There are a lot of reasons not to like Lena Dunham. The way she’s chosen to cast Girls isn’t one of them.
Dunham is one of those people most folks either love or hate; she’s seated squarely in the cross hairs of many writers of color. Personally, I don’t really care for her writing, which is why I’ve never chosen to write about her at length. In short, it’s not for me. And that’s okay—somebody likes it.
Dunham, like most writers, is telling her story or some version of it. The characters in her HBO series Girls are people that I’ve known in my life; a vapid privileged reality I’ve observed from the sidelines as a woman of color in a liberal high school, through college and grad school. I never understood the push to make Girls more inclusive. I wouldn’t trust Dunham to write Black female characters in a nuanced or interesting way, and she shouldn’t be forced to.
There has been a lot of internet bandwidth dedicated to the idea that Dunham somehow owes us something, that the title “Girls is so all-encompassing that her show should reflect that, not just White girls, as is parenthetically implied. That she has a “race problem.” While I’m not a Dunham fan (more or that later), I’m not sure that’s fair. As Ta-Nehisi Coats put it, “It is not so wrong to craft an exclusively White world—certainly a significant portion of America lives in one. What is wrong is for power-brokers to pretend that no other worlds exist.”
Frankly, I don’t give a shit if Lena Dunham has brown people in her show or not. Sex and the City made an empire in depicting a New York City that was devoid of brown people. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we will realize that outside of the office, most of us live segregated lives. I can’t fault Dunham for writing what she knows.
And she doesn’t know us.
With respect to her artistry, there has always been something Woody Allen-like about her content, something I could never quite put my finger on. The narcissism? The neurosis? The nagging preoccupation with sex that dots the margins of the show’s framework. The extent at which she is nude on her show is less “admirable” or “audacious” as some have suggested previously, and more like a crutch to make us keep watching. Dunham has been pretty successful at courting attention and feigning displeasure when she gets it. A reporter once asked Dunham about the artistic reasons behind the abundance of nudity in the show (a fair question from a television critic, I think) and things went left.
This is a habit of Dunham’s. And here’s where we get to the part about her that doesn’t quite curl all the way over to me. There’s the casual bigotry that litters her Twitter page; her comments about sympathizing more with "the stray dogs she saw than the poverty-stricken people.” And then there’s that dust up from this weekend.
Truth Revolt published a story about Dunham sexually abusing her little sister. Full stop. The basis of this story was an excerpt taken directly from Dunham’s book Not That Kind of Girl. True to form, Dunham is upset because the cheeky little story she included in her book has been taken at face value and not applauded for its bravery, sharp wit, or self-awareness. In fact in the fall out since Saturday, Dunham has threatened to sue and sent the site a cease and desist letter.
There are lots of reasons to have beef with Lena Dunham, public figure. Let us not forget that she is sitting at the dais of (White) feminism because of her visibility as a young woman at the head of an incredibly successful show of her own making about White Girl Problems. This, in spite of her repeated transgressions and this now casual admission of violating her sister.
At the time of this writing, there is a story taking up prime real estate on the Jezebel homepage about Chris Brown (really, are they ever going to leave that boy alone?), with nothing to be said of Dunham. Similarly, there is no new content surrounding Truth Revolt’s article on Dunham featured on Feministing, The Hairpin, or xoJane.
Curiouser and curiouser.
There are a lot of reasons to dislike Dunham, most of which are Dunham’s own fault. The rest, the part that I think really infuriates people, is how permissive Whiteness tends to be. Rolling Stone’s “Girl on Top” “turned a life of anxiety, bad sex and countless psychiatric meds into the funniest show on TV,” in a redemptive, charming, profitable way that isn’t allowable for content creators of color – especially not women. We don’t get a lot of room to be imperfect, even in the telling of our own stories. But Cat Marnnell can do it. And Elizabeth Wurtzel did it 20 years ago with Prozac Nation.
Girls will be girls, I suppose. But us? We know better. And that’s frustrating as a motherfucker.
Maya K. Francis is a culture writer and communications strategy consultant. When not holding down the Black Girl Beat for VSB, she is a weekly columnist for Philadelphia Magazine's 'The Philly Post' and contributes to other digital publications including xoJane, Esquire, and EBONY.com. Sometimes TV and radio producers are crazy enough to let her talk on-air, and she helped write a book once. She cites her mother and Whitley Gilbert as inspirations.