'Girls' Through the Veil

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There are worlds and there are worlds

There's a lot of talk around the web about Lena Dunham's new HBO joint Girls and its lack of diversity. Part of the problem is that those of us who fit into that amorphous space of "black alternative" or "Afrobohemia" or whatever we are called today, so rarely see ourselves represented creatively.   It's worth noting the title to Kendra James' piece for Racalious--"Dear Lena Dunham: I Exist." Or consider this from Jezebel:


I am a black woman, but I find more in common with characters in Seinfeld than I do with the ones in House of Payne. My world is neither all black nor all white, but a mix -- whether it be race, gender, socio-economics, weight or age. 

This is the voice of that tribe that doesn't really get down with Tyler Perry, whose music choices tend to put us in places where there aren't many black faces. As Wyatt Cenac's character Micah put it in Medicine For Melancholy, our Friday nights generally boil down to one question--"Black folks or white folks."

With that said, I think storytellers--first and foremost--must pledge their loyalty to the narrative as it comes to them. I don't believe in creating characters out a of desire to please your audience or even to promote an ostensible social good. I think good writing is essentially a selfish act--story-tellers are charged with crafting the narrative the want to see. I'm not very interested in Lena Dunham reflecting the aspirations of people she may or may not know. I'm interested in her specific and individual vision; in that story she is aching to tell. If that vision is all-white, then so be it. I don't think a story-teller can be guilted into making great characters. 

This selfishness tends to ultimately serve the writer and the audience. I think back to Friends, which for years, was dogged by criticism of its all-white cast. When its creators finally relented they casted two great talents--Aisha Tyler and later Gabriel Union--but didn't even bother to write separate story-lines. They simply recycled the same plot, and plugged in a new black girl.

I thought about that episode after one of the writers on Girls responded to the criticism by tweeting sarcastically, "What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME."  That comment understandably set of a new round of outrage. But it should also set off some reflection. I don't know Dunham or anyone who writes for Girls. Perhaps that was a rogue comment that says nothing about her team. Nevertheless, I think it's only right to ask whether you really want black characters rendered by the same hands that rendered that tweet. Invisibility is problematic. Caricature is worse.

Whatever the intentions of Dunham's writer, they are not ultimately the problem so much as the business in which they find themselves. From Alyssa:

There's a world in which Girls' whiteness wouldn't be so alienating: a media landscape in which we had a healthy mix of shows and movies created and run by men and women, people of color as well as white folks, and dedicated to the deep exploration of experiences that range from tight, insular groups of friends to the mechanics of bureaucracy.

There has been a lot of talk, this week about Lena Dunham's responsibility, but significantly less about the the people who sign her checks. My question is not "Why are there no black women on Girls," but "How many black show-runners are employed by HBO?" This is about systemic change, not individual attacks.
 
It is not so wrong to craft an exclusively white world--certainly a significant portion of America lives in one. What is wrong is for power-brokers to pretend that no other worlds exists. Across the country there are black writers and black directors toiling to bring those worlds to the screen. If HBO does not see fit to have a relationship with those writers, then those of us concerned should assess our relationship with HBO. 

And now comes the part where I must be self-serving. While we are making our complaints to HBO--and it is wholly right that we do--we should take a moment to survey other fields, and other stories. With some regularity, black writers are now producing high quality fiction which reflects the texture and depth of our experience. If you can't find yourself on HBO, perhaps you can in Mat Johnson, Danielle Evans, ZZ Packer or Victor Lavalle. We fight for that ideal world where we represent across genres. But even as we expand our territory, we really should support the gains we've made.  

Call me old fashion, but I believe in a beautiful black world unpremised on the random whims of rich white people. We exist--whether HBO adapts our stories or not.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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