Where (My) Girls At?
Here is what we know about the girls on Girls (the first episode of which is now on YouTube). They are lean and they are leggy, they have fat thighs and they have smart mouths, they call each other at work to discuss the details of their STDs, they get into tipsy arguments with their exes, they post up in bars to avoid unpleasant truths, they make out with strange boys in stairwells, they hate their boyfriends’ best friends and they flirt with mysterious men on the street.
Are these Girls like the girls we know? Some girls who watched Girls last night thought so, although others did not, according to Twitter.
“Some of #girls I totally loved. Other parts, I wanted to slap in the face.” — @amandamillwood
“Dayum, @HBO. I didn’t think it was possible but you finally let me down. #Girls is mind numbingly horrible.” — @smwalt
“Absolutely perfect portrayal of living in NYC.” — @irreverentlyliz
“The fact that there is now a recognized show written, directed, and produced by a 25 YEAR OLD WOMAN should be reason enough to watch.” — @brennalyn
They are us but they are not us. They are me but they are not me.
The first time I saw the poster for Girls, the new HBO comedy about four twentysomething girls living in Brooklyn, I was hurrying home from yoga, clutching a bag of newly purchased green leafy things to make a juice before meeting up with some twentysomething girlfriends in Brooklyn. I’d been aware of the show in an ambient kind of way, seeing mentions in tweets here and there, but I hadn’t seen any promotional material for the show. It was something I filed away under Cool Shit To Look Into Later.
I paused at the base of the poster and looked up — it covered the entire side of the building. My eyes traveled up their phosphorescent legs to their faces and back down again. My heart dropped and I swallowed once, hard. Girls. White girls.
I pulled out my phone and texted my friend Willa.
“So Girls is like indie SATC,” I wrote. “Yeah” she replied. “And everyone on the show is white,” I responded. “Yea,” she typed back. “Lots of White.”
Before that moment, I didn’t have an idea in mind about what to expect from the show. I knew the name Lena Dunham, but I hadn’t gotten around to seeing Tiny Furniture yet.
But I definitely did not expect these kinds of girls. They looked like the kinds of girls in college who would push their hands into my freshly teased party hair — without asking — to ask me if my curls were real and whose already overstretched smiles would wobble a little bit when I showed up at the party with my roommates before cautiously asking if I went to school there.
My chief beef is not simply that the girls in Girls are white. I’m a white girl and not a white girl, identified by other people as black and not black for as long as I can remember — which, in mixed people speak means biracial. But the problem with Girls is that while the show reaches — and succeeds, in many ways — to show female characters that are not caricatures, it feels alienating, a party of four engineered to appeal to a very specific subset of the television viewing audience, when the show has the potential to be so much bigger than that. And that is a huge fucking disappointment.
The argument has been made that smart women on screen are already enough of a minority to make up for the lack of women of color. Nope. Not good enough. This is more than a stock photo op, it’s more important than that. Cause here’s the thing about Girls: as much as I wanted to dislike the show, I couldn’t help but love it. And that made it worse.
I wanted to write Girls off, file it under a category my girl Mary calls “White People Shit I Don’t Care About” (which is different from the “White People Shit I DO Care About, which includes Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, MSCL, Game of Thrones, King of the Hill, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Jerri Blank), I couldn’t.
Because the show (at least the first three episodes) is actually good. It gets So. Many. Things. Right. It’s on point again and again, hitting at the high and low notes about being in your twenties, about being on your own and still so far from grown. Getting involved with the wrong guys, saying the wrong thing to your boss at work, trying — and failing — to relate to your parents, flinging your arms around your best friend when Rihanna comes on in the club, pressing your lips into her sweaty cheek and feeling triumphant, thinking we’re going to make it through this year if it kills us. The show is painfully self-aware of its characters’ entitlement and tries to use the vantage of privilege as a mirror, intended to bouncing back their flaws and their potential for growth to those us at home watching, and nearly all of it works the way it’s supposed to. (Except for the tubcakegate. I have taken the following things into the shower with me: a beer, two beers, an iced coffee, and a mixed drink. Food? Never. Doesn’t it get wet? Where do you put it while you get undressed? The sink? The edge of the tub? The top of the TOILET?! Does not compute.)
At least that is a relief, as others have pointed out. Girls is good for girls. But which girls? If this show succeeds, what other shows will get made because of it? Probably a half dozen just like it. Who wins, then? And who loses? Girls was supposed to be for the people, by the people. It is for people like me — weaned on Sex and the City, amused by the simple charms of Gossip Girl, and weary of the bromance comedies that rolled through theaters the last two summers like a never-ending heatwave — who were hungry for something relatable, something real. It’s a tricky time in America to talk about race and belonging, but deep down, I’d hoped that this should would somehow get past the same challenge of all the BIG shows that came before it — Friends, Party of Five, Sex and the City, Gossip Girl — that failed to weave a main black character at the show from the jump.
Buried within that oversight is a kind of uncomfortable exclusivity, an othering of the people who are not included, by default, stirring the same kind of unease that’s evoked when scrolling through those racist Hunger Games tweets or the first time you read that ESPN headline about Jeremy Lin. For a show so sharply cognizant of the shortcomings of its characters, it is shocking that the only drops of a black girl is a contestant on a reality show (not pictured, by the way) who spends $1,000 on her weave and describes it as “un-be-weavable.”
In a way, this matters more than the shows that came before it. When those shows were on the air, there was more diversity on screens all around, so we didn’t notice it as much, it didn’t seem as glaringly missing. There was Dionne in Clueless, Moesha, Kadijah James, Tia and Tamara Mowry, and most of the WB. There were Gina and Pam, all of the Cosby daughters, and Ashley, Hilary, and Will’s girlfriend, Lisa, plus Mom 1 and Mom 2 on Fresh Prince. Tyler Perry wasn’t around yet, so the theaters, too, were abundant with a broad spectrum of different kinds of black people: Love and Basketball, The Wood, Best Man, Friday, Soul Food, Poetic Justice.
It makes it feel all the more egregious to see that while Girls missed so many of the other traps of its forebearers, it failed to account for this one. Plus, back then it was pre-internet, so we didn’t really know what the world did and didn’t look like beyond our window. But now, we know better. We can see hundreds of thousands, millions, of other people out there, just like us, blogging, tweeting, posting makeup tutorials, comedy skits, and Dance Central videos on YouTube, so that we could see more of the world is like us.
Because these girls on Girls are like us, they are like me and they are like you, they are beautiful, they are ballsy, they are trying to figure it out. They have their entire lives ahead of them and I can’t wait to see what happens next. I just wish I saw a little more of myself on screen, right alongside them.
Jenna Wortham is a technology reporter for the New York Times. She can teach you how to dougie and/or make your own kombucha.