January 20, 2016
By Nijah Glenn
Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m super guilty of having watched HBO’s series Girls. I’ll go even further and admit that not only did I not hate watch it, but admit that I was an avid watcher and even a fan of Lena Dunham’s portrayal of my generation (okay, I was born in ‘95, but let me live). At some point during the end of my senior year, however, something about the show began to rub me the wrong way. I began to wonder, Why are they in BROOKLYN and the cast is whiter than paper? Why is everything regarding the feminist aspect of the show revolve solely around sex positivity? Why don’t we see any of the girls break the glass ceiling in jobs not traditionally called women’s work? How can they afford the rent? These were a few of the aspects that bothered me while re-watching the first two seasons. A common term thrown around at Dunham not long after the first season was “White Feminist”. I couldn’t understand why anyone would draw color lines between different feminists, or even what the term meant. However with a stronger handle of what a White Feminist is, I want to illustrate the complexity of White Feminism by using Girls as a piece of media displaying it.
Allow me to establish the differences between White Feminism™ and just your general feminism. Both have good intentions, however, White Feminism is detrimental to the movement for a few reasons: it exclusively focuses on the issues faced by white women (ie 78¢ to $1.00 when women of color do not make that sum), uses the movements created by people of color (PoC) to advance only the case of white women while remaining silent in issues regarding PoC, and is committed to fighting for bodily autonomy while disregarding that cis and trans women of color (WoC) do not have that such luxury. Feminism in its best form is inclusive of all genders and sexualities. It seeks to make the world more equitable for all, while ensuring the safety of all women, be they trans or cis (and those who are non-binary), and seeks to bridge the inequalities faced by all in regards to race/religion/class/physical abilities. Not all feminists who are white are white feminists, but many disregard the full battery of feminism and engulf themselves in the pitfall that is white feminism.
The first of many questions raised pertained to the lack of racial diversity in Dunham’s show. While I am a born Pennsylvanian, my family has roots in the borough of Brooklyn. Knowing the history of Brooklyn and the diversity it has, I was incredibly upset when gentrification began to take hold. I had told my mother about my desire to see a band at Baby’s All Right, a venue in Bushwick. When I told my mother where the venue was, I watched the color drain from her face as she told me “even when I was a child, we weren’t allowed to go to Bushwick because it was synonymous with drugs and now hipsters play there?” Given that even 5-10 years ago Bushwick was considered conventionally unsafe because of its demographic (mainly low income and African American), it was quite flooring to consider that the now gentrified neighborhood was now considered safe enough to attract bands of boys that play surf rock and probably know five people of color collectively. After this conversation, I re-watched Girls determined to find at least 10 people of color within the first three episodes. Despite taking place in Brooklyn, I found that even the screen time was gentrified. Is it possible that Dunham didn’t write the series to be so massively white? Of course. Does it mean that she shouldn’t be accountable for writing a series that does not take the racial diversity of the borough into account? No, and certainly not when Dunham herself is a woman in her 20s who has grown up with extensive media representing PoC. And even more troubling, the only interactions we see of PoC are in service jobs (such as when Jessa takes a position as a nanny and is the sole white face) or in a satirical character meant more as a mockery than a person (Donald Glover’s incredibly problematic and short-lived character). As a feminist, it is important to consider the role of women in any work. By reducing her WoC characters to nothing more than service jobs, she places a barrier between herself and other white women and WoC.
Another troubling issue I noticed connected to White Feminism was the representation of bodily autonomy and women in the workplace. Given the history of WoC, such as Saartje Baartman, being exploited for their bodies, and having little autonomy, there is very little positive media regarding WoC. Many prominent figures from Beyoncé to Nicki Minaj have been targeted by embracing their sexuality, yet Dunham and her characters face no such flack. The ability for white women to embrace their bodily autonomy in media makes her constant nudity hardly groundbreaking. That is not to discredit her for brazenly displaying her body despite not falling into societal conventions or to slut shame her, it is just noting that as a white woman, she has agency that WoC lack. Given the constant sexualization of WoC and even young adults, there is no opportunity for agency. While discussing sexuality is important in a society that categorizes women into their worth based on the social construct of virginity, Dunham’s focus on this issue alone solidifies the privilege she has as a white woman. An issue additionally glossed over is the role of women in the workplace. Nearly all roles that the girls hold in seasons one and two are associated with women: Hannah is a writer and former liberal arts major, Marnie works in art, Jessa is a bohemian and later a nanny, and Shoshanna is a student. Obviously, I am very aware that these titles can be held by any gender; the societal connotations of a nanny or recently a writing-major-turned-writer are associated with women. Unfortunately, for as much as the series is heralded as a snippet of modern feminism on onscreen, none of the girls actually break the glass ceiling. None of them are in roles that are traditionally (and still are) associated with men. We understand all of them to be paid enough to live on, but not demanding higher wages. We don’t see any roles imposed on them that do not seem improbable for a woman—and it’s not because we have stopped gendering jobs or education. Instead, her illustrations present the girls in a way which we typically see white women: feminine, educated/well-traveled, and behaving in an “unconventional” manner vis-à-vis working and living in a place they would not be expected to.
Is Dunham the only offender of white feminism? Absolutely not. Unfortunately, it is an easy convention for many to fall into. However, the saturation of Dunham’s material makes her work an easy study in understanding white feminism. Is this to say you cannot enjoy Girls? Nah, it’s only a reminder that you should be realistic and consider the unreality in portraying someone’s reality.