So, there’s a black guy on Girls, maybe… sort of. Anyone who’s followed the show since its inception knows that it has faced much scrutiny over its lack of diversity. As Girls season 2 on HBO gets underway, that lack of diversity is tackled head on in the character of Sandy, played by Donald Glover (also known by his rapper name — Childish Gambino).
From the very first time I saw a preview for the show, almost a year ago, I had absolutely no intentions of ever watching it. Not wanting to devote the necessary energy toward really coming to terms with why the show so repulsed me, I told myself I just wasn’t ready to invest in yet another show about the problems young white folks have when they have no real problems. As season one progressed and the only black faces with speaking parts through much of the show’s entire first season happened to be a homeless man offering Hannah a few words of encouragement after she was let go from her job and a West Indian accented nanny watching over fair skinned toddlers, I was pretty much settled in my decision to ignore Girls for as long as it existed.
Lena Dunham, to her credit did not ignore the complaints and criticisms and instead addressed them head on telling NPR’s Fresh Air
I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting … Not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls. As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, “I hear this and I want to respond to it.” And this is a hard issue to speak to because all I want to do is sound sensitive and not say anything that will horrify anyone or make them feel more isolated, but I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately.
Then came the announcement this fall that Lena would have a new love interest, and that said love interest would be a black man. Something told me I needed to watch. In doing so, it took me but one episode of catching up on the first season to figure out the real reason why I’d avoided the show for so long. It’s perfect. From its inception I’d been afraid of the potential perfection the show might achieve because in being perfect, it would serve as another sad reminder of how woeful the current state of black art on the small screen. I didn’t want to invest in another show that perfectly depicted the nuances and experiences of a people who have an abundance of perfect depictions of their nuances and experiences, particularly when it’s so difficult to find a show that perfectly depicts my experiences.
After blowing though the show’s first season, it was clear to me that Girls would undoubtedly be another generational landmark for HBO much like its network predecessors The Wire and Sex and the City. But whereas The Wire was perfect in its almost journalistic chronicling of life in and around the drug-infested streets of west Baltimore; and whereas Sex and the City was perfect in its fantastically unrealistic depiction of life in the big apple, Girls captures a completely different, but equally awesome measure of perfection. Girls’ perfection comes in its painfully accurate depiction of reality as seen through the eyes if its characters — regardless of how far their reality distances itself from ours.
The groundwork for this dialogue between Lena’s reality, Hannah’s reality and what really happens to almost everyone else in the real world is laid out brilliantly in the very first conversation of the very first episode of the show. No matter how logical and realistic the exhortations of Hannah’s parents, she still feels like she shouldn’t have to get a paying job and that they should instead support her entire existence as she pursues her dream. We know that most folks can’t even fathom suggesting something like that to their parents, and even in the world Dunham imagines in Girls this scenario is not realistic as her parents end up laughing at the suggestion. But for Hannah, and I imagine for a pretty large percentage of the show’s following, it makes total sense. This is her reality. This is how she believes she fits in this world.
So like I said, Girls is not real in the way The Wire is real, but it also isn’t the complete fantasy that was Sex and The City. The Brooklyn that Hannah lives in isn’t the Brooklyn that I live in and it’s probably not the Brooklyn that anyone lives in. But it is most definitely the Brooklyn that plenty of people think they live in – and that’s what makes the show so amazing. With Girls, Lena Dunham has given us a glimpse of that world. In this Brooklyn, black folks are like trompe l’oeil graffiti painted around the random bars, clubs and restaurants frequented by Hannah and her friends adding an undesired but somewhat appreciated roundness to the diversity of their otherwise flat, homogenous lives. That we actually get to see this dialogue play out honestly on the show, is truly an achievement.
That’s why the addition of Donald Glover is so jarring. In his first on-screen moment, his first words “You wanted this and now you’re fucking getting it” as he and Lena have sex, are clearly directed at folks who’d wanted a black character. In the most recent episode, Hannah and Sandy break up in an equally hilarious and cringe worthy bit of dialogue around their irreconcilable political and cultural differences. It’s unclear whether he’ll appear in any further episodes, but either way his character will always represent one of two things: He’ll either continue on the show as the square peg in the round hole of Hannah’s reality, or it’s very possible that Glover’s character represents nothing more than a quick explanation as to why there weren’t any black characters in the first season and why there probably won’t be any going forward. It’s very possible that Sandy is her way of saying “see… this is why this doesn’t make sense.”
I loved and hated the first season of the show because the writing was so good and the show was so well put together that Dunham actually made me believe that its lack of diversity was purposeful – not because she’s racist or insensitive, but because she truly believed that that’s how her character would perceive the world. Throwing a black guy in now, even if only for the purposes of shoving up a middle finger to the haters, feels like she’s breaking Brecht’s fourth wall to respond to critics. And that kinda sucks.
Dunham said she wanted to avoid the tokenism that bedevils black characters all across the small screen… cool, I can dig it. But if you write a black character into a show for two episodes for the sole purpose of proving to your critics why having a black character on the show doesn’t make sense, then you’ve created exactly what you were trying to avoid… a token. Likewise, if you write a black character into the show and he sticks around for the purposes of sparking some sort of dialogue that would otherwise be impossible to broach – then again, you’ve created exactly what you were trying to avoid – a token. Besides all that, it just goes against what Dunham has so smartly established as Hannah’s reality. Hannah can’t date a black guy because in Hannah’s world, black people are essentially invisible.
Recently, Dunham was asked why, despite the fact that she’s not the atypical hollywood beauty, she so often appears without clothing on the show. Her response was both poignant and genius: “Look at us until you see us,” she said.
As far as writing black characters into and out of Girls is concerned, I’d say to her the same thing: “Look at us, until you see us.”
After my not so positive review of Django Unchained and after going in on how Scandal is the epitome of #FakeGreat, I said last week that this week I was gonna try and stop being such a pop-culture curmudgeon … I failed. Oh well. I’ll try again next week. Till then:
stay low and keep firing.