Let me state this simply, black people do not have to be everywhere. Yet, some people truly believe that the absence of black people from mainstream TV shows (or movies) is always indicative of racism or racial insensitivity by the creators, producers, and in some cases, the very viewers of the shows. To be fair, more and more frequently, this indictment is raised every time a TV show and/or movie has the “audacity” not to represent every demographic class that can be represented. In these instances, all who are not represented, under represented, or unfairly represented assume the maker(s) of the show is racist, insensitive, biased, or some derogatory combination of all three or worse.
The most recent show to receive this reputation is HBO’s hit series and Emmy nominated show, GIRLS. Many critics wondered why the show did not have sufficient minority representation. If you’re unfamiliar with the show and need a quick summary, read this post. If you think only black people were offended by the lack of cultural, social, and economic diversity on the show, you would be mistaken. Just check out the titles: The Huffington Post: New HBO Show And Lena Dunham Face Backlash On Racism And More; and The NY Times: Broadcasting a World of Whiteness. You know we’re living in crazy times when even white people are offended by the antics of other white people, especially when the latter white people believe the former white people’s antics should be offensive to people extending beyond white people. Judging by the number of headlines this story has grabbed, I must logically assume that like black on black crime, white on white criticism is only slightly less devastating to the overall demographic it predominately affects. However, not to be outdone in the self-loathing caused by the racially un-diverse atmosphere that is GIRLS, Lauren McEwen of the Washington Post, a black woman, concludes, “A show called ‘Girls’ needs women of color to truly live up to its name.”
Of the many complaints I’ve heard about GIRLS – and there are many – I must say McEwen’s is honestly one of the most impressively misplaced. If I’m being completely honest with you, I do not even find it particularly logical. By McEwen’s logic, shows like Two and a Half Men do not have enough little people represented and Two Broke Girls does not have enough broke people represented and is likely sexist considering men can be broke, too. Of course, GIRLS is only one of a long list of shows accused, accurately or inaccurately, of not fairly representing America’s diverse inhabitants. Let us review a Tweet posed by Touré to the creator of GIRLS on why the lack of diversity on the show poses such a threat to our collective, if not imaginative, view of America.
.@lenadunham Lena, I love Girls but how come there’s no Black people (except a bum)? Could a young NYer have no Black or brown friends?
— Touré (@Toure) April 16, 2012
The uncomfortable answer – although it should not be – to this question is, “Yes.” Is it so difficult to imagine a world where everyone’s group of friends is not a United Nations representation of all races, ethnicities, cultures, backgrounds and sexual orientations? You need look no further than your own group of friends (real friends, not social media “friends”).
How representative are your friends compared to the racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity of America as a whole? I will not presume to know, so I’ll analyze myself. Despite the fact that my family inhabited the suburbs for most of my formidable years, many of my close friends have and continue to look like and resemble me. Have my daily interactions been filled with racial and cultural diversity? Yes. Nevertheless, when I’m heading out to a social function or a serious issue arises in my life, I find the faces I choose to surround me for support are often monochromatic and homogeneous in representation. Does this lack of diversity and representation in our social group make my friends and I inherently racist? Excuse me if I have my doubts.
The Absence of Black People is not the Evidence of Racism
In my opinion, not only it is possible for a young NYer of most any racial background not to have any “black or brown friends,” many NYers already exist that do not have any black or brown friends. Frankly, the people most likely to have “black or brown friends” are black and brown people themselves. Despite this fact, I have yet to see a Caucasian “cultural critic” challenge a black or brown person for not demonstrating what they view as enough diversification in their social circle by having a sufficient amount of white friends.
Lena Dunham does not need to answer Touré’s (I assume, purposefully ignorant) question, because it is not a hypothetical question that needs addressing. It is already a reality for many people. Although I imagine Touré surrounds himself with people representing a wide array of racial, cultural, and sexual orientations, this is not the reality of most people in America. It’s not even really an accurate representation for most people in New York. Honestly, with 223 million white people in America and only 38 million blacks, there are simply not enough black people to go around to befriend. In case you were wondering, even if we added in all the “browns,” there still would not be enough. This is one of many reasons why the majority of people have a minority of diversity represented in their direct social peer groups. Therefore, is it crazier to assume this is the reality Lena might have faced living in New York in her early 20s or is it more likely that she decided to take her pent up racism to the big stage by developing a show devoid of an arbitrarily sufficient amount of black and brown characters?
You can draw your own conclusions, but to understand the hype, I watched the first season of GIRLS for myself. I thought it was a legitimately funny show with talented writing and interesting characters, but I have no concrete plans to watch Season 2. I did not stop watching because there was not enough black representation on the show – honestly, I did not even notice. I will not watch the show because I cannot relate to the struggles, trials, and tribulations of young, 20-something, white women. In other words, while I found the show enjoyable, I concluded that the central premise of the show was not for me. Rather than start a crusade to make the show mold around my expectations, I simply stopped watching. Back in the day, this is what people did when they did not like a TV show, movie, or song. They demonstrated their dislike by not watching or listening. If enough people demonstrated similar disinterest, the show/movie/song went away. This is far too benign a conclusion for today’s society. Today, a news story, blog, #hashtag or petition must develop every time people do not like a person, place, or thing they are perfectly capable of avoiding.
What happens when everyone, not limited to black people, must be fairly and equally represented in every show/movie and every show/movie must please everyone who views/listens? There is only one obvious conclusion…read more.
1Complain for the Sake of Complaint
I mentioned in the beginning that GIRLS is not the only show to receive critiques for it’s lack of diversification. Similar critiques were made of prior popular, usually successful, yet predominately white-washed character shows like 90210, Seinfeld, and Friends to name a few. Recently, shows like How I Met Your Mother faced similar complaints. Others resist such accusations by proactively adding a “token” character(s) to the cast, like New Girl, Happy Endings, and arguably Modern Family – through their representation of a homosexual couple – to avoid any misgivings about their lack of diversity.
Then there are shows like Scandal, where even having a show created by an African American woman, starring an African American woman as the lead is not sufficient enough to avoid criticism. In this case, some concluded that any black man who does not watch and support Scandal must have an issue with powerful black women, specifically or these black men must have an issue with black women dating white men, generally. Obviously, it would be impossible to think of a world where some black men simply do not want to watch the show with no greater or ulterior motive. Ironically, I have yet to read a blog/news story about white (or black) men being intimidated by powerful white women for not watching and supporting The Good Wife, a similarly themed and equally complex show about a powerful white woman coping with the hardships of the workplace, while navigating the complexities of her own personal life, adultery notwithstanding.
In review, if you have a show lacking black characters like GIRLS, it’s at worst racist and at best, insensitive. If you cannot find a central purpose for a black character, you can avoid and ignore the critics, like How I Met Your Mother (among others), or develop a token – and literally replaceable, see picture to the right – character, like New Girl or Happy Endings (among others) have chosen to do. Lastly, you can develop a show by an African American for African Americans, like Scandal, and in reward for your hard work and dedication, you can receive weekly judgmental posts on the merits or demerits of your show from…African Americans. Oh, the irony of it all.
Why does this chaos occur?
These discussions prove that it is clearly difficult for a “progressive society” to accept the fact that we are not that progressive. We are only more progressive than when we were socially regressive in the past. This is why we have such a hard time processing the idea that a movie about slavery, like Django, regardless of the color of the director, could ever accurately be told without the excessive use of the word “Nigger.” I was not a slave, but I am fairly positive slave masters did not concern themselves with addressing slaves by the politically correct noun of our generation. Perhaps this is why it is so easy for us to champion for equality, yet it is simultaneously difficult for us to accept similar representation of this so-called “equality” within our own social circles, families, TV shows and movies.
If we were half as progressive as we claim, then the primary focus of critiques of shows like GIRLS, Scandal, and others would revolve around the varying plots from week to weak; instead of steadily and consistently focusing on race, interracial relationships, or whether black men are ready to accept and view black women as equals, which are plots that are not even central premises of the shows themselves. However, when popular shows like GIRLS come along, it forces us, yet again, to analyze what it means to be white, black, young, old, and most importantly, diverse in America. Lena Dunham never set out to tell everyone‘s story. She set out to tell her own story. In doing so, she somehow made many question what her views said about her, young whites, New York, and America.
Presumably, this happened for two reasons: 1) people felt comfortable or uncomfortable in seeing themselves in many of the, admittedly limited, GIRLS characters; and 2) others felt comfortable or uncomfortable not seeing themselves. But, who’s fault is that? Is it Lena’s fault for not identifying with more people that remind us of ourselves or is it our fault for not identifying with more people who remind Lena of her own friends and experiences?
Sometimes it feels as though we’re force fed acceptance, yet we’re accused of insensitivity if we gag. Are those we choose to surround ourselves with in silence more representative of what we truly believe than what we claim we believe out loud? Regardless, it is increasingly evident that mass media – not limited to movies, TV, and songs – forces upon us a Utopian view of reality that we have not yet fully embraced in actuality, even if we should. In media, groups of friends represent the mixed raced, economically diverse, and sexually orientated among us. In reality, we know this is not true, and it seems like when the realness of reality is held up to us like a mirror, it makes us uncomfortable. Instead of confronting our own shortcomings, we claim these medias are unfair, inaccurate, or not representing the truth whenever they depict a part of our lives we choose to pretend never happened, not accept, or outright ignore.
If that is not their experience (or even their perception of their experience), I prefer the creator of GIRLS, or any talented writer/producer out there, not develop token black characters to represent myself and others like me. They also do not need to appease me by adding a racially diverse set of “extras” in the background of the show, which as the name implies, are extras to the show – having no significant bearing on the plot or quality.
I would no more expect this of GIRLS, a show about four white girls, than I would from a prior show about four black women, GIRLFRIENDS. I never expected Girlfriends to pencil in a token Caucasian character that did not fit the narrative of the story simply to appease the critics. To do so is insulting to my intelligence. It suggests that neither group of women exist – when we all know they do – and these groups lack of diversity is somehow an indictment of those who do not resemble them. That is not the case. Black people having black friends and white people having white friends does not inherently imply that the two dislike and/or hate the other. This fact of life applies to TV and real life.
Diversity is not about the representation of everyone, every time. It’s the acceptance that everyone is free to define their social circle however they see fit, without fear, retribution, or judgment by others. In other words, it’s the belief that people – within reason – are free to choose and live their lives without needing my or other’s approval. As long as we have the expectation that each of us is the self-righteous expert on moral and social representation, we will not even be as diverse or accepting in the future as we claim we are in the present. Although it may be simpler to manipulate the make-believe world of media to fit our various agendas, it will be easier for art to imitate life when our lives are actually as diverse, accepting, and representative as we believe it is in our heads.
1) Do you feel a show predominately geared towards a white/black audience should still have at least one main black/white character? 2) Is it inaccurate for a show to have a group of friends or characters that does not include minorities or other under represented group? 3) Is it the responsibility of quality TV shows/movies to be representative or is it the responsibility of the community to develop quality TV shows/movies for themselves?