April 21, 2012

HBO's GIRLS, and other #whitegirlproblems

[NOTE: Don't get your panties in a bunch, ya'll.  In no way do I hate Lena Dunham.  SHE IS A FILM ROCK STAR.  This girl is just a few years older than me and has a huge career - that's nothing less than inspirational and highly motivating.  Plus, I don't know her at all.  Plus, her Twitter feed is hilarious.  The following observations are what came to my mind within the first hour after I saw the premiere.  I was a film student, ya'll - I watch everything critically!  They may or may not be true.  Just like everything else in the universe.]

Preface:  This was much longer.  Be happy for editing.  Also, I am white.

As a twenty-something who moved to New York with a suitcase and dream, I can only compare (…or clash) my own story to that of Hannah Horvath’s – the protagonist of Lena Dunham’s new HBO series Girls, who has been working an unpaid internship for two years and suddenly finds herself cut off financially from her spoiling parents.  If I had watched this show three years ago when I was still at school in Eastern North Carolina, I would have perceived Hannah’s life to be the normal path of self discovery that any young middle-class American who thinks they are the voice of their generation (or “a voice, of a generation”) is destined to take.  But, true to form of any TV show trying to tell a relatable story, the reality of our lives couldn’t be more different.

What lured me into watching Girls the most is that it was written/created/directed/produced (i.e. the entire credit reel) by someone my age.  As in, a peer.  Lena Dunham and I could possibly be friends.  In fact, I’ve probably met her at a cook-out in Brooklyn, where we most-likely chatted about our future memoirs and how we moved to New York City to make our dreams come true.

And that’s when it hit me: I wasn’t talking to Dunham on that BK rooftop party - I was talking to Hannah, the protagonist of the show.  I had trouble separating the two, because my first impression of Girls was that Dunham was telling (at least on some level) her personal story.  But the fact is that Dunham, at 25, the same age as her main character (and me...ish), has made a successful feature length film, got a TV series picked up by HBO, has her own Wikipedia page, and is important enough to have her Twitter account verified.  Her profile photo alone is a testament to how much she can’t fully relate to her own character (and while no one’s Twitter photo is to be taken too (if at all) seriously, the fact remains that she’s holding more cash in a bar than I have ever had on my person in my entire life).

Lena Denhams Twitter pic - cash money
Truthfully, the vast majority of ambitious twenty-somethings who move to NYC don’t make it through their first year, due mostly to the #whitegirlproblems they never knew mattered before they had to quit their prestigious (i.e. unpaid) internships, only to watch ¾ of their shitty retail salary go to rent, the rest melting into metrocards and a bleak diet of Ramen and one-dollar pizza slices.  Then they realize they have to move to an outer borough, learn how to properly budget and save, and come to the epiphany that the black girl with the job at McDonalds is making more money than they are.  All that, as I see it, is the premise of Girls, except I don’t foresee any of the main characters moving back to their hometowns any time soon.

And yes, I said “black girl at McDonalds” for a reason, because that’s exactly the understated-unsaid-underbelly of this dialogue from the pilot episode:

Hanna: "I'm gonna have to work at, like, McDonalds."
Marnie: "You're not going to work at McDonalds."
Ray: "What's wrong with Mcdonalds?  You should work at McDonalds.  It's Great.  It's fucking incredible.  Do you know how many people McDonalds feeds everyday?  Do you know how many people it employees around the world? ..."   
Hanna: “That doesn’t mean I have to work there.  I went to college."
Ray: “Yeah, I went to college too.  You know where it left me?  I have $50,000 dollars in student loans.  That's how deep in debt I am.  I'm sorry, but watching this is like watching Clueless.”

A scene like this only solidifies the white privilege the characters have been wallowing in the entire episode.  This mostly irritates me because I honestly don’t think Dunham realizes the dynamic she created.  If this were to go down on Twitter, it’d be an endless feed of #whitegirlproblems tweets (ex: “I’m gonna have to work at, like, McDonalds,” said with no actual intention to ever apply for employment) with invisible #blackgirlproblems in between (ex: “I actually work at McDonalds.”), seen only by those who look for them (meaning, most white people watching the show have no idea what I'm talking about).  Ray, the guy who tells Hanna she should work at McDonalds, will himself never work at McDonalds, no matter how much college debt he accumulates.

How do I know this?  Because I’ve thought it.  When I moved to NYC it was really fucking hard to find a job.  My parents never have and never will make enough money to bankroll my living expenses, especially in this city.  Last October, after four months of constant job searching, a few freelance projects and one dead-end job later, I remember walking by a McDonalds and thinking, “I will never go that low.” 

This was the first time I became consciously aware of how unconsciously afraid young, white, middle-class people are of falling out of our privilege-nets.  Somehow, even if we are broke and raking up debt, we think we are still better than those who clock in and out of McDonalds everyday.  And no one can say race has nothing to do with it – the fact remains that most of us are white, and most of them are not.

I suppose this is a good time to mention that there are no non-white, non-heterosexual, non-gender-conforming people on the show.  Oh, except for a homeless black (presumably) male, sexual orientation unknown, and an Asian girl who asks for a Vitamin Water. 

This is what pisses me off the most about the show, because Dunham grew up in New York City - she knows how the human interaction of this urban mecca is different than anywhere else in the world.  She knows you cannot walk around and not run into a black person (who isn’t homeless), or an Asian person, or a Latino person, or a gay person, or a drag queen, or a Hasidic Jewish person, or a naked person playing a guitar, or any other kind of person you can think of.

Even more to the point, any twenty-something in New York City, even with a job, who is not financially supported by their parents, is not living in an all-white neighborhood.  My first neighborhood in the city was Washington Heights, which I loved - and I lived right between the Dominican and Jewish half.  Now I live in Bushwick, which is predominately Hispanic, and I work in Bed-Stuy, which is predominately Black.  Everyday I am the only white person riding the bus to and from work.

This scares a few of my white friends, because they have never experienced being surrounded by the minority.  Every white person knows that "feeling" you get when you walk into a room and you're the only white person - and I'd love to meet someone who denies it.  Does this make me a special white person who thinks I’m exempt from living in a white world just because I live in a non-white neighborhood?  Absolutely not.  It simply raises the point that as the population of New York City grows and rent all over the city sky-rockets, young white people (like the Dunham’s characters) are moving to non-white neighborhoods (which also brings up gentrification... but we'll that plate of tacos later).  And, as Francie Latour stated in her reaction to Girls on Boston.com, “America is transforming into a majority-minority nation faster than experts could have predicted… blacks, Latinos, and Asians together make of 64.4 percent of New York City’s Population.” 

"Then as Now - New York's Shifting Ethnic Mosaic" - NY Times

So, basically, Dunham’s Girls does what Hollywood has always done – it creates a false white reality that focuses on problems that aren’t actual problems.

ALL that being said, I’m glad that Dunham, who plays the leading role, is normal looking and of average weight. She looks like most of the people of NYC who love Halal food and hate exercising. I actually loved the first few frames of the show, which show Hannah guzzling down spaghetti in a pretty unattractive way and not apologizing for it, because I eat just like her. In fact, I think most people do.

But seeing an average girl as the star of a show is also satisfying because it’s in direct contrast to the barrage of average-looking men who are on TV. Amanda Klein offers up an awesome summation in her own reaction:

 “Why is it so rare and exceptional to have an ordinary-looking female protagonist? Ordinary male protagonists are ubiquitous, of course, but for some reason a female character can’t just be smart or powerful or deadly with a broadsword. She has to be fuckable. I don’t want to my 5-year-old to think she has to be fuckable. And the media are working against me and my attempts to bolster her self esteem. And that sucks.” 

All in all, I’m mostly frustrated with the show, and possibly jealous of the girl my age who directed it. I have to wish her a big congrats for all she’s accomplished at such a young age, and I applaud her for trying to relate to those of us who haven’t.  I'll try to keep watching Girls, but like most twenty-somethings in NYC, I don't have cable.


UPDATE -  Here are some tweets (some relevant) about the show:

@ with all the scrutiny on  I'm surprised no one mentioned Hannah's dad's George Michael-esque stud earring in the first scene
@ If I was white and in my mid twenties, I'd move to New York, because apparently everything is free for them there 
@ whatever you believe to be true or not true, real or not real, right or not right, you will see it or not see it in , apparently.
@ I could tweet quotes of it all night or just say that I am pretty sure is a documentary of mine and all my friends lives
@ if this whole  hype ends with the writer walking naked down the street having a nervous breakdown, i'd be satisfied. 


  1. This was such an insightful, smart post. I'm a little drunk right now and can' find better words. But, I think this is great. Now I want to watch this show.

  2. I liked the show. I do not know if I will continue to like it but i am intrigued. I think that everything you say about the show is true, but I like it because it is not a show that is trying to be something it is that something. This is the reality. I have lived in NYC my entire life and although not everyone I know is exactly like these people, they are close. Or worse. This is what it is like to be young and living half on student loans or parents' money or thinking you are entitled because you went to college. Heck, I feel it sometimes. I won't deny it either.

    I think this show is sort of normal, which is what the goal I think is. If you take it as something that is supposed to be making some declaration or message or moral or something, you will be disappointed. I don't think that is what it is, I just look at is as a story, and as a wannabe memoir writer, maybe a mirror.

  3. Who has HBO? I dont have HBO...I only know a few people with HBO, and they are all established people over 40. Therefore, HBO sucks. Also, I dont live in New York. I live in Los Angeles. Still, if finding an all white neighborhood is hard to do in LA (which is much less crowded, or more spread out)how the hell are you gonna find onein New York? And, why would you want to for that matter...that sounds boring.

  4. Great post! I like that you're not tearing down the show, but gently confirming that despite its intentions, it has some significant problems and that whether or not it intended to become a watercooler barometer for these issues, that's what it's become.

    It is unfortunate that Denham didn't include more of the diversity that exists in the city. It just seems so narrow minded not to do a better job of reflecting reality in this capacity (especially considering the same criticisms were made to Sex And The City and that was over a decade ago!)

    Our take on the show's race issues: http://wp.me/p1VQBq-Ml

  5. Such a good post! Seriously, very well done.

    Favorite part: This was the first time I became consciously aware of how unconsciously afraid young, white, middle-class people are of falling out of our privilege-nets. Somehow, even if we are broke and raking up debt, we think we are still better than those who clock in and out of McDonalds everyday. And no one can say race has nothing to do with it – the fact remains that most of us are white, and most of them are not.

    Such a powerful statement/observation.


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