David Zurawik

Why it is wrong to call HBO's 'Girls' racist

I have been watching the backlash against HBO's groundbreaking comedy "Girls" the last couple of weeks, and much of it looks to be coming from writers and wannabe critics who might just be jealous of Lena Dunham's success.

Racism is a complicated and powerful word that should be used carefully and responsibly by people who have some sense of the real social history of that word and what it represents in American history.

 Unfortunately, many people writing about television and popular culture these days are neither careful and responsible nor educated in the social history of anything. What they are steeped in is uninformed snark.

As I said in my reviews, I so admire Dunham because in this series she has given voice to a generation coming of age in a shredded economy -- a threadbare America SUV'd and credit-card depleted by their free-spending, McMansion-lusting, irresponsible and selfish parents and baby-boomer grandparents.

And she's not sounding an "oh-poor-us" only take on their plight; she's admitting many members of her age group are immature, self-absorbed and don't want to leave adolesence. She's holding two conflicting ideas in her head and trying to make sense of a part of America in which they co-exist.

As for race, if this white world is the one Dunham knows, why should she not have the right to depict it? If she wants to write about a quartet of white friends, why should she make one or two of them persons of color just to satisfy some notion of what qualifies as diverse enough for prime time?

That would be p.c. hypocrisy, if you ask me, and out of that you will never get authenticity or art. And HBO has done better than any channel or network on TV in giving us authenticity, art and, by the way, diversity when it is genuinely part of a story or documentary. PBS isn't even close, really.

And I get the argument about minor characters, but again, if they are not part of her artistic vision, should she put them there to please some notion of social reality and diversity?
That's my take on it. But I also want to share the smartest thing I have read on 'Girls' and race since the false controversy started. I am not in perfect agreement with the author, but it the most grounded piece I have seen.

It's by Nsenga Burton, editor-at-large for The Root, the Washington Post's African-American-focused website.

Full disclosure, Burton and I are both on faculty at Goucher College. In fact, for the last two years, we have taught a course together, "Writing and Producing for New Media."

Burton's piece begins:

HBO's latest hit, Girls, has come under fire for showing yet one more version of New York as a white world where people of color don't exist. Writer Rebecca Carroll of the Daily Beast talks about feeling left out of the show as a black girl.
I'm more inclined to agree with the article "What's the Big Deal About the Lack of Black 'Girls?' " in which Madame Noire's Brande Victorian takes on critics of the new "it" show, saying that its writer, Lena Dunham, should be allowed to represent her version of reality, which may, in fact, be all white.

The drama and criticism surrounding Girls is not unlike the criticism lobbed at Mad Men for the lack of diversity in that show during prior seasons. Like Victorian, I didn't find that to be much of a problem; rather, I read it as a true reflection of how life often operates: When you're privileged, you create and live in a world where disenfranchised people don't exist, even when they are physically present.
I find it interesting that as Ralph Ellison's classic book Invisible Man turns 60, we are still grappling with these issues, even in popular culture. It does boggle the mind that when folks have the opportunity to create any world they want, they replicate what they know and see (which is what you're often taught in screenwriting), as opposed to creating a world that they would like to see. ...

You can read the rest of Burton's post here, and I strongly urge you to do so.

And then, let me know what you think.