part where I must be self-serving. While we are making our complaints to HBO -- and it is wholly right that we do -- we should take a moment to survey other fields and other stories. Black writers are now regularly producing high-quality fiction that reflects the texture and depth of our experience. If you can't find yourself on HBO, perhaps you can in the works of Mat Johnson, Danielle Evans, ZZ Packer or Victor LaValle. We fight for that ideal world where we represent across genres. But even as we expand our territory, we really should support the gains we've made.
Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in a beautiful black world unpremised on the random whims of rich white people. We exist -- whether HBO adapts our stories or not.
(Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer and senior editor for The Atlantic and its website. His blog can be found at www.theatlantic.com/ta-nehisi-coates.)