How Girls Inspired Me to Tell My Stories
On April 16, when the final episode aired, Girls didn’t go out with a bang. It opted for a whisper. A very, very quiet whisper. There is no Adam, no Jessa, not even Shoshanna. The ensemble is dismantled and we are left with Hannah, Marnie, Hannah’s mother and Grover- Hannah’s infant son. Hannah has taken a professor position and moved upstate, away from most of her friends and all her former paramours. She now lives a life of quiet isolation. The loudest noises you hear in the final episode are the sounds of Grover’s cries. This makes sense when you consider the title of the episode: “Latching”. Girls goes out with a simple, small episode that involves Hannah trying to get her son to feed from her nipple. For a show that is often seen as shallow, vapid and poorly written, that’s a pretty mature note to end on.
I’ve been holding off talking about Girls for a while. The first and only piece on the show I published online was a piece on the stellar episode “American Bitch”. I’ve written about the show in other forms though; specifically my undergraduate honors thesis at Augusta University. Halfway through my studies in English, I had a change of heart and decided I wanted to write television and film instead. I reworked my entire course track to reflect this and when it came time to do my Honors thesis, I knew that I needed to write an original pilot. But there were a few snags to this decision. My program was set up in a way that required me to include a paper with any project I completed. So, it wasn’t enough that I was writing a 60 page original pilot with no one available on staff that actually familiar with television script structure. I also had to write a paper to go with it and create a presentation for an academic conference. Luckily, I soon came up with a solution that made all the pieces of my project correspond with each other.
My pilot was about a young black television writer who felt stuck writing for a show she felt was intellectually beneath her. It was during that time in television post-Girlfriends and pre-Black-ish when the only popular black sitcoms were coming from Tyler Perry’s production company (with Everybody Hates Chris being a rare exception). I was frustrated with the portrayal of black people, specifically black women, in comedy and wanted to write something to comment on that. I wanted to write a comedy about black women where they could be more than wives and girlfriends to scene-stealing male characters. I wanted to write about single, career-minded, artistic black women. But I was looking for a tone different from Living Single or the aforementioned Girlfriends. I was looking for something that skewed younger and allowed for more dramatic moments. I wanted a marriage of pleasure and pain, with a layer of dark humor.
At the same time, I was watching Girls. When it premiered in 2012 I was 19 years old and a college sophomore. I moved out on my own a few short months after the premiere. By 2013, when I began outlining my thesis in earnest, I was a huge fan of the show. Even though was about 4 upper middle class white girls in New York City, I found myself relating to the characters. I could see a bit of myself in all of the Girls, but I especially related to Hannah. Her body issues, anxiety, OCD and unhealthy romantic relationships mirrored my own in striking ways. I understood her lack of confidence and tendency to overcompensate out of fear that she didn’t have the talent she thought she did. I related to the way she sought out sexual encounters to affirm to herself that she was in fact desirable. I also understood what it felt like to be a chubby girl with a group of skinny, seemingly perfect friends. When she acted out in order to get attention, I could follow the train of thought that lead to her outbursts.
Hannah Horvath was the first character I saw on television that made me feel seen, emotionally. It didn’t matter that she was white. It didn’t matter that she had loving parents and that would always be a safety net for her, even though I couldn’t say the same for myself. It didn’t matter that she had access to the kinds of men who wouldn’t look twice at me because they never considered a black girl worthy of pursuit. I was aware of all of those things… those critical flaws that were impossible to miss. I knew they were there. Still, what mattered the most to me was that for the first time in my life I saw a show that inspired me to pursue my dreams. It encouraged me to tell my stories. Girls gave me, a lower class black girl in the South, the permission to be selfish. It inspired me to represent myself in my work.
Naturally, I decided that if I had to write a companion paper to go alone with my thesis it was imperative that I wrote about Girls. In a lot of ways, Girls is the reason I decided to write a pilot for my thesis in the first place. The pilot itself shared similarities with Girls in terms of plot structure and character beats. Once the paper took shape, it expanded in scope. By the end I had written an analysis of Girls, Sex and the City, and the concept of “chick-lit” as a genre in television, film and publishing. I ended the paper by discussing the lack the diversity in these stories and expressed my hope that shows like The Mindy Project would be a step in the right direction for women in color in comedy in television.
Writing that part of the paper was a springboard that refocused the entire thesis of my work as a whole. It made me realize that my pilot functioned as a response to my paper: It takes my understanding of the primarily white chick-lit genre and created a show that was black, queer and representative of low-income women. When the wheels began to turn, I knew exactly what my conference lecture needed to focus on. My presentation became a focused analysis of the depiction of black people on television. I began my presentation with a brief synopsis of the script and an explanation of what I was trying to say with it. I proceeded to explain how pilots work, and how a pilot makes its transition to series. Then I touched on the end of my paper, highlighting the lack of diversity on most television sitcoms. The meat of my presentation was the discussion of television history, and the unspoken quota system that occurs when placing characters of color in sitcom ensembles. For example, I dedicated time to New Girl and it’s choice to replace its first black guy (Coach) with another black guy (Winston). This is of course before they brought Coach back and allowed them both to be on the show.
In my opinion, the best part of the presentation was my discussion of class. Now that I’m older and leaning more to the left, I wish I had said more on it. Regardless, I still think I gave my primarily white audience a lot to think about. I discussed The Cosby Show and Girlfriends, touching on the fact that a lot of contemporary black television from mid-80s onward focused on upwardly mobile, “respectable” black people. These images provided a very prosperous image of black life in America that was always difficult for me relate to. I revealed to my audience that I had trouble seeing myself in those programs and that I related more to working class shows like Roseanne. It was interesting to reveal to a white audience that a character simply being black does not guarantee that black viewers will relate to them.
(I didn’t win the award for Best Communications presentation, but I should have. My professors agreed.)
When applying to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, I included my original pilot as well a spec script episode of Girls. I structured my statement of purpose by talking about all the (white) shows that inspired me and expressed my interest to take what I learned from those shows structurally and use that framework to write my own shows that would be inclusive of race, sexual and gender diversity. I commanded that my stories were just as worthy to be seen onscreen. I also expressed frustration that I was not able to see myself in the (black) media that was supposed to be catered to “my people”. All of my intersections were living proof that blackness was not a monolith and there were still room for stories about black girls like me. I warned against condemning shows simply based on their whiteness, because I saw futility in that. Close critique of media’s whiteness is good and essential, but should be coupled with actually making space at the table for non-white voices is better.
I was accepted to Tisch and had a wonderful two years of consistent writing and study. I continued to watch Girls during my studies. My scripts, which all contained characters that were primarily women of color, were heavily influenced by the show and shows with a similar format such as Transparent. Still, I used to make a habit of hiding my feelings about the swift and consistent backlash against Girls throughout its 6 year run. Recently, I’ve decided to live my truth and speak openly about how much it inspired me and how I probably wouldn’t even be in New York City pursuing a career as a writer if it wasn’t for the confidence the show gave me.
Now, I don’t mean to puff up my chest here. I don’t think it’s brave to say I like Girls. But I will say that speaking highly of the show is the fastest way to get people to stop talking to me. Much of the criticism of Girls is good. The characters are too privileged, and always land on their feet no matter how many jobs they quit. It is also true that the characters get opportunities too easily, even when they don’t exhibit the skills necessary to be successful at said jobs. The city that they inhabit is oddly devoid of people of color, with the exception of guest stars and one scene wonder characters. Additionally, the characters aren’t very kind to each other or anyone else they happen to come into contact with. They’re entitled, they’re cruel and they rarely understand the full extent of their actions.
Many of these criticisms can also be applied to: Friends, Seinfeld, Californication, Entourage It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Frasier, Curb Your Enthusiasm and countless other television shows from the critically acclaimed to the mediocre. Still, in my lifetime, I have never witnessed a show with writing quality as high as Girls’ get written off swiftly before it began and consistently maligned for years simply for continuing to exist.
Since the term “white feminism” became popular in media culture it has become fashionable to look at media that portrays the interior lives of white women and condemn them as artistically inferior to other work, especially work made by men. As a result, Girls has become the scapegoat for every all-white show that has ever been on television. And by extension, Lena Dunham has become the scapegoat for every clueless white feminist in the pop culture landscape. Any white woman who has ever been called out for her feminism not being intersectional enough can turn around and let all her anger out on women like Dunham, who is told to shut up nearly every single time she opens her mouth or writes a tweet. I would have the imagine that at this point has her Twitter mentions settings set up so that she only gets notifications from her followers. And thanks to her status as “undesirable” it gives everyone who hates her a free pass to be misogynistic and fatphobic, all under the umbrella of their hypothetical “moral high ground”. Now, I believe that white feminism is a huge problem, and it definitely holds back progress. But I also believe that critique should be complex. Many people can explain why they didn’t get into Girls and why it turned them off but, aside from television critics, people seem to have trouble providing a layered critique of the show itself. The understanding seems to be that Lena Dunham is just so awful that her show doesn’t deserve an honest critique.
Sometimes when I ask people why they’re tweeting rude things at Dunham they mention her book Not That Kind of Girl and they proceed to show me thinkpieces on the book that I’ve already read and regurgitate talking points I’ve already heard. I’ve already heard them, because I’ve used them myself. When the book came out, I was just as mad as everyone else about the uncomfortable passages in them. I don’t approve of the story she included about her sibling* Grace. I think what she did was abusive and including it in her book was irresponsible. I still don’t feel quite right about the whole thing, to do this day. But at what point do people stop mentioning it every single time the popular culture is reminded that Lena Dunham exists?
It’s kind of strange that everyone, even people who have never seen Girls or Tiny Furniture for that matter, have an entire mental list of everything wrong Lena Dunham has ever done or said. I’m not even saying it’s bad to hate Dunham. Feel free to hate whoever you want. My problem arises when people I don’t know are forcibly pushing me to condemn her every time I mention anything even adjacent to her. I’ve don’t think I’ve ever used a GIF with Lena Dunham in it, but I’m sure that 5 seconds after I tweet it my mentions will be flooded with people telling me to “get this monster off my computer screen”. I don’t think I even want to test this hypothesis. I get enough harassment online just being a black woman and existing at the same time.
The way that people talk to me about Lena Dunham reveals the cracks in the communal hatred of her. I am a queer, disabled, leftist, feminist black woman of color who has dealt with harassment and abuse her entire life. But it is seemingly okay for “woke” white people to add to my daily harassment by accosting me online for liking a “problematic” show like Girls. It is alright for them to condescend to me as if I do not have the mental capabilities of critical analysis. It is as if they believe I need them to lead me down the right path… even though it was WOC like me who provided them with the language of social justice in first place. That sort of behavior is shockingly hypocritical and seems typical for those who equate media consumption with activism. I can watch a show that does a lot of things wrong and still appreciate the things it does right.
Regardless of what you think about the Dunham, Girls is an entirely different matter. There are 6 seasons with 62 episodes of content with many different collaborators and moving parts. If your hatred for Dunham or the cast kept you away from the show, that’s perfectly fine. What isn’t fine is for someone who hasn’t consumed all that content to turn to me and tell me that the show is trash and so is the writing. First, I know that taste is subjective, but calling Girls trash is still a gross generalization. Second, if you hate her so much you were never going to give the show a fair shot in the first place. So, why talk about it? Why bring it up? Why condemn a piece of art you haven’t seen just to exemplify the extent of your hatred? And most of all, why is it important for you to turn to a person who was inspired by the show and tell them that what inspired them isn’t worthwhile? What exactly do you expect to get from that? You can’t reach Lena Dunham. She’s too rich and famous. You can’t hurt her. But you can hurt the young women who have been and continue to be inspired by her show.
I’m one of them.
*Grace Dunham no longer goes by female pronouns or gendered modifiers, as far as I know. I use they/them.
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