I’m late to the Lena Dunham love/hate fest, but here are my thoughts.
When I first saw the poster and the trailer for HBO’S GIRL, it pained me, and I immediately thought: Enough. For real? 2012 and HBO is looking more like ABC, NBC and CBS? I wasn’t feeling it. Because those initial images of Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Allison Williams, and Zosia Mamet, brought me back to 1970’s Long Island, where I was labeled the new, not so black, Mexican looking girl, who got bullied consistently for three years, by girls who looked and sounded like Dunham and the rest of the GIRLS cast. There was no denying it back then, they knew they owned the street, the media, the next decade, and the country.
And it seems they still do.
So I refused to watch this show because I’ve had enough of feeling like the outlier, and I’m bored with the stark white depictions of snarky white college grads every time I turn on the television. And HBO’S GIRLS can’t be any whiter than it is. Really. Just take a minute to focus on the background. This is Dunham’s view of her world, it’s bland. Sure there are people of color, uh, in the background and only a few. But mainly, you are watching a white girl’s journey inside her white world, with her white friends and white boyfriends, in the stark whiteness of her imagination sponsored by white people in white shirts.
So here’s what I really think about Lena Dunham’s GIRLS.
As a writer/creator I’m impressed. It is a well written show. Actually, it’s original, smart, funny, and her voice is truly authentic. The inner and outer conflicts for all characters ring true, even if their physical voices, which reek of privileged childhoods, grate on my last nerve. But I didn’t find a forced dramatic situation or a false comedic note in any scene. Dunham and the other ladies know their characters well. Maybe because they’re not “really” acting, but that doesn’t matter because I enjoyed watching every episode of Season One. These GIRLS are entertaining and convincing and Dunham is a star, an unlikely one, but a star nonetheless. I’m sure Dunham can start writing her Emmy speech now.
I know many of my friends will be disappointed in me for writing this, but I had to see for myself if the series was all hype and no substance. It is and it isn’t. I’m sure having a famous parent or two helps to climb a higher rung on the industry ladder, but who cares. I didn’t expect to be as entertained by the stories of these angst ridden, insecure twenty-something white chicks and I was.
So if the show is that good then why am I still sort of pissed?
Today I came to the conclusion that my beef isn’t with Dunham. My beef is with how the industry perceives people like me. In fact, there is an episode where her boss is being inappropriate with her. She finds out two other co-workers have been touched by him as well. One of the co-workers is played by Selenis Leyva, a talented Latina actress I’ve seen in off-Broadway shows. Her range is dynamic. She is a strong actress. Yet it just struck me funny that although Leyva and Dunham’s characters are working at the same job, Dunham appears dressed for the office, while Leyva shows up with a pair of hoop earrings and a sassy sexy attitude that screams stereotype.
And that’s the problem.
If I were to cast 4 Latina actors tomorrow and recreate the park bench scene in GIRLS, with the same dialogue, and the same direction, it would be viewed as unrealistic. I can assure you it wouldn’t fly with the suits. Because the subtext will read: No one wants to see assimilated, educated, Americanized Latinas exploring life the way white chicks do. I get the feeling when Latinas tell their stories we have to add a few teen pregnancies, an MC to rock the mic, a couple of gun shots, and lots of immigration problems. For Latinas, we’re always relegated to the background, or those other roles that seem more appropriate for us, more believable to the mainstream.
The problem in this industry is perception, an industry’s perception of a group of people, their differences and similarities, and the perception of the audience who tunes in. It’s based on hunches, assumptions, prejudices, life experiences, and winning numbers. Those numbers that tell the suits what works and what doesn’t based on the majority. And according to those numbers, Latinas are still viewed as outliers.
The more I examine the lack of Latina stories in the industry, the more I keep coming back to Virginia Woolf.
In her book, A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN, Woolf explores what it is to be a female writer in a male dominated industry. She believed that in order to succeed as a writer, a woman had to think like a man. She had to write like a man to gain access to those opportunities in publishing and Academia that were always given to men. Why? Because men were in total control of all the opportunities and if you were a woman writer, no matter how great a writer you were, you could not change the game, you had to change yourself. Although I don’t agree with Woolf, I understand her choice. She wanted to write. And she had to change herself to accomplish her goals. She compromised parts of herself in order to fulfill her dream of being a writer.
Call me stubborn, but I don’t want to do that! I have an authentic voice too and I’d like to tell my story, my way, without compromising anything.
And that’s what bothers me. No white writer has that pressure. The pressure to make sure that the mainstream audience is being serviced properly, that they are satisfied. Why? Because they are already viewed as mainstream.
And here’s one more thing to add to that list of things that bother me, I envy Dunham. There I said it. Not her talent, not her style. I love my talent; I love my voice, and my style of writing. I envy the fact that she is free to create in her authentic voice and is supported by the industry. She is a lone kid in a large playground and she’s creating what she wants, her way, with massive support from the suits. Sure she has to deal with the backlash and constant taunting on the Internet. Not an easy thing. But this too shall pass and she’ll continue to gain access to prime opportunities while writers like me will still be trying to figure out how to keep our true voices from being watered down for the sake of losing the larger audience demographic.
So yes, GIRLS is a great show. But Dunham is not me. She does not represent my experience. And I don’t need her to speak for me. I don’t know who started this, but she isn’t the voice of a generation, not mine. She is a voice. Period. A good one, I’ll give her that. But there are many great voices that still need to be heard.