Another week, another glaring example of how badly the mainstream media tells our stories.
Last week, the eagerly anticipated HBO show Girls premiered. The show, centered around three twenty-something women living in New York City, was being hailed for telling a new “New York story.” It was supposed to be a break from the coffeeshop and diner, glamorous, quirky New York of shows like Seinfeld, Friends, Will and Grace and, that other show about women in New York, Sex and the City. Critics have pointed out that, well-written as all those shows may be, they tend to paint a glaringly whitewashed and wealthwashed (yea new word!) picture of New York. Instead, this show was hailed for its accurate portrayal of the “real,” often gritty, decidedly less sunny New York life. It was directed and produced by Lena Dunham, a New Yorker in her twenties. It was supposed to be real, really real – for one all of these girls live in Brooklyn. For real, Brooklyn!!
Anyway, many viewers did not get what they were hoping for. In particular, some women of color voiced their dissapointment that, yet again, all the main characters seem to populate an almost exclusively white world. Not only is there no main character of color, the characters so far seem to interact with few people of color. And anyone who has been to an “up and coming” Brooklyn hipster enclave knows that it’s nothing if not diverse. Black and white hipsters, Black families, Hasidic Jewish families, West Indians, Asians, old Europeans – all living and coexisting even if that coexistence is sometimes tense.
Jenna Wortham wrote an article in The Hairpin, Where (My) Girls At, lamenting the lack of racial diversity in a show. She praised the show’s writing, its showing smart women on TV, but points out the lack of diversity. In response to Wortham’s tweet, one of the show’s writers Lesley Arfin responded with this mind-numbingly stupid tweet:
Yes, she really tweeted that.
As I’ve read the fallout and the inevitable back-and-forth comments, it’s been hard not to get upset. I agree with the women who are calling out Girls. Granted, I know that the New York potrayed on TV is far from the truth. I went to college in New York City and have spent most of my twenties living in Manhattan. If TV were accurate, my college campus should have been a constant Law & Order SVU investigation scene. I can enjoy episodes of Friends but I can’t help thinking “Yea right. You have those apartment. With those jobs.” And of course, I bristle at how few people of color were present in these TV shows. So I too hoped that a show on HBO, with its reputation for pushing the envelope, would be a bit more true to form.
Yes, Durham has the right to include all white folks in her show and tell her New York story. And we have the right to point out that it’s total bullshit. I applaud Jenna Wortham and others who’ve been writing about the lack of people of color in the show.
But it all gets so tiring…
After getting upset and wanting to pull my hair out for a half hour, I closed all the tabs and stopped reading the comments [aside: nothing like reading the comment threads on any article about race to make you lose full faith in humanity]. After I stopped reading, I opened my “random ideas” Google Doc and wrote a few pages of a premise of a novel idea I’ve had for some time. It focuses on the New York City college experience of a young black girl (hey, we write what we know). As usual, writing helped me de-stress and move away from the emotional reaction of it all. I also got to thinking about how we as people of color react to these things. I hope that after we call out those who need to be called out, we turn around and start making our realities. I’m sure many of us have a story or two we’d like to tell on TV or in film. Of course, writing is difficult. Few people will be able to write a successful screenplay. Fewer still will ever get anyone to read it or pay attention. And even fewer still will see it recorded or shown on any medium, whether that’s Youtube or HBO. I’m reminded of the quote that always pushes me toward action by that sage Toni Morrison:
“If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it”
Plus, though I sometimes feel like the media landscape isn’t changing when it comes to telling diverse stories, I know that things are getting better. In 2011, women like Dee Rees and Issa Rae showed us that you can build an audience – if not great fortune (yet) – from telling these stories. They don’t get the attention or the acclaim they deserve but the work they’re doing is powerful. I’m sure they saw the lack of representation and got angry. But they turned that anger into action, got out their pens (eh, laptops) and got writing.
So if you think the stories you’re seeing on TV are inaccurate and that you can do better, please go do! And even if you don’t want to be a writer or creator, you still have a role to play in supporting good storytelling. You have to dig harder to find it but they exist. So get mad if you must but may your anger turn to creative resolve.