HBO’s Girls: Black and White in the Media

There are quite a few articles today about a controversy revolving around the new Lena Dunham- created HBO show, Girls, and the lack of diversity in the cast, particular with African-American characters.  One of the reasons for the outcry over this show rather than the countless other all-white shows is that critics have been wetting their pants over the show, calling it the VOICE of the twenty-something generation of women.

Whenever something is crowned “the voice of a generation,” those who don’t fit into the demographic always feel left out.  We should retire that expression.

From Kendra James at Racialicious:

“If Lena Dunham and I come from similar educational backgrounds, honed our writing and narrative skills at the same school (and likely with some of the same professors), and grew up spending time in the same city (she’s from Tribeca, and I was a bridge-and-tunnel kid from a nice New Jersey suburb about 30 minutes away), then how could we conceive such radically different images of New York City? Why would I feel so ill-at-ease with her critics essentially declaring her as my voice?”

Ta-Nehisi Coates from the Atlantic, focuses less on the individual artist than those who run the media.

“There has been a lot of talk, this week about Lena Dunham’s responsibility, but significantly less about the the people who sign her checks. My question is not “Why are there no black women on Girls,” but “How many black show-runners are employed by HBO?” This is about systemic change, not individual attacks.

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 exists. Across the country there are black writers and black directors toiling to bring those worlds to the screen. If HBO does not see fit to have a relationship with those writers, then those of us concerned should assess our relationship with HBO.”

I don’t write much about my own experiences in “Hollywood,” but I have pitched shows to executives at NBC, and worked at HBO at one time. I’m also originally from Queens, New York, which for my money has the largest percentage of citizens of different races, languages, and eccentric human beings in the country, and many of my idea stem from my childhood there.

It wasn’t until I visited my uncle in New Jersey when I was ten years old that realized that the majority of the world — and the power structure — was filled with white people. Remember the book, “The Preppy Handbook?” It was like reading a book about Chinese pottery; the concepts were totally foreign to me.   My move to Manhattan from Queens was more of a culture shock than when I moved from New York to Los Angeles.   On Easter weekend during my Freshman year, I went home with my roommate Tom to his family estate in Massachusetts, where he OWNED HORSES!

“What do you do with them?” I asked.

“We ride them!”

You can take the boy out of Queens, but you can’t…   I never got half of the jokes in “Stuff White People Like.”

Years later, I found myself pitching a sitcom idea to a Disney executive, an arrogant young guy who got the job because his father was a producer. He was playing mini-golf on his carpet as I nervously told him my brilliant story that I wrote in the shower that morning.

One of the plot points revolved around a son’s relationship with his father. The son’s mother had died and his father quickly remarried — one of his mother’s friends! The son was mad at the father for doing this, and didn’t get along with the step-mother until the final act.

At the end of pitch, the executive hit one more putt.

“The biggest problem with the story… is the new wife,” he said.

I was surprised to hear this. I had expected him to criticize the son or the father.

“The new wife is a black woman, right?” he asked.

It was a detail I hardly noticed when I pitched it. I was basing the story on a real-life situation of someone I knew from Queens. The father remarried a nurse who lived in the same apartment building.   She was a black woman.

“What’s the problem with her being black?” I asked.

“The audience will think that the son hates the new wife because she is black, and no one will like the main character.”

“Oh, no no no. He doesn’t hate her because she is black.  It is because his father is getting remarried so soon after his mother’s death!  The new wife’s color is irrelevant to the story.”

“Yes, but the audience will read it that way. So, let’s just make her white.”

“I see.  OK, let’s make her white.”

Was I acting racist by changing my black character to a white character?  Probably not. Just wimpy. Nothing ever happened with the script anyway.

Was the executive racist for asking me to change the race of the character?

I don’t think he was racist either.   In fact, there was a big plaque on the wall announcing that he was a big shot in the “Young Hollwyood Democratic Club for Change.”

The big issue was FEAR.  No one wants to touch issues of race because no one wants to be called a racist.

I’m not suggesting that it is good to be politically incorrect, but fear is never a healthy motivation.  And fear runs Hollywood, especially this unwritten law that blacks should only write about black people and whites about white people. It’s as if the media images are more segregated than America in 2012!   Sure, we need diversity in the boardrooms and our writing staffs, but we also need more diversity in our brains.

As a blogger, I sometimes feel that the political correctness of my friends is punishing me for growing up in Queens.  My world is diverse.  If I ever write a memoir, my childhood will all be about blacks and whites and Latinos and Asians learning to live together, not always perfectly.  About public school.   If I don’t write about this diversity, I would not be authentic. But I have also been criticized in the past, as if my white male “privilege” prohibits me from writing about anything other than white maleness.

One of my best — and funniest blog posts — was one that I only showed to a few of you, and was told not to publish it.

The tale found me taking the wrong bus home in Queens, the only white guy en route to Jamaica, Queens, a heavily African-American section of the borough.  During the ride, a bunch of rowdy kids in the back of the bus started an obnoxious game called “Tag the N****r,” where one kid tagged another by touching his shoulder, and he was forced to box the other until he cried uncle. There was real punching in these fights, and bloody noses. As the combatants scufffled violently, “Tag the N****r!” was shouted by the other kids.

The older passengers were disgusted, particularly at the use of language.  There was chaos, and the bus driver eventually kicked all the kids off the bus.  But according to some obscure MTA rule, the bus driver had to wait for a dispatcher to sign a document before the bus could continue on.   As we waited in the hot bus with no air-condition, another bus showed up, a fancy new one.  All of the teenagers climbed aboard the new bus, flashing their school passes, and took off to cause trouble elsewhere.   We were stuck there — all of the law-abiding citizens — for another forty minutes.

“You can’t post this,” said one blogger via email. “It’s not YOUR story to tell. It is one about the African-American experience.”

“But I was there!”

“Yes, but you were only a visitor.”

“Huh?  But I was there!  Why is this about the African-American experience?  And why am I visitor?  I live here too.”

“You don’t see your own privilege,” she said.

Good people could not see beyond the black-white schism, when in my view, the opposing forces in the story were old vs. young.  I had more in common with the older African-Americans sitting in the bus, minding their own business, remembering the civil rights movement than the teenagers.   I did not feel as if anyone singled me out as “the white guy.”  Most of the passengers were angry at the obnoxious teens.

“I have an idea,” said another friend. “Don’t mention ANYONE’S color in the story at all, so then there isn’t an issue of you seeming racist.”

I found her color-blind story suggestion interesting, but bizarre.  Race was not essential to the sitcom story about the father marrying his mother’s black friend, but in this case, the racial content MADE the story a story.  This would be a very different scenario if it were white teenagers playing “Tag the N****r.”

I’m fascinated by the current discussion over this HBO show.   I’m all for diversity — including in the blogosphere!  But I think the biggest obstacle is not the media, but our own discomfort talking about our similarities and differences in non-controversial, but real ways.

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10 Responses to HBO’s Girls: Black and White in the Media

  1. erykah says:

    Racism is really just an idea. When people come to this realization, the world will be better for it. Great post.

  2. “Sure, we need diversity in the boardrooms and our writing staffs, but we also need more diversity in our brains.” YES! This is my favorite line in this post.
    V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios posted Why does social media make me feel lonely?

  3. pia says:

    The Jackson Heights SSA office is the most diverse in the country so yes Queens is the most diverse borough. The office I worked in–somewhere in The Bronx is the second most diverse
    Though I grew up in lily-white areas of Queens (ironically) and Long Island, if Jews & Italians are considered white and we are, I have always sought out friends of different ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds because I like learning about different cultures and feeling part of different worlds
    Like you I have been told to keep the race, ethnicity or religion out of things. Sometimes you just can’t
    pia posted I’m Not Participating in Autism Awareness Month

  4. I’ve just sent a link to this to my daughter ….
    : )
    Twenty Four At Heart posted Los Angeles Is SO L.A.

  5. I don’t know why ppl like that show so much. I surprised. I thought it was boring — oh well. I agree with your point about writing and telling our stories. I appreciate honesty– even when it’s ugly or misguided. I think these are things we can’t talk or write about with compassion and even curiosity. I hope my children feel connected among ppl of all colors and backgrounds. But I also hope they can respect and participate in our differences. My experience is my own; I own that and no one else’s.
    Wendy @ mama one to three posted Curious About a Door

  6. Oops– these are things we CAN talk about… Darn iPhone!
    Wendy @ mama one to three posted Curious About a Door

  7. Noel says:

    The Kendra Jones comment made me laugh out loud: “If Lena Dunham and I come from similar educational backgrounds, honed our writing and narrative skills at the same school (and likely with some of the same professors), and grew up spending time in the same city (she’s from Tribeca, and I was a bridge-and-tunnel kid from a nice New Jersey suburb about 30 minutes away), then how could we conceive such radically different images of New York City?” because Tribeca and nice Jersey suburbs are so completely different, polar opposites.

    Successful execs ask “Is it funny?” (or, for dramas, “compelling”) not “Is it racist?”
    Noel posted My heart

  8. the muskrat says:

    I wish you’d post the story. I’m saddened by the fact that some hypersensitive blogger friends caused you to censor, and not publish, your work on your blog. In fact, it kind of pisses me off (even though I’m sure their intentions were good). Then again, I’m also a bit tired of hearing the “you’re privileged because you’re white” diatribe that’s been on “repeat” more than usual this year. Many of the repeaters really should travel to other parts of the world and see where the privilege really lies: in being American. Because even our poor have better lives than 90% of the rest of the world (and those at our median income level of about $50k/yr are in the top 1% of the world), we have time to tell a blogger what he can and can’t write because of an arbitrary reference to skin color in one of his posts.
    the muskrat posted happy easter!

  9. Jane Gassner says:

    There is a ghastly hypersensitivity that is given huge boosts of energy by the opportunities social media offers for every Dana, Barb and Sally (yes, I’m being gender-specific intentionally) to stir the pot and get into the mix and tell off whoever for whatever in no uncertain terms. I’ve been the victim of it and it certainly has worked to censor me. As it has you–so I guess THEY win.

  10. Danny says:

    Late to the party but I just saw this post. I haven’t seen “Girls” and can understand people’s disgust over this woman being heralded as “the voice of twentysomethings,” but isn’t this just her story? What’s worse than people of color dropped into stories for all the wrong reasons? Obviously, if that show lasts, I hope they’d show the diversity of New York–there’s no way these characters would not interact with people of all races in their lives unless they were Klan members—but how is it wrong to show a group of friends of any single race? Is it really the show’s responsibility to create some artificial view of diversity in every social situation? How unrealistic is that? That, in my opinion, is the negative side of political correctness, as is the crazy advice you got to not tell that story about the bus. Or is that just my “privilege” talking?

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