Lena Dunham's latest well-intentioned disappointment suggests a cultural impasse over white writers portraying characters of color.
Responding last year to viewers who denounced the lack of racial diversity on HBO's Girls, its creator and star, Lena Dunham, told NPR, "I take that criticism very seriously... As much as I can say [writing four white main characters] was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, 'I hear this and I want to respond to it." She did just that in Sunday night's episode, choosing not only to cast African-American Community star Donald Glover as her character Hannah Horvath's new boyfriend, but also to address the issue of race as it manifests itself in their relationship.
Glover's Sandy made his first appearance in the Season 2 premiere. A handsome, easygoing, responsible law student who doesn't go in for the awkward sex and excruciating mind games of Hannah's most recent ex, Adam, he has only one flaw (or what passes for a flaw among 20-somethings in Brooklyn): He's a Republican. His political orientation barely comes up in the premiere, but Hannah's roommate, Elijah, thrusts it to the fore in Sunday's episode, picking a fight with Sandy in the bathroom over his presumed opposition to same-sex marriage. Before the credits roll, Hannah is using his soft-spoken conservatism as an excuse to break up with him—although, in true Girls fashion, what's really bothering her is his dislike of a personal essay she's given to him to read.
It's in the midst of their final argument that Hannah and Sandy find themselves yelling at each other about race. "I also would love to know how you feel about the fact that two out of three people on death row are black men," she says. "Wow, Hannah. I didn't know that. Thank you for enlightening me that things are tougher for minorities," he shoots back. Soon, he's mocking her for exoticizing him—"'Oh, I'm a white girl and I moved to New York and I'm having a great time and I got a fixed gear bike and I'm gonna date a black guy and we're gonna go to a dangerous part of town,'" he scoffs. "And then they can't deal with who I am"—and she's feebly turning around the accusation on him. "The joke's on you, because you know what? I never thought about the fact that you were black once," Hannah says when it's clear the breakup is really happening, despite the fact that she's the one who introduced race into the conversation. "That's insane." Sandy tells her. "You should, because that's what I am." By the time he asks Hannah to leave, both have admitted they don't feel good about what they've said to each other. The viewer at home, witnessing such shrewdly observed yet ultimately unresolved racial and political tension, is bound to feel just as rattled.
It's a credit to Dunham and the episode's writer, Jenni Konner, that the scene is so unsettling. If they had responded to the controversy over Girls and race by quietly casting a famous black actor and pretending nothing more needed to be said, they might have looked just as naïve as Hannah, who claims not to see race because she's in denial about her own prejudices. Instead, they accompanied their tacit apology with a moment that challenged not only their own and their characters' privilege, but, in its deconstruction of what has come to be known as "hipster racism," that of the show's core audience. Although self-awareness pervades Dunham's work, it was surprising to see such insight from Girls on this particular topic.
Unfortunately, one great exchange does not a truly diverse TV show (or authentic portrait of New York City) make. And while there do seem to be more non-white faces in Girls' party scenes this year, Sandy is still the only character of color who plays a substantial part in any of the season's first four episodes. As she did with the controversial nannies Jessa attempts to liberate in Season 1, and despite the fact that Sandy at least occupies a similar social milieu to the characters, Dunham continues to cast non-white actors only when race defines their character—which is to say, she still doesn't get it.