Does Lena Dunham have a “Race Problem?”

As long as we’re talking about TV’s top women writers we thought we’d address this controversial (some say “incendiary” article.) Again…whatcha think? (Um, that questions for men and women, so don’t be shy.)

ms.dunhamby Rebecca Carroll

My relationship with Lena Dunham has always been complicated. I was one of the first writers who took issue with her show Girls for its lack of racial representation, and have since struggled with the meteoric ascent of Lena Dunham as Cultural Icon. But it is hard to deny that the girl is good. The writing on her show is often nuanced, electric, and deeply resonant, and I find she is at her best when it comes to the relationships or encounters she has had, such as they are.

I debated reading her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, for the same reasons I struggled with the show—I see some of my own emotional self in Lena’s work, but not the physical reflection. As suspected, the book was no different. Although an engaging read in parts, the only pointed reference to black people in her book is a memory of her third-grade learning activity on the subject of slavery and the Underground Railroad, which involved the kids being “shackled” together so they were “like slave families.” Dunham recalls being “too young, self-involved, and dissociated” to wonder what kind of impact this had on her black classmates.

And then I am catapulted back to what it is that bothers me so deeply about Dunham. It is absurd and frankly racist that the literary world’s axis is now set to spin based on whatever utterances are made by a 20-something white woman who grew up in wealth, likes to get naked and have sex on TV and call it feminism, and who is almost entirely exclusionary on the subject of race.

Supporters of Dunham’s work have said that even as a suddenly famous young writer and director smack dab in the media spotlight, she should not be expected to single-handedly dismantle racism in all of mainstream media. But shouldn’t she be?

This is a young woman artist who has gained that rare incontrovertible power in addition to a rapt audience; a first-time author of a book in which chapters include “Girl Crush: That Time I was Almost a Lesbian, Then Vomited,” and that prominently features a blurb from George Saunders on its jacket. Dunham uses shorthand in her acknowledgments to thank “David, Esther and the whole Remnick/Fein clan”—as in David Remnick, editor in chief of The New Yorker, and wife, Esther Fein. Among her biggest supporters is Judd Apatow.

Dunham’s biggest and most powerful champions, in fact, appear to mostly be straight white men. Jon Stewart all but licked her face in praise of her unbelievable talent when she appeared on his show to promote her book. I’m all for freedom of expression, having sex and embracing your naked self on TV—that’s the prerogative of any woman, of any artist. But it’s still a young naked woman in her 20s having sex on TV, the image of which, last I checked, is wildly appealing to heterosexual men. There’s nothing especially radical about it, and it’s as unsettling as Dunham’s cultivated narcissism. Still, if Dunham were to say to Remnick and Apatow, “Guys, you know what would be awesome? If we did a movie or an entire issue of a magazine or dedicated the whole New Yorker festival to conversations about centralizing racial representation in media,” they would likely listen, and that would be radical.

Is there envy involved in my assessment of Dunham? Of course there is—envy, frustration, fatigue. I wrote stories and plays as a young girl, one in particular stands out and which I performed as a one-woman show in front of my family, about a lonely girl who dusted her bookshelves all day waiting for magic to appear, like a paleontologist dusting a fossil hoping to discover a new dinosaur species. Everyone told me I was destined for stardom, and I believed it, right up until the end of elementary school, when my white fifth grade teacher didn’t bother to sugarcoat how difficult it would be for me to succeed at anything given that I am black.

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5 thoughts on “Does Lena Dunham have a “Race Problem?””

  1. As far as I’m concerned, Lena Dunham is not the problem.

    She writes/directs about what she perceives her world to be about and that’s fine. I also happen to think she’s really good at it. I’m a fan.

    The problem lies in the people who greenlight shows and film. There’s a perception that diverse shows/films do not make money. Also, many times when you go in to pitch, you’re pitching to people who haven’t crossed too many cultural divides so they don’t relate to what you’re pitching and/or are just accustomed to/comfortable with gross and gross-ish characterizations not believing they’re perpetuating any racist stereotypes. I’ve actually, as a note, had this said to me: “Can you dumb it down?” when believe me, my characters were not quoting Proust. They simply didn’t see the commercial ability of diverse characters that were smart vs. just street smart.

    Hopefully, with Shonda Rhimes’ great success (plus the recent success of Black-ish), that way of thinking is changing and might, ultimately, be a thing of the past. But we still have a long way to go.

  2. Here, here, Chilltown.

    FACT: Women are often treated (by the white hetero male establishment) much the same way minorities are treated — without respect or equal consideration. In our TV landscape, a shockingly low number of content creators are women. YES, the numbers are even lower for people of color. But women face the same uphill battle as minorities — yes, even white women. YES, even white women who grew up with “money”. YES! YES, YES, YES! Because they’re women!!

    One might say, the only reason Dunham has achieved the success she has is that early on she made friends with Judd Apatow, a successful white hetero man. He happens to be evolved enough to know that she’s talented, regardless of her gender, and helped her climb her way up the white, male, hetero ladder. But… what if he wasn’t? What if she’d never met him? I hate to say it… but I doubt we’d even know her name.

    And I want to know why the “race problem” is Dunham’s?! How is it her fault that virtually no one in Hollywood will produce a African-American family drama, or an Asian-led medical show, or a Hispanic-led law show. She’s supposed to fix all of this — how? She barely got past the gatekeepers, herself?!

    When I’m writing, I *do* think about race, and I *do* think about making sure that the racial mix is appropriate to the setting. If I’m writing about a city hospital in Denver, yes, I’m going to have some African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics (in addition to white folk) in my show. There might also be a gay character or two. But that’s what’s appropriate for MY SHOW. And we’ll see if anyone wants to dive in and pick it up. Maybe since Shondaland has had great success with diversity, maybe my show will also be taken seriously.

    But Dunham’s show is about …well, stuck up, young, sheltered white girls! She’s writing about this in a self-aware manner, about a certain sect of people, who are (like it or not) living in a bubble. And what she’s doing is showing us that bubble, and how it really is closed off, self-involved, and a little sad. Therefore, the fact that her show isn’t the Rainbow Coalition *makes sense*.

    Shonda Rhimes does a great job at making her shows like the Rainbow Coalition, and that’s great. She’s constructed her shows in such a way that it makes sense to do so. And other writers — for example, those who write Modern Family — have also found ways to write in diversity, in ways that make sense.

    What Dunham has done is different from that, yes. It is also VERY important, culturally — she’s in the business of showing us how unfair society is, to women, specifically; YES, even white women, and YES, even white women from “money”. She shows us how horribly and unfairly we scrutinize women’s bodies; and she does so much like a performance artist, but fearlessly showing us HER very normal, very average body.

    So, as I’ve said from the beginning of her show… BRAVO TO HER, damn it. BRAVO.

  3. I have to say, after reading yesterday about the sexual exploration she did to her sister in her memoir (haven’t read it in full; just the excerpts) which has an over-the-top creepy factor (particularly in the way she described it), I’ll modify my original comment to say, “I liked her movie a lot, really the first first season of GIRLS and think she’s a good screenwriter and ok director. But no longer a fan.”

    I do stand by my comments about the industry and race, though. And as far as race is concerned, I still don’t think she’s the problem.

  4. Hi Leesa,

    The industry is so filled with over-the-top creepiness that I actually stopped noticing it. Which is, as a matter of fact, the main reason I’m involved here, doing this thing instead of running shows.

    Years ago, when I joined the TV writers suit against the major studios and networks for age discrimination I did a lot of research, trying to find out why showbiz was so much about exclusion because of course it is. Nothing’s going to get any better unless everyone who wants in keeps beating, beating, beating down those damn doors.

    Yours for a gatekeeperless tomorrow,


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