Since its debut last month, HBO’s comedy Girls has been scrutinized as though it were running for office. You’ve all seen the backlash: everyone on the show is white! Still, if it were a choice between Charlie’s Angels and Lena Dunham’s Girls, I’d vote for the latter any day of the week. And no, not because Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshana are all white. But because with that sudden shock that your screen can be as much a mirror as a photoshopped fantasy—they possess a kind of authenticity, maybe even a diversity, little seen on television.
Okay, as upper-middle-class slacker chicks, they’re not that diverse, or at least not according to the census bureau. But within the niche of affluent white malaise, there’s something very sensitive, very universal, and very relevant at stake in Lena Dunham’s character Hannah: namely a diversity of the kind of body we see naked on TV.
In 1967, when Stanley Kramer directed Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, he made a point to have Sidney Poitier’s character be a smart, successful doctor so that the only grounds on which his girlfriend’s family could object to him would be his race. Likewise Dunham’s character, by being white and privileged and smart (with two professor parents and a liberal-arts degree), we notice what she lacks: a slim hourglass figure.
It’s banal when a woman is eye-catching because she’s almost six feet tall, wears heels, and has a pouty face that belongs on an ad atop a taxi. But as for Lena Dunham, I can’t take my eyes of her. At first glance she may not be Mandy Moore or Beyoncé, but I sensed there was something in her that was much rarer and unique.
And yet, maybe America can’t get used to her rolling ridges of tummy. Her frankness makes us uncomfortable. And then we feel uncomfortable for feeling uncomfortable. And then we change the subject and talk about the show’s ‘whiteness,’ as if there weren’t other shows just as privileged and mono-racial in the world.
What’s more, even superficially more diverse series start to seem airbrushed by comparison. Next to the cast of Girls, shows like Charlie’s Angels look like a Macy’s catalogue. Sure there’s vanilla, chocolate and Asian flavors to choose from, but all three women were as glossy and glamorous as an i-banker’s wet dream. Women like that are not real. Regardless of race, they look like underwear models, Soho bartenders, or Fox News anchors.
This is not to say that Girls is kitchen-sink realism. Like any series, it partakes in melodramatic contrivance and wish-fulfilment. But even its fantasies of Greenpoint girlhood are more genuine and democratic than its detractors care to admit. By stripping away the glamor and professional vanity of its predecessor Sex and the City, Girls permits itself nothing but the bohemian utopia of friendship.
It’s that carefree kinship, in place of catty competition, that makes Girls a much less a guilty kind of entertainment than other shows about privileged white chicks. And it’s a solidarity that cuts across the appearance-based judgements that lend youthful social groups their hierarchies. When Marne and Hannah get their groove on in their apartment at the end of episode three, one girl is short and chubby and the other tall and sleek. Yet they dance as equals. Equals, it should be said, who are both in the shits: one has HPV and can’t get a job while the other’s stuck in a sexless relationship. But in the midst of their frustrations they can still rejoice in being both a) young and b) in each other’s company.
This is why the show’s uplift is, in a way, more egalitarian than most of what’s on television. Because the double blessing of youth and friendship can never be bestowed by celebrity judges. But it can be encouraged by shows like Girls that say, “Hey, life fucking sucks sometimes. But at least we have each other.”