When “Julia,” a television show about a black nurse and single mother came on the air in 1968, many viewers — white people and people of color alike — wrote in to thank NBC for finally taking a chance with some positive representation of black America.
Some black viewers took their appreciation a step further, offering unsolicited yet earnest advice to the show’s writers:
It’s great you have a black main character that isn’t a buffoon (see “Amos and Andy”). But that doesn’t excuse the whitewashing.
To be realistic, the title character in “Julia” should speak differently, they said, and she should have more black friends. A few even went so far as to suggest themselves as inspiration for new characters, drawing from their own lives to propose episode plot lines.
Whether it’s healthy or not, people always have and always will relate to television. That black viewers unsatisfied with “Julia” would even bother writing in proves the power of the screen — however lacking in believability it was, “Julia” still had allowed them a glimpse into an impossible version of their own world, and the experience was an intoxicating mix of comforting and hollowing.
So they wanted more. And they wanted it to be better.
Now it’s 2012, and nobody writes letters anymore — they write blog posts. If you haven’t seen the online response to Lena Dunham’s new HBO project, “Girls,” consider yourself warned, because it’s a mixed bag of the wise and the reactionary, the insightful and the simple-minded, those with exciting new points and those who miss the point entirely — and sometimes you can find all of that in a single post.
Among the main complaints about the show: Groundbreaking though it may be in its frank depiction of female sexuality and the disappointments of post-college life, “Girls” fails to include representation of any race or class outside of Dunham’s own white, upper middle–class world.
But here’s what I like about “Girls,” and I think I can speak for a lot of viewers on this point: It’s not perfect, but, to borrow a phrase from Dunham herself, it is “a young, young person trying very, very hard.”
Trying at what, you ask? Well, there is a scene in the second episode that had me jumping up and down on my couch. Shoshanna, the girl on the show most likely to identify with “Sex and the City” characters and who is often thrown in for comic relief, is reading aloud from a self-help book, the kind that addresses its readers as “ladies.”
“I’m not a lady,” says Jessa, her cousin and roommate, irritably.
“Yes, you are,” says Shoshanna. “We’re the ladies.”
“Don’t I have a choice?”
That’s what “Girls” is trying to do — it’s trying to represent and entertain the Jessas of the world, the ones who have no interest in being a self-helping lady. It’s trying to be a show that will help girls — and surely plenty of guys as well — feel less lost, that will cut through some of the pseudo-post-lip-gloss-feminist bullshit thrown at us lately via other “girly” shows like “Whitney” and “Two Broke Girls.”
For the record, I do wish “Girls” was more diverse (a process which should always begin in the writers’ room, not with the cast, to avoid tokenism), or at least that there were more diverse shows with the refreshing viewpoint of “Girls,” because everyone deserves representation. But like the “Julia” viewers who wrote in with suggestions and still kept watching every week, I’ve already been hit by the show on a level I’ll never recover from.
Black audiences appreciated “Julia” because they got to see someone with their skin color who wasn’t portrayed as a criminal or idiot on primetime. I appreciate “Girls” because I get to see people with my reproductive organs and around my age who aren’t ladies or whores, aren’t saints or bitches, aren’t larger-than-life caricatures stomping around the city in Jimmy Choos — they’re just, well, girls. That’s enough for me.