After my last post, a friend suggested (not very nicely) that it was unfair of me to trivialize Disgrasian's latest critique of HBO's Girls, and, because I really do have great respect and affection for Disgrasian in general, I decided actually to read their piece. I firmly maintain that no matter what, even if it were the most trenchant analysis of televisual text I have ever read in my entire life and career, the mere existence of Another Reading of Race in "Girls" participates, wittingly or not, in the "Girls" Is Racist meme, which is a creature driven (as I argued last) by a mean-girls-style social imperative to limit young women by subjecting them to greater scrutiny and holding them to higher standards than we do men of any age. (I would like to acknowledge that this mob concern with racial representation in this one particular show is unfair to a number of people besides the show's creator and writer: it is unfair to the writers of Disgrasian, who have long shown a concern for racial representation in popular culture in general, and so are motivated by something other than mob/meme momentum, but end up contributing to it nonetheless; it is unfair to all the very, very literate people out there who do not care for the show or for Lena Dunham's public persona, whose casual and completely legitimate aversion now bears the weight of a position, because the show and its creators have been turned into things on which one must weigh in; and it is unfair to someone like me, someone who only kind of likes the show, who finds it wittier than most things on TV but who cares about many—MOST—things much, much more than she cares about this show or its creator, and yet finds that in offering some resistance to the meme she has become something like Lena Dunham's champion—which, in the perverse terms of the meme that equates Lena Dunham with white privilege, leads people to suggest that she is defending "white privilege" and is therefore "racist." This, people, is exactly why the You're Racist meme is so pernicious and should only be handled under adult supervision.)
So anyway. While we're talking about fairness, let me say that the Disgrasian piece does not fall directly into the pattern of diagnosing the show's characters with whiteness, which is what I was talking about last time. Instead, it offers a formal analysis of the use of characters of colors, arguing that they remain slightly rendered and in the margins, the better to set off the full "three-dimensionality" and meaningful lives of the white protagonists. This is an actual reading, so when I guessed last time that the post would fail to recognize the writtenness of the text it took on, well, that was not fair. And yet, I disagree deeply with the reading, so I guess I'll explain why. I would like to be on the record as having respectfully disagreed with the fine folks gallantly attempting to perform a critical analysis in the midst of this pop cultural shitstorm.
The Disgrasian critique would work if Girls was a bildungsroman—if each of these characters were, in fact, a model of a full and complex subjectivity that appeared to blossom and develop through experience over time, or at least had the potential to, and that potential were set in relief by the cast of marginal and background figures who distinctly lack that fullness. Have you read nineteenth-century fiction? This is that. Race works this way all the time. But Girls is not that. (I think Hannah probably imagines that this is the genre of her life, and the show rather savagely denies it of her.) Girls is a satire, and it employs devices more appropriate to satire: instead of "full characters," we get caricatures (which can also be complex, as they are here); instead of life stories, we get haphazard picaresque trajectories. The episode where the stoner girl offers to "organize" the nannies at the park, and then loses her charges, and then channels this into a flirtation with their father? Picaresque. Absurd. Even infuriating, when you consider that the universe would not have magically opened a similar path to any of the other nannies had they lost their kids. That—THAT—is why the show does not feature a person of color in this character's role, not "exclusion." Because it is a dark, dark comedy about the momentum of white privilege in contemporary urban America, and you can't show it in action through a character who does not possess it.
I know there are viewers out there who identify with the main characters of this show, and others who want to but feel prevented from doing so by their whiteness. To this I say, god help you. Rarely has a television show succeeded in making whiteness look so unappealing, in my eyes—and to do so while emphasizing the enormous privilege that comes with it rather than disavowing it! These girls are sick with their whiteness; it makes them ridiculous; it is what saves their asses, allows them not to work, allows them not to see the racial and classed dimensions of the world they inhabit, but, in this show, it is also what prevents them from being "three-dimensional" or having "full lives." It is a social boon but a formal burden. This takes real skill. The only other show I watch these days that attempts a similar thing is "Louie," which is smart about race and gender not because it offers great female or nonwhite role models, but because it shows how the privileges of white maleness are so ferocious that they will continue to operate even in an oaf like Louie, to the amazement of no one more than himself.
Most shows are glaringly white. One shouldn't have to say it, but there it is. And most of them make you want whiteness, or at least the privileges that come with it. Have you ever watched, say, Modern Family? For all their foibles, they still live in gorgeous houses and never worry about health insurance—wouldn't that be nice? That is what it feels like to want whiteness. Girls is different, despite the fact that some people will continue to want the warped, destructive, embarrassing version of whiteness it puts on display. This is not necessarily any individual person's fault; we're supposed to want these things, to envy them, and then be told if we'd "earned" them, we'd have them—that's how capitalism works. One of the ways this show interrupts this desire, though, is through its use of marginal characters exempt from whiteness. It doesn't give them "stories"; instead, it shows them giving the "girls" of the show a wide berth, the way you would syphilitics. It shows them avoiding whiteness. Why don't the "girls" have any friends of color? Seriously? I am of color, and I put enormous effort every day into not being friends with these people.
It is true that one of the effects of formal "marginalization" is to deny certain categories of person the "full humanness" recognized in other types of people. But that is not its only effect. In this case, I think it has the opposite effect: one gets the sense that the marginal figures of color—the Asian intern at the publishing house, the nannies at the park, even the entirely invisible hotel housekeeper whose tip Hannah cavalierly steals in episode 1—that these characters, were they people, would be living more difficult, less charmed, less absurd, and therefore "realer" lives than the "girls." Lacking white privilege, the best thing they can do for themselves is not allow themselves to become active characters in the story of white people's lives, as much as that is possible. It is not entirely possible. It's a white, white world, after all.
So far, the best thing I have read on race in "Girls" is at the end of this piece by Malcolm Harris. I think it's important, if we are going to "read race," not to limit ourselves to counting the number of nonwhite faces on screen and the number of lines they're given. Whiteness, as a form of power, is much savvier than that, which means we must be too.