Some of My Best Friends are White People on TV: Race, “Girls,” and “Mad Men”

I want to get this out of the way more or less immediately: I don’t hate Girls. During the time I watched it, the show was funny and often charming. More importantly, when it tackled certain issues (HPV and body image come to mind), it did so with a bluntness and an honesty that resonated. Those two qualities are in short supply for most TV shows. Girls is not a show where I just can’t imagine why anyone likes it.

Though I’ve criticized the show vocally among friends, I have largely avoided writing down a cohesive argument. I don’t particularly mean to do so here either. Part of the reason I have avoided it is because I feel as if it is not necessarily my place. Why jump into the fray when it has been handled so beautifully by women like Kendra James at Racialicious? Why add my male voice to the cacophony when other guys have already done it so poorly (I’m looking at you, Boys Who Talk About Girls @ Jezebel)?

I suppose what I really want to do is merely bolster and reaffirm the arguments that have already been made by women of color. Kendra James’s article, titled “Dear Lena Dunham: I Exist,” is so great, because in a world of pop culture that seeks to erase or circumscribe your existence, claiming visibility for yourself and for people like you is a powerfully political act. I want to be careful here, though. James speaks primarily to the visibility of black women who occupy similar social circles as Lena Dunham. Therefore, we can’t reasonably take James’s argument as a call for the broad representation of black women (as varied and diverse as they are). For the specific purposes of discussing Girls, this argument works well toward striking at some of the most defensive counterarguments.

The counterargument that I want to most vigorously shred is the one that invokes realism, or that old writing maxim “write what you know,” as a defense. I always thought “write what you know” was a bad cliché. Like something the high school creative writing teacher says to the talented student in a Hallmark movie. That’s not to say that “write what you know” is necessarily bad advice. Clearly, a writer will want to draw from their surroundings, and from people they know when constructing a story. This makes sense. But to write only what you know seems like frightfully bad advice. It’s particularly awful advice when all of the people who have the opportunity to write are often white, often rich, and often men. This status quo severely limits the experiences that get written and deemed worthy to produce into a film or television series. Writers should write what they know while being creative, thoughtful, and empathetic enough (also, we should just be honest: talented enough) to venture outside those boundaries.

I’ve had to consign Girls to the “white people shit I want to care about but really can’t” pile(1). Joining it this year is AMC’s sometimes-brilliant show Mad Men. Mad Men and Girls  are similar in more ways than I think people realize. Before one even gets to the issue of race, I find both shows politically, culturally, and socially tone-deaf. In a time of great economic distress, two of the most talked about series on TV follow the personal struggles and failings of rich white people(2).

With Mad Men, obviously the idea is that it’s a critique of the 60s. See, they don’t mention black people or civil rights because white people didn’t care then. Well, I mean, ok. This is a revelation for some people, I’m sure. But I do not find Mad Men‘s 60s critique particularly substantial, meaningful, or compelling. It feels very light. It’s a soap opera with a faux-intellectual aura around it. That’s not to say that Mad Men doesn’t sometimes do genuinely brilliant things — the recent episode concerning Joan and the Jaguar deal was a truly unparalleled bit of television. Its gender critique was shockingly sophisticated — the kind of thing I hope for in my television — but episodes like that are few and far between. Megan is, I think, one of the show’s best additions. Her generational conflict with Don brings out a lot of important questions of gender inequality.  She has aspirations and ambitions that Don can’t control. The conflict that creates has felt really central. In most cases, though, I do not find the mere representation of gender inequality in the 60s to be a compelling critique.

In general, the reason I watch Mad Men is for the women characters, but I just don’t feel like I get enough out of it. Then if you venture at all into the fandom, it feels as if the stuff the show does well goes entirely over people’s heads. Hero worship of people like Don and Roger. Defenses of Pete Campbell, a literal rapist who continues to prey on women in the show. I just can’t take it. I don’t hold it against the show, but it’s such a strange dynamic — and when the current season ended with, essentially, a question of whether Don would be unfaithful or not… I can say, emphatically, I do not give a shit.

I suppose the question plaguing me is: why these shows, and why now? I know nostalgia is basically always “in” these days, so I get the public draw to a very well-made show about the 60s. And Girls is a show by a woman, starring women, about their post-grad experiences. In a post-Bridesmaids world, I see why it got made. So maybe the real question is: why, in 2012, are we still creating shows that in their very inception don’t allow spaces for people of color? Mad Men literally cannot deal with race because all of its characters are sheltered from it (sorry, a secretary who speaks once every few episodes does not count). When Lena Dunham was asked about race in her show, she said:

“I wrote the first season primarily by myself, and I co-wrote a few episodes. But I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs.”

Well, ok. I want to be super careful here. I started by saying that I don’t hate Girls, and that I find it successful in at least a few ways. But, um, if you have no experiences outside of who/what you are — that is to say, rich and white — er, perhaps you shouldn’t have a TV show. This is why the show feels like a failure. I would agree with The Hairpin, which called it “alienating.” I get that the show’s existence might be a net good for a very particular subset of women (and men, I suppose), but don’t we have to do better than that? Can’t we ask for more? It’s just not acceptable to me in 2012 to produce a show that speaks to the experiences of rich white folks as an unfailing universal. And I want to be clear that I’m not saying, “Take Lena Dunham’s show away! She sucks!” I’m just, like, hey. If you can write an entire season without noticing you’ve completely excluded people of color and different class backgrounds, you have a whole lot of growing to do and I don’t really care to be witness to it.

I guess this is why I really appreciated Louis CK’s choice to cast a black woman as the mother of his lily-white children. Even that appears fraught with a bit of fetishism, but the choice is so bold that it has to be commended. It completely upsets this “realism” argument, which is just a racist justification anyway. No one expects The Treatise on Race in Contemporary New York City from Lena Dunham or Louis CK. Rather, people of color are asking for representation as full human beings. That’s all. On one level, I think Louis got that, and on another level, I think he just wanted to fuck with people. I can respect both impulses.

Grey’s Anatomy (which I think I may write on soon) is also a show that doesn’t fret about doing a lot of complex race work. Instead, it bets heavily on the power of representation, and wins big with characters like Cristina Yang and Miranda Bailey. Depicted as full and complex human beings, I think they are some of the best women of color characters on TV, ever. The writers understand those characters very well, and the actresses are at the top of their game. Whatever you may think about the rest of the show, and I definitely have my issues, I’m totally in love with those two. But, hey, the Grey’s showrunner is a black woman.

I recently heard a critique, which posited that the Girls criticism, as put forth by Racialicious author Kendra James, was “narcissistic” and needed to be “bolder” by calling for broader representation in pop culture more generally. I consider this nothing less than myopic, a serious misreading of the criticism itself. It’s the kind of critique that can only be uttered if one is just entering the arena of race and pop culture criticism. Racialicious is an entire site devoted to the examination of race and pop culture. Contained within every bit of the work that appears on that site is a call for better TV, film, video games, etc. that represent people of color. This critique did not begin, and will not end with Girls. Girls merely, due to its popularity, provided a useful opportunity to address the issue on a level that was seen by those who do not usually participate in race and pop culture criticism. I can assure all of the white folks out there: people of color had very similar things to say about Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City, and every other bit of whitewashed nonsense to flash across the television screen. You just were not listening.

This entry has been a bit unfocused, because my thoughts on these shows are fraught with a lot of different tensions. It’s painful for me to be so critical of a show like Girls, which does some good work and showcases a very particular talent. Mad Men is a show that’s really hard to be critical of, because it’s so beloved, and people appear to have a lot invested in it. I enjoyed parts of Girls, and quite a bit of Mad Men. I am constantly trying to negotiate between what I need from entertainment, and what is actually available to me, as well as what I am told I absolutely must see.

For now, I think I will take a page from Latoya Peterson at Racialicious and say: right now I have no desire to integrate into any burning houses.

(1) My “white people shit I want to care about but really can’t” pile is markedly different from my “white people shit i will never care about” which is infinitely smaller, because white people do a lot of cool things.

(2) The other most talked about show, Game of Thrones, is entirely about the power struggles of white kings and queens, lords and ladies (see: your social betters) while everyone else suffers. I suppose this could be construed as some kind of critique, but the show (and its fans) are really invested in that struggle. I just want the sex workers in the brothels to rise up and murder everyone.

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