Why I Cared What Lena Dunham Thought [extended]

actress Danielle Brooks

When news of Danielle Brooks (actress of now Orange is the New Black cult fame) would be making a scripted appearance on season 3 of HBO‘s hit show GIRLS, cheers of “Finally!” and “It’s about time!” infiltrated some feminist sites, but mainly socially conscious Black blogs. They were thrilled that for young black women (and Latinas, as Melonie Diaz has also filmed scenes) their time had come to be taken seriously by a show that previously treated them as if they did not co-exist in a borough as diverse as Brooklyn. Out the gate, GIRLS was accused of a kind of quiet racism for its supreme lack of “minority” characters, so a grateful thank you was handed from former skeptics that sincerely worried that for the show’s entire run, there would not be a Black girl on screen chatting in Greenpoint or NoLita with protagonist Hannah Horvath and her friends.

The premise of GIRLS for many young women, no matter their skin tone, was highly familiar. Twenty-somethings in the big city; post-collegiate; with too many bizarre personal events that includes holding on to beloved but strained friendships and relationships, seemingly dead-end jobs and stressful internships along the way, a show like GIRLS was only a matter of time. Mainstream publications for a few years now have been obsessed with the realization that Generation Y and the oldest of the Millennials were the nouveau class of a current America era in which everything they were taught (think: the Clinton era) had become transfixed into a mirage. Reviews raved for GIRLS’ fresh and awkwardly humorous candor on the fact, and Lena Dunham, creator and lead actress who plays Hannah, was crowned the new voice of her disgruntled set of young adults.

Yet one thing was glaringly absent and distinguished: no women of color had legit speaking roles, and when present, male or female, they were often stereotyped for brief moments. The most significant Black cameos of season 1 was courtesy of the tune of Keri Hison’s “Pretty Girl Rock” playing in the background, and a black homeless man that nearly harasses Hannah in the Pilot. For season 2, Donald Glover’s two episode arc was all too short and naturally, the subject of interracial fetishism was brought up.

The scrutiny was especially thick from black blogs and self-declared otherworldly white viewers that wouldn’t let go of the fact that GIRLS was evidently not For Colored Girls. Some very offended Black writers went as far as to direct their article headlines to Dunham, pronouncing their prevalence because it was that necessary (Racialicious published the apt title of: “Dear Lena Dunham: I Exist“). In letting the cat out of the bag about the abundant idiosyncrasies of the quarter life crisis, Dunham’s voice became the only one that mattered, and while she mentioned in her Golden Globes acceptance speech that her win was for “for every girl that felt there wasn’t a space for her“, those kind words seemed more exclusive to the cause of (white) female solidarity than inclusive. On the show, there wasn’t a space made for women of color. Like Asian-American comedienne Margaret Cho once said during a stand-up of hers (in lampooning the usual nerdy or submissive presence of Asian-American characters) sometimes it’ll be nice just to be there because we are here.

The underlying issue of the complaints, from young Black women attuned to popular culture and white folks in the know of our concerns to said subject, was that to the contrary, Black girls are not that different from white girls when it comes to our dreams, expectations, hopes, and fears. Black women, as equally over-educated, slightly entitled, from humble homes, and eager to learn the rules of life through doe eyes as unscathed as possible, felt left out and rejected out of a phenomena that was directly televising such a pivotal time frame of finally leaving behind the wonder years. The show had become too evocative of a time in history to not include its other important faces.

It’s a bit fascinating when critiquing the diversity of women in television. As much as Black women supported Girlfriends, Living Single, and One on One, you wouldn’t be that hard pressed to find one that loved a great episode of Sex and The City, and how about Gossip Girl, The Hills, The OC, or Pretty Little Liars? While there was minor discussion of SATC’s lack of a recurring black female character, the disappointment was merely an asterisk saved by the show’s fantastical display of fashion and bold comedy. So why was it for GIRLS the ridicule was so never-ending? Because for someone like Dunham at the age of 27, there was a handed expectation that honestly she would know better. Considering she was not raised under a rock and listened to the greatest hits of Destiny’s Child when they originally entered the Billboard charts, there was trust and believe that she’d obtained positive, at best, a decent amount of encounters with persons of other racial backgrounds. She implied in interviews that she felt a bit unsure of how to properly represent (for example) a Black girl’s thoughts in the first place for season 1’s teleplays. I guess…fair enough? But wait. Does everything have to be so black and white (literally)? Do white writers and producers really think they can’t include us because they can’t determine our psyche at all times? Do they really think a black girl aspires to date a rapper or just a good guy? Do they really think we don’t have horror stories of job interviews, embarrassing family reunions, and daydreams of living the life we aspire to have of our own? Aren’t these shared experiences is what makes us feel less alone in this cold world? Why are we being left out? Honestly?

No one ever asked Dunham and her team to speak for Black girls as their ultimate salvation. Surely Dunham representing herself was enough to handle and for the world to judge, but where was GIRLS sensitivity that women of color are also a part of this absurd journey called becoming an adult? Where GIRLS and so many other shows before failed is that they treated black characters as shock value, surprises, and trendy for the moment. Remember when Aisha Tyler was the love interest of Matt LeBlanc on Friends, after seasons of no black people in that Central Perk coffee shop, again in New York, of all places? Black girls do not come from outer space, black people are not from another planet. As Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl and Lena Waithe’s web-series Twenties have shown, Black girls can be just as bright, eccentric, naive, and arrogant as the next white girl waiting in line for a latte. If Taylor Swift is “allowed” to rap along to Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass”, frankly, you can make some room for a black girl to also complain about the agony of owning period panties. Yeah, I said it.

At first, I was disappointed at GIRLS for essentially not including me, but I forgave it and Lena Dunham, for it is not her responsibility to represent me, and it never was. Dunham is not inherently racist and it is understood that her show is at times autobiographical, so I get it, but maybe the cast and crew has been a bit too reserved in not taking that step forward in including “them” or “us”. All that was wanted was a little shout out here and there, that despite our difference in appearance, girls and women understand each other’s pain, pleasures, and chances because no one ever said it was easy being a woman in what can upsettingly seem like a man’s world when all hell breaks loose. Why I cared what Lena thought in the first place was because while Lena herself maybe didn’t represent me, myself, and I, Hannah Horvath certainly did, but the world would never know for the simple fact my skin color apparently determines all my experiences.

In reality, it is our up and down patterns of stubborn decisions, leaps of faith, lessons brutally learned, and an overall sense of determination that add to the twenty-something capsule that one day we’ll look back not in anger, but in wistful retrospective. If our parents made it out of their twenties, there’s got to be hope for the rest of us. All in all, occasionally, white writers of America, your stories are our stories too.

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