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I think HBO's new TV show, Girls, is smart, surprising and cringe-inducingly honest. And so do a lot of other people: after the wrap of its debut season a few weeks ago, it was nominated for five Emmies.
But the show has come under fire for portraying only a privileged, upper-crust, lily-white version of the strikingly diverse city of New York. Critics say the only ethnic minorities on the show are hackneyed stereotypes—which, thinking back, is actually true. For instance, I remember a fat, sassy, black nanny, a Hispanic nanny, jeering black girls in Harlem, etc.
The show's creator and star, Lena Dunham, said in a recent interview with NPR's Fresh Air: "I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls."
Which raises the question: Where do social responsibility and artistic freedom intersect?
People always tell you to write what you know, to write from your gut—but if your experience is ethnically homogenous, do you have to deliberately ignore your gut so that your writing is diverse? Is it "write what you know"—or write what you wish you knew? Or write what you feel obligated to know?
"I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs," said Dunham in the Fresh Air interview. "Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like—not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn't able to speak to."
I love the show; I think its power lies in its honest, unflinching depiction of the characters' ugly sides. Would Dunham's very personal interpretation be diluted if she had worried about critics and added an African American friend? Because, as Dunham admits herself, the specificity would not be there; all that character would be is the cardboard-cutout black friend.
On the other hand, if there are no flags raised about the overwhelming whiteness of our TV shows and movies, then we would never see ethnic people represented at all. This is definitely a problem that's worth fighting for; our artistic mediums should be diverse and representative of the real world. Really, the root issue is that white artists in North America are a majority group; if Lena Dunham was black or Hispanic or Asian, I'm sure Girls would be very different. But she's not. Instead of "tokenism," what we need is more ethnic minorities creating art. But that's much easier said than done—so we come back to the question: Do white artists have a responsibility to depict minorities, however in-authentically?
In all her interviews, Dunham has been contrite and frank about the issue of ethnic casting. She's promised a more ethnic cast in season two, and Donald Glover (of Community fame) was recently spotted filming with Dunham and co. in New York. We'll have to wait and see how season two shapes up.