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by Alison Willmore
January 21, 2013 11:43 AM
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'Girls' Addresses Race and What It Means to Be Conservative

Donald Glover in 'Girls' Jessica Miglio/HBO

The article below contains spoilers for "I Get Ideas," the January 20th, 2013 episode of "Girls."

In its first season, "Girls" attracted criticism for the near uniform whiteness of its cast. Neither the show's primary foursome -- Hannah (Lena Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) -- nor its secondary characters, like Hannah's sometimes boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) or coffee shop manager Ray (Alex Karpovsky), were of color, and the world they kept to tended to also be pretty white, despite the show's being set in diverse Brooklyn. It was a critique that seemed more about the general shortcomings of TV in representing race and the massive expectations the show had been saddled with than about what was on screen -- if this was an attempt, as Hannah said in the show's definining joke, at offering up "a voice of a generation," there were many, many members of that generation being left out of the conversation.

But "Girls" isn't about Brooklyn or about a whole generation, it's about a small group of characters aiming for cosmopolitan contemporary lives while leading ones that are in reality pretty constrained, and in last night's episode "I Get Ideas," directed by Dunham and written by showrunner Jenni Konner, Hannah's attitudes toward race (and the show's, which are different) come to the forefront via her relationship with the guy she's been dating, law student Sandy (Donald Glover). Sandy's a Republican, he's African American, he's apparently stable, funny, cute and really into Hannah. But after Hannah corrals him into confessing that he didn't like an essay she wrote, she breaks up with him for reasons she claims are entirely political and have nothing to do with her not being able to handle criticism, leading to a fabulously excruciating exchange between them about the fact that he's black and she's white.

"Girls" is at its sharpest when pinning down the difference between what the characters say and what they do, whether that's in regard to feminism, relationships, politics or, when it comes to Sandy, a mix of many things. "Your rights happened and your rights happened," Hannah tells Elijah (Andrew Rannells) and Marnie when explaining the breakup, "because I can't be with someone who's not an ally to gays and women." ("Thank you?" they respond.) We've seen no evidence that Sandy has personal issues with either -- he doesn't get a chance to elaborate his beliefs, and he good-naturedly puts up with Elijah's hostility when they're all crowded into the bathroom in the morning -- and either way, Hannah's sanctimoniousness is ridiculous, since despite her denials she initiated the split transparently guided by hurt feeling over his reluctant evaluation of her writing.

"Hannah isn't actually able to deal with people who aren't exactly like her."
It leads to the pair discussing race for what appears to be the first and last instance in their time together, with Hannah claiming, terribly and unbelievably, "I never thought about the fact that you were black once!" and Sandy offering up the following biting monologue:

This always happens. "I'm a white girl, I moved to New York and I'm having a great time. I've got a fixed gear bike and I'm going to date a black guy and we're going to go to a dangerous part of town!" I know this, I've seen it happen a million times, and then they can't deal with who I am.

We haven't, in the pair's brief period together, gotten a sense that Hannah's taken up with Sandy as her token excursion into interracial romance, but the point is made -- his political stances are as relevant as his ethnicity in his identity, both important and having no bearing on the fight they get into. Hannah's so offended by his saying this that she insists he's probably fetishizing her and that she's post-racial to the extent that she didn't even notice the color of his skin (as always, Dunham leaves the series' worst behaviour to herself), two infinitely silly claims that miss the fundamental issue that Hannah isn't actually able to deal with people who aren't exactly like her, even in something so small as not agreeing on the quality and aims of her essay. She's the conservative one, not when it comes to political stances but in terms of dealing with anyone who doesn't align with the ideas about the world in which she's so certain.

It's a smart, squirmily amusing sequence, and while it doesn't alter the show's general whiteness, it does make it more clear that it's something deliberate and not neglect, reflective of its bumbling characters' limited day-to-day rather than an overall outlook or obliviousness on the part of the creators. (Later, Hannah offers an equally damning and oblivious judgment on another topic when indirectly disparaging Marnie's newfound employment as a hostess at a fancy club by suggesting that while she too could have that kind of gig, she's sticking to her lower-paying barista job because she's "made a choice not to cash in on my sexuality.")

Indeed, "I Get Ideas" featured many of the "Girls" (and at least one of the boys) lying to themselves, from Marnie's insistence that her new job is perfect and not at all indicative of her giving up to Jessa's blithe indications that her sudden marriage is perfect -- "This is what it's like when the hunt is over." (As opposed to Hannah's vague preachiness, Jessa reveals some surprise concrete political knowledge, dropping a reference to the Glass–Steagall Act and suggesting that Hannah read a newspaper, any newspaper.) It's once again Shoshanna, happily talking about camp in bed with a smitten Ray, who seems the most secure in herself in this episode and the least burdened with the weight of who she should be -- even if she uses "totally" in every sentence.

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6 Comments

  • grace | January 22, 2013 10:53 AMReply

    This is such a thoughtful perspective on what the show is trying to accomplish with its character and setting choices. I was never nitpicky about the casting selection, but I-ve heard a lot of friends and DISH coworkers comment on it. Even my roommates refuse to watch the show, since they say it negatively reflects the lives of young NYC ladies. I on the other hand tend to sway your way when it comes to these controversies, so I make sure to never miss an episode! Because of this little conflict, it definitely comes in handy that I can move TVs once one of the gets home. Since our DISH Hopper Whole-Home DVR lets me pause a show in one room and seamlessly pick it up at another TV, I never have to worry about them interrupting me.

  • Blake | January 22, 2013 6:33 PM

    Is this a DISH advertisement?

  • Gary Anderson | January 21, 2013 8:23 PMReply

    "But "Girls" isn't about Brooklyn or about a whole generation, it's about a small group of characters aiming for cosmopolitan contemporary lives while leading ones that are in reality pretty constrained,"

    Is that line supposed to justify why GIRLS is no different that FRIENDS or SEX IN THE CITY? Shonda Rhimes creates a show and she better have white characters in it or it will never see the light of day. But Lena Dunham can create a show in the 21st Century that doesn't have one Black character and that is alright? In fact, she gets the sympathy from bloggers like you saying she is being unjustly persecuted by people who think she needs some diversity in the cast. Personally, I think Donald Glover is too good for the show. I can't wait for it to be cancelled.

  • qwerty | January 22, 2013 10:38 AM

    Here's an off the top of my head list of other currently airing sitcoms with no black characters in the main cast: Louie, Parks and Recreation, Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Modern Family, How I met your Mother. I'm sure there are tons more.

    You're not complaining about them, but you are complaining about a show that just had an episode with a central black character and a discussion of race. Your complaint makes no sense.

    People (white people, mostly) who want to use race as a stick to beat the show with when they actually hate it for entirely different reasons are gross. More shows with black casts would be good, but I guess the tv networks figure closed minded people like you would never watch them.

  • Olive | January 21, 2013 3:30 PMReply

    Everything Lena Dunham's character says on this show is cringeworthy.

  • shelly | January 21, 2013 1:37 PMReply

    I got the sense that Jessa was just repeating what her rich boyfriend now husband told her about finance.