When Lena Dunham first unveiled her new comedy “Girls” in the spring of 2012, she publicly marketed it as HBO’s own comment on “Sex and the City.”
It wasn’t that much of a stretch. Four white women live in New York and have romantic misadventures. Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna all seem to have been written as subversions of “Sex and the City” characters — Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte, respectively. Even the central romantic interests in “Girls” map subversively onto the men of “Sex and the City.” Adam Sackler is Mr. Big in essence, and Charlie Dattalo is basically Steve Brady.
The season 6 premiere next Sunday will be pretty sentimental for me. I’ve been watching “Girls” almost religiously since it began five seasons ago. People often get mad at me for defending Lena Dunham’s work. “Girls” has, for good reason, been under fire since its first season. Dunham’s show has almost no representation of people of color. It’s classist, and its characters are whiny and privileged. I don’t even like her as a figure or as a person, and I can pretty safely confirm that I would agree with any critique volleyed at her.
Still, when it comes to “Girls,” and to her larger body of work, I must admit it’s been rather useful. What’s necessary to understand is how shamefully relatable these surreptitiously gross white characters can be to a white person like me. I see shades of my own unchecked, unarticulated privilege laid bare before me within every “Girls” character — the neurotic bourgeois self-obsession, the privileged self-deception, the coddled and expectant hand outstretched.
Dunham’s work actively makes me uncomfortable with myself, which is sort of her intention. There’s a reason that the show is so classist. It’s because white people are more often than not classist and problematic. Where, in the first season, “Girls” friendship segregation was unintentional, Dunham used the problematic, underlying lack of interracial social connections even today to make satire of her problematic self.
Both Lena Dunham and the characters that she creates exist in that privileged mental space, unable to see past their own unchecked social capital. Her present perspective may often need some work, but the hindsight she displays in her autobiographical writing is 20/20. Through her transparent portrayal of whiteness, in all its self-contained foulness, Lena Dunham holds the mirror up to me personally without any remorse.
All of this exists in part in “Sex and the City” too, but it’s masked in that post-feminist, experientially universal attitude of early 21st century American culture. The key difference between “Girls” and “Sex and the City” lies in a self-awareness of the specificity of the wealthy white experience.
Sociologists and theorists, such as Ruth Frankenberg and Jane Ward, have often pointed out the unusual neutral position the white racial category holds in popular discourse and media. Whereas TV by or about people of color must be specific to the experience of not being white, white media is often allowed to pretend to be about universal human experience.
Television by and large often writes the white experience as if it were a universal experience. Sometimes there are a few people of color scattered throughout a network TV show to meet unmentioned representation quotas, but most television, even today, is still largely for white people about white people without explicitly discussing whiteness. Whiteness is framed as the standard, and any deviation from that narrow experience demands specificity.
More and more people of color have been able to claim creative space within the entertainment industry. The visibility of actors of color is important, but the uplift of writers and directors into positions of authority in television and film has been tremendously invaluable. Shonda Rhimes, Mindy Kaling, Issa Rae and Aziz Ansari, to name a few, have been integral to redefining representation in entertainment simply by writing great television sourced from their own experience.
One can see this trend across the last decade towards self-reflexive white entertainment interested in this very project of, in the words of Jane Ward, “racializ[ing] whiteness and unmask(ing) its delusions.” “Arrested Development” took satirized privilege with ferocious wit. Period pieces such as “Boardwalk Empire” and “Mad Men” have peeled back the romanticized gloss of earlier decades and exposed the indecency of what it has always meant to be white in the United States. White rapper Lil Dicky has crafted in the short span of his career an overarching meta-commentary about the hip-hop industry’s white male audience and white male industry financiers that Black artists have been commercially wedged in between.
Self-aware white entertainment doesn’t really solve the representation issue. Lena Dunham still takes up an enormous amount of space. As a person, she’s unaccountable and embarrassing, and her public presence is entirely repellent. I’m not saying that Lena Dunham is by any means accountable for her problematic behavior as an individual, and there is a lot to be said about the fact that she still contributes to the larger trend of white people taking up way too much space in our media.
Lena Dunham has become the poster child of problematic white feminism, but for some of the more insidious, internal machinations of being white, it took her work to point out to me where my privilege comes from and how it operates unconsciously within me.
Somehow, in spite of herself, Lena Dunham has corrected a great deal of privilege in my behavior. Is that embarrassing? Absolutely. Being white is usually a pretty embarrassing experience.
“Cutting Room Floor” columns are one-off, arts-oriented pieces written by Daily Cal staff members.