By now many of you have probably watched the first two episodes of HBO's hit series Girls, which premiered on Sky Atlantic last night. By now many of you have therefore probably joined the debate about how socially revolutionary the show is. While I do not wish to dwell on certain aspects, such as Lena Dunham's dress size or how the parents fund their lives, I want to chip in on one - race.
Girls features an exclusively white cast both in terms of its main characters and its peripheral ones, and this has been a source of much condemnation. But instead of criticising Girls and Lena Dunham, its writer, we should really criticise ourselves.
Writing about Girls in the Guardian, Hadley Freeman poignantly remarks:
I am a few years older than Dunham but I also grew up in New York and went to a similar school and while the world she presents might seem jarringly white, it is not necessarily untrue. New York is a very ethnically diverse city but, like most of America, it is also a shockingly racially segregated one, born out of the heightened racial awareness that still overshadows the whole of the country. In my class of 50 pupils, there was not a single black student for the first seven years of my education, and hardly any black teachers. When I went to summer camp, the black kids would hang out together in one cabin and everyone else would form their own little cliques.
Freeman goes on to say that London is more racially integrated, from her experience. This might be true in some respects. Most significantly, in the UK we are always British first, our race and religion second, unlike across the pond where the use of a hyphen (African-American etc.) places the individual's past above their present.
However, while there is definitely racial mixing in London, the city is still far from a haven. Like New York, different areas are known to attract different groups and this collage affects interaction. I was raised in a predominantly white and affluent neighbourhood. It was also predominantly Church of England, while I was Jewish. I was always a minority at school unlike my religious counterparts in North-West London. As for black people, there were few. I could count their numbers on my hands.
The cause of this might be different to the US. Freeman suggests that in the US it is likely a product of heightened racial awareness. In the UK, I would fathom that a rigid class structure plays a big role.
It was only when I moved to Beijing that I discovered a true melting pot, in this case among the expats. I quickly forged strong bonds with an African-American from New Orleans, an American-born Chinese from Los Angeles and a Hong Kong-born British girl, whose parents were from Pakistan. It was a remarkably diverse group, so much so that we would often joke about being "The True United Colours of Benetton".
It was also with this group that I first watched Girls. Naturally the race issue came up. The conclusion was that while it was a shame the show was so ethnically monochrome, it was not far removed from the lives we had led before Beijing.
Upon reading Freeman's article this weekend I forwarded it on to them. "Yes, I'd pretty much agree. Unless you assimilate into "white" culture, you're floating on your own ethnic island," said the American-born Chinese of the piece. The African-American concurred. She had just visited New York and remarked, "When I was there this past week, I did not attend the normal "industry related" parties, where there is more diversity (but only to exclusive individuals). I attended the day-to-day events that represented NYC, and it was a very segregated club scene." It was noted that this was even the case in Brooklyn, where the show is mostly set.
Film and television can perform one of two roles: It can either reflect societal aspirations or it can reflect reality. Sadly, the reality of the world we live in today is still very segregated, both socially and racially. Lena Dunham should not be accosted for simply recording what she experiences, since she is the symptom not the cause.
I think we all sincerely wish that Girls was not a reflection of truth. In lieu of this, rather than expunging energy castigating the show, we should use said energy to question why seemingly avant-garde pockets of the globe remain segregated and, in turn, how we can make them more integrated. Only then can we confidently argue that Girls is outdated.
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