My Very Complex Relationship With Lena Dunham & Girls
by: Sidney Butler
It’s cool to hate on Lena Dunham. With this article I am going to try to capture all of the hate she receives, and the hate I sometimes hold toward her, while also telling all of you haters why she has single handedly opened the door for minority women by shutting them out. You’re saying to yourself But Sidney, that’s a paradox, it makes no sense. I know it’s complex.
Hear me out.
I’m a 21-year-old college-educated black girl living in Brooklyn. I have friends of all different races, all of whom are very intelligent and amazing, yet don’t exist in the world of HBO’s Girls. Lena Dunham has a race problem. I know this. She knows this…now.
Time after time, Lena talks about the backlash that she receives for casting four white girls. In her tonal poem for HBO she said:
“They’re beautiful and maddening. They’re self-aware and self-obsessed…They’re my friends and I’ve never seen them on TV.”
Okay, first I’ve never seen my friends on TV, like still, so that’s something I wanted to input. Second, are we really surprised Dunham had no black or minority friends? Third, she couldn’t just use her imagination or just make one of them diverse? This is when it gets complicated. Because although I really want there to be a woman of color on Girls, I have a feeling that it just wouldn’t have worked as well.
Let’s face it, Dunham would have written a stereotypical race episode that revolved around the black girl’s hair not being able to get wet at the beach, or something about her brother having a big penis. Just all that shit. I feel that she would have done a half-ass job at writing a minority. I think we all know she would have. Even when she cast the great Donald Glover in the show’s second season, she made his character a Republican. Trying so hard to defy stereotypes, Dunham created a plotline that could have been on a network sitcom. It was too much. But then again, that’s what would have happened if one of the “girls” were any race but white.
Lena never tries to deny her upbringing. She understands that she was brought up in a whitewashed, elitist circle of artists and writers. That’s what she knows, and she’s so good at satirizing that lifestyle, even if it’s intended or not. But in order to write four distinctive and fleshed out characters, to dig deep into what makes them, them, you would need to have known their lifestyle and understand their nuances. This is the exact reason why we need more minority creators behind the scenes of television’s most talked about shows.
We need authenticity and uniqueness when creating characters of color, subtleties that can’t be imagined unless lived through. Lena Dunham was not the white savior we needed nor wanted.
My boyfriend is anti-Lena Dunham to the point that it’s upsetting. The problem with arguing about Lena Dunham is that she polarizes so many people, and I hate it because I also believe she single-handedly opened the gateway for non-conforming women. However, people are unable to see what she’s done due to all of the controversy that has clouded her successes. While her show was very whitewashed to the point of unbelievability, her message still punctured through a very patriarchal Hollywood. She became the poster child for women who aren’t model thin, women who aren’t slapstick funny, but just women. I hate to love what she’s done. I very badly wish she had done it differently, somehow, in a way that made sense, but a bit more daringly.
Anyway my boyfriend said, and I quote, “But she could have just made Shoshana black? Like we go to NYU, she went to NYU, simple.”
Um, not so simple. I feel that just changing the race of the character and keeping everything the same is not the way to go when talking about diversity on television, because it just creates a character with no substance. Because if Shosh was black, we’d need to understand completely who she is, how she fits into this world. It wouldn’t make sense. Now, if Dunham had a more diverse cast, it would have to be just that, more diverse. Women of all backgrounds, being friends in a color collective world. But the world of Girls almost feels like a far off fantasy, detached from reality because their reality doesn’t make any sense.
Every time I watch Girls, I’m constantly aware that my existence in the scope of girlhood is being overlooked. The situations resonate, but the fact that there are no women of color in the narrative is really weird. Now, I feel after all of the backlash, Lena is trying to make it up to us, little by little. She realizes what’s she’s done and wants to include all women going forward. Now, Lena, no longer a Girl but a woman says: “I wouldn’t do another show that starred four white girls.” Oh how much our little baby has grown up in just five years!
With a New York Times best selling novel, a podcast, a Golden Globe winning television show, and one of the few women to win a DGA, I personally feel that Lena has opened the floodgates for more women to follow. Vulture said “Lena Dunham single-handedly created the think piece generation." Which unfortunately, I believe is true. The Lenny Letter, the virtual newsletter created by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner directly epitomizes the think piece generation. Women from all backgrounds write on subjects that would otherwise be taboo. Even Jill Soloway explained that the success of Girls gave her the confidence she needed to write Transparent.
It’s true that as a female minority filmmaker, I see Girls as a show that went outside of the box, even a little, and made everyone feel like they had a story to tell. It gave us confidence to tell those stories. It’s the hard truth that without Girls, HBO wouldn’t have taken a risk on Issa Rae’s Insecure, and FX would have been more hesitant to let Donald Glover helm Atlanta. These are two projects that Hollywood executives would have been wary about if “think piece” type shows weren’t in right now. Also, the backlash from Girls opened a dialogue about minority representation in Hollywood.
It showed how little representation we have on television and forced big networks to look for new and diverse voices. While Lena Dunham excluded minorities by making all of the women white, she paved the way for someone else to come along and make a successful show with all types of women, a show that can exist now, post-Girls.
SIDNEY BUTLER is a senior at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where she is majoring in Film Production and concentrating in Screenwriting. Her short films have screened at numerous showcases at NYU, and freshman year she was awarded Best Undergraduate Short Screenplay at the 11th Annual Fusion Film Festival. In the Fall of 2016, she was one of two seniors chosen as a showrunner for the NYU Advanced Television Course, where her pilot was put into production by the Will and Jada Smith Foundation. She is the editor for the Medium publication Spaced Out which features unconventional stories by twentysomethings.