A mere two weeks after its debut, HBO’s ballsy, awkward and uncomfortably honest comedy “Girls” has become a surprising lightning rod for controversy. Depending upon which website you visit, the show is either a refreshingly feminist take on coming-of-age sitcoms or a distressingly antifeminist take on the same. Also, it’s the product of nepotism. (Dunham is the daughter of art photographer Laurie Simmons—you know, Laurie Simmons. Plus, one of the other girls on the show is the daughter of the ex-drummer from Bad Company—imagine how many doors that opens in Hollywood.) To top it all off, the show is being castigated because—for all its Gen Y realism—it’s about four white girls and not some idealized, racially diversified group of New Yorkers.
On TheHairpin.com, critic Jenna Wortham (a self-described “white girl and not a white girl ... which in mixed people speak means biracial”) kinda-sorta liked the show, but concluded, “I just wish I saw a little more of myself on screen.” Shortly thereafter, “Girls” writer Lesley Arfin responded by Tweeting, “What really bothered me about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.” Now, this could be the sort of cultural catfight that leads to a lot of hurt feelings and the occasional short-lived reexamination of our pop cultural standards. But before we ask which side is right (both, I’m inclined to answer), we might want to break this down a bit.
Basically, people are arguing over how much a cable TV sitcom is doing to advance the cause of gender and racial equality. Isn’t that a lot to ask of the same medium that gave us “ALF”? It’s not that “art” has no influence over our culture, it’s just that ... well, shouldn’t we be posing these sorts of questions to people who have a little more direct control over life in these United States? It could be pointed out, for example, that a very viable candidate for president (Mitt Romney) doesn’t even support the idea of equal pay for equal work (the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act). Maybe we should be bugging the government about diversity and equality and not 25-year-old screenwriter Lena Dunham.
Of course, if a controversy-baiting television show was the only one generating controversy, this might not be such a big issue. On the same week that Dunham’s show got dragged into the mud for its lack of diversity, somebody came up with the bright idea of suing “The Bachelor” for racial discrimination. Two African-American men, Nathaniel Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson, filed a federal lawsuit against ABC and its inexplicably popular dating shows “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.” The lawsuit claims that, for 10 years, the shows have engaged in patterns of racial discrimination, blocking certain ethnic groups from taking either of the two titular positions. True enough, Jake Pavelka is a major cracker. But what are we actually fighting for here? The opportunity to be on a reprehensible fake dating show? Before even confronting concerns about America’s “readiness” for interracial dating or the troubling ratings dip such an enterprise might experience, I have to ask: Would landing the lead role on some stereotypical CBS sitcom or asking strangers to marry you on an awful reality show be a step forward or a big step backward?