Confessions of a Black Woman Who Loves HBO’s Girls

Racially homogenous casts are common on TV; shows that honestly and artfully depict the struggles of womanhood are not

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Lena Dunham, Zosia Mamet, Jemima Kirke and Allison Williams of Hbo's 'Girls' filming on the Streets of Manhattan on May 25, 2012 in New York City

I am not ashamed to admit it: I am a black woman who loves the show Girls, HBO’s dramedy about the uncomfortable and sometimes ugly journey of a group of young women learning how to be adults. Since its first episode, critics have scolded Girls for whitewashing New York City, showing only characters of privilege and few of color. But that shouldn’t be a reason to dismiss the show.

No one really “teaches” women how to transition into adulthood; it just happens. I spent my post-college years in New York City and can relate to some (though luckily not all) of the misadventures of Hannah and her friends. I had a diverse group of girlfriends — black and non-black, women with PhDs and GEDs, friends that represented the entire socio-economic spectrum. If I am honest with myself, my discoveries in New York City in those early years often involved selfishness, minor betrayals and friendships lost. Another dose of honesty: it was privilege that allowed me to spend some of my early twenties experimenting with adulthood, reveling and slowly coming to understand that unsure time.

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It’s true that Girls has zero non-white characters — Donald Glover’s two-episode cameo as the black Republican in season two notwithstanding. But this is hardly new in the world of entertainment. Friends, Seinfeld, Entourage, The Sopranos, and just about every Woody Allen movie are monochromatic. And it’s not always unrealistic. There were several times I ventured to a new neighborhood or local hangout only to discover that there were absolutely no people of color to be found. There really are enclaves of New York City that are overwhelmingly white.  Girls has been quite honest about the loneliness and uncertainty of being a twenty-something in a big city. Adding an African American or Asian American character wouldn’t change that, but there is a long list of shows that have clumsily attempted to side step a glaring lack of diversity with a sassy or wise friend of color.

What makes Girls relatable is that it speaks to the universal experience of women struggling to make room in their lives for friendships, relationships, meaningful or meaningless jobs, overbearing or absent family members, and themselves. Girls follows the tradition of shows like Designing Women, The Golden Girls, Living Single, Girlfriends and Sex and the City. Whether black or white, young or old, in the south or not, we see these women argue, battle with their imperfections, exit unhealthy situations, and find courage to stay in positive relationships and be loved. These shows represent the struggle of all girls and women as they try to figure out their own identities. These are the struggles of women who try to find sisterhood, a feeling of kinship and closeness to a group of their peers.

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Girls portrays young women who are trying to figure out what it means to work, to be vulnerable, to be brave, to be generous, to have imperfections, to have deep flaws, and to be strong. Their race doesn’t matter. As I continue to read the harsh critiques of the show, its characters and its actors, I am reminded of something Gloria Steinem said: “Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That’s their natural and first weapon. She will need her sisterhood.” Even though my life is not a mirror image of Hannah and her friends, I see the women of Girls as my sisters.

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