Girls Season 2 On HBO: Hannah’s Black Boyfriend – Token Or Tableau

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"You Know You Wanted This"

“You Know You Wanted This”

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.

Oh.

Oh.

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.

Shoshanna On Crack: Funniest Moment of Season 1

Shoshanna On Crack: Funniest Moment of Season 1

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.

Are You Not Entertained

Are You Not Entertained

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.

spradleysignature

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  • Smilez_920

    So I just got HBO again (I know, I know…don’t laugh) I plan on trying to catch up and see what the hype is all about. I read articles about the whole “NO black girls in the show” controversy and kind of shrugged it off. Not because there isn’t a lack of diversity in the show, but in NYC the real NYC most people social groups don’t look like the rainbow collision. There are a few parts of Brooklyn that don’t look like Biggies neighborhood in “Notorious”. As someone who has family in Brownsville and spent much of my childhood there, as an adult I got off in Williamsburg and said “WTF this is Brooklyn” lol. I don’t think the lack of diversity is on purpose, as much as it just art imitating life. Of course different races/ethnicities in NYC hang out in the same areas, but that doesn’t mean their personal lives intertwine. And a white girl living in Brooklyn probably wont have a ton of black friends out of the blue, even if two blocks over from her are nothing but blk people.

  • William H. Strafe

    Whenever an interracial couple is on the screen (whether large or small), especially if a love scene will be involved, 99.99999% of the time it will be white man, black woman (and Hollywood doesn't do this by accident). For the simple fact that within the first 3 minutes of the first episode, we saw it in reverse was actually pretty refreshing. And for that, I'll buy Lena Dunham a beer (or a skinny girl margarita) the next time I see her.

    With that said, if Sandy is already gone after two episodes, it would be a bit troubling, but I think Lena is smarter than that.
    My recent post J. Mikey’s Mock Draft 1.0

    • WellEnuff

      I usually notice more white man – asian woman couples. But that's Hollywood for you. If they're going to be interracial, they are going to at least be a similar skin tone.

  • http://www.singleblackmale.org/author/wisdomismisery/ WisdomIsMisery

    I watched season 1 of GIRLS. There was a marathon and I was bored. It’s a good show, period. I agree with everything you said in this post that merits my claim – I believe an accurate one – that this is a good show. In general, I think this who “diversity” issue or lack thereof is…..stupid. I don’t even call many things stupid, but this particular debate is very stupid. It’s Manti Te’o national headline news stupid, yet because we now live in an environment where Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend and Beyonce’s lip synching or national headline news when no less than 30 wars are going on around the world, which only includes 30 out of 1,000,000 stories far more important than any of these stories, I am by no mean schooled that a stupid debate would dominate story lines, in the media and the blogs.

    I’ll elaborate on why this whole debate is stupid in a full post, because a comment would prove insufficient. But the moral of the story is, this is why black people (and it’s expanding to minorities and under represented groups of all kinds) can’t have nice things, because it seems like we bitch for the sake of bitching. A show about 4 white girls doesn’t include enough black characters? Really? Realllllly? This is an issue?

    I worry for the future.

    • Smilez_920

      The same people complaining probably don’t have a white or non-black BFF but expect the main character a white girl from an upper middle class family, doing free internships ( I assume she’s not even working retail to bring in some income ) that goes to NYU to have this wild array of nationality friends because she lives in Brooklyn. NY since the beginning has always been split up into sections, groups move into areas and start communities , and with Brooklyn being the New hippster Manhattan in certain areas , the writers portrayal of BK is real.

      This is why we ( blk ppl) need our own well writen shows , so issues like this won’t come up as often.

    • Larry

      I'll go ahead an place my co-sign here.

  • dewfish

    great article. very true.

  • CHeeKZ Money

    For the record even when I staunchly disagree with you, I love pop culture articles, add a great eliminate to the site, and they make me comment.

    I agree with you on this point manly, and I have no idea why they made Childish Gambino a republican, they were just dying for a laugh. But great show, I got into it last year. The idea of an underemployed Sex and the City is just what these hipsters chicks need. Judd Apatow has such an eye for talent and staying current. Everything that is wrong with the show, is RIGHT with the show. ….
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qL1B_r9nC9k

  • Peter Parker

    Have HBO, but clearly I am missing out some great shows. I will definitely be checking this show out.

  • http://twitter.com/msorvam @msorvam

    "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"____

    I thought I was the only one who caught that..I never had a problem with Lena Dunham having no black characters on the show. Writers write what they know..and if she has no black friends in real life then that's HER truth.

  • msjjohnson1

    I love this show and i'm sorry that I didn't have the time to notice that there aren't any black people on the show. People are so silly it's a great show enjoy it!

  • Southerngyrl_

    Love Childish Gambino. Not here for the show though. I saw previews, reviews and other marketing tools created to make me watch it, but I just have no desire to watch the show.

  • Poetic Justice

    Great write-up; I happen to enjoy the "pop-culture curmudgeon"
    Love this —–> "This is her reality. This is how she believes she fits in this world."
    IMO, Art is not concrete. When you view it and receive it as a means of representing a concrete reality, you take away Art's most powerful tools, fluidity and inspiration. If you can't let the Art disarm your defenses and arouse your innovative dreams without the creator having to change it, then it's just not for you…

  • shar

    Yeah, it's a good show. Period. I think it's silly to expect white women to write our stories.

  • Koko Brown

    "This show is perfect" ROFLMAO. You must be on morphine. You needed heavy drugs to slog through this mess without going into a coma or slitting your wrists over this snog fest. In all honesty, I never noticed the lack of diversity because I was too busy trying to stay awake during the two episodes I suffered through. Heck, I can even count the number of times I laugher…0

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