The Unbearable Whiteness of GIRLS

By Bastian B. Bux

Since the moment it premiered, Lena Dunham’s GIRLS has been haunted by thoughtful and exacting criticism surrounding the surreal whiteness of its world, right up until last week’s underwhelming finale. As early as 2012, Dunham was labeling this whiteness “a complete accident,” a good admission as any that the show’s representational shortcomings were entirely the fault of its creators, who, despite consciously setting the show in the diverse borough of Brooklyn (nearly half of Brooklynites are of color), never thought to represent any world but a milky one. This response, alongside producer Lesley Arfin’s infamous Precious tweet, put to rest any arguments that the minds behind GIRLS took racial politics seriously, or even understood the criticism aimed at them. When they did respond by including characters of color, the show only further indicted itself: providing wanting viewers with a series of hackneyed stereotypes, a disheartening and alienating rebuttal to those who wished to see the realities of the millennial generation portrayed with any kind of accuracy.

A lack of realism only represents some of what makes GIRLS so white. The show has, after all, never tried to be realistic–Hannah’s improbable journey to literary success, amongst other examples, is testament to that–but its whiteness has taken on a different cast in post-election America, one at the mercy of a presidential administration whose appeal and policies are explicitly, unapologetically racist. Here the literal whiteness of GIRLS becomes less remarkable than its figurative whiteness: what we mean when we talk of “political whiteness,” the racial consciousness (or lack thereof) that compelled 62% of white men and 52% of white women to cast a vote for an individual as politically and constitutionally unqualified as Donald Trump, a man who ran on promises of dehumanization of people of color. This is whiteness as a kind of myopia, an ignorance unfeeling to the suffering of anyone in any way “other,” an insularity that views the humanity of the different as conditional–as ornamentation at best, and a threat at worst. This is a whiteness characterized by self-interest, one that retreats from rather than engaging with the political reality of the other, one that is defensive rather than open when it comes to the difficult business of change.

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One of the strangest manifestations of this figurative whiteness appears in the episode “Triggering,” in which Hannah begins attending classes at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Apart from its less-than-accurate portrayal of a writers’ workshop, the episode’s key scene is mystifying: In an unusually diverse room, Hannah first listens to a reading by a black student, D. August, whose work is extravagantly and unanimously praised. Then Hannah reads her own writing – an account of physical abuse and manipulation at the hands of a sexual partner. The other students in the workshop call her work “offensive,” claim that they couldn’t even bring themselves to respond to it, and present the bizarre criticism that it could not be read as fiction because it was “so obviously based on Hannah’s experience.”

The scene subtly suggests that Hannah is a victim of a kind of rote questioning of privilege, one that is mindless, uncritical, and unfair. We are supposed to sympathize with Hannah, to think how poorly she has been treated, how sadly excluded she is.  The character’s rebuttal–that she is simply writing her experience – echoes Dunham’s response to early criticism of the show: “…what is nice is if I could speak for me and it’s resonant for people, then that’s about as much as I could hope for.” And it’s hard to find fault with this sentiment on its own; what is most art but an expression of individual experience meant to resonate universally? Certainly, there are moments when GIRLS, through its focus on individual emotional experiences as a source of inspiration, reflects the general experience of being young and a woman. In many respects, this approach to art is symptomatic of the cultural and artistic age we live in: the digital culture dominated by the personal, confessional essay; the coming-of-age of the men and women in Dunham’s generation who grew up by over-sharing online, through Livejournal and Facebook and Snapchat, so much so that the possibility of sharing too much seems impossible. For the Hannah Horvaths of our age, the self-interested perspective is the truest one: If nothing is more vital than the self, then everything that self feels and thinks is worth sharing (“Right now, I feel like…”)

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But this can be a liability. Self-absorption requires narrative perspective to be interesting, and when it came to whiteness, the show never transcends its central character’s self-absorption: GIRLS is a show about Hannah Horvath’s inward-looking perspective, and of all the ways in which that perspective has been challenged over the last six seasons, the show has never managed to transcend the character’s blinders when it came to race. It has never corrected that initial “complete accident”. This failure, in the time of Trump, reads as damning, all the more so if we are to believe that GIRLS will become the enduring artistic artifact of this time. What does this say about us, that the show of our generation never managed to predict our current political crisis, nor even deal with it after the fact? In the finale, we have Hannah sitting around a picturesque cottage, paid for by a job that she did not deserve, tucked safely away from diverse, metropolitan life and all the messy, conflicting realities of the moment, having birthed a brown baby (the future reality of which the show will conveniently never have to deal with). Hannah’s final moment of empowerment feels nothing of the sort, a preservation of GIRLS’ perfect whiteness at the cost of everything else. It’s exactly what the show says it isn’t, a retreat back into the self-interested, a white flag raised over a battle that one side never cared enough to fight.

In the last six months, the political responsibilities and duties of artists have been a matter of intense, wearying debate, but that same span of time has seen a blossoming of political engagement and corresponding works (particularly by a younger generation of poets). GIRLS seems, in light of all this darkness, like a relic of a bygone time, a monument to a collective inability to look ahead, blinded as we are by petty concerns and limited consciousnesses. Art will always be motivated, to some extent, by the individual experience, but if GIRLS is a warning of anything, it’s to ask whether this is enough. The whiteness of GIRLS was one person’s bad choice. Now why does it feel like a more shared and grander failure?

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Bastian B. Bux is a pseudonymous writer and activist living in Austin, Texas.