Another week, another episode of Girls with no black people, another Gawker Media piece about why it's fucked up to not include black people in your show about New York, another article from angry neocons attacking Gawker Media. The dust Lena Dunham's new HBO show has managed to kick up thus far is remarkable in light of its relatively average ratings. But it's also noteworthy because far fewer people seemed to care when the crimes of which the show is accused happened before—many times. Though it's taken on different iterations throughout the years, the white-ified TV New York City has served as a backdrop for lots of America's most beloved programs, and there is no sign that that trend is slowing. Hate Girls all you want, but recognize that Dunham is following a precedent that started even before she was born.
The Honeymooners didn't have any blacks in it, of course, despite the fact that New York City was already about 14 percent black by 1960. But that was a long time ago. In the 1980s, when Seinfeld premiered, Dunham was 3. Seinfeld is probably the most "New York" TV show in history in that it accurately gets at the quotidian indignities, stresses, and petty bickering a person must endure to live in New York City. New Yorkers liked Seinfeld because it was all about the ordinary problems New Yorkers faced: an awkward encounter with a romantic interest at the gym, a foolish interaction with a stranger on the subway. But while the show's verisimilitude was its greatest strength, that's also what made its dearth of people of color particularly irritating—how could they get it so right in so many areas while totally ignoring one that really mattered to millions of non-white New Yorkers?
Worse still is that when Seinfeld did include characters of color, they were often outrageous caricatures: A heavily accented Chinese restaurant host too dumb to tell the difference between "Costanza" and "Cartwright," a heavily accented gay Puerto Rican with a penchant to steal. To relieve yourself of any notions that Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David weren't intentionally trading in ethnic stereotypes on Seinfeld, go here and listen to actor Danny Hoch tell a story about the time he was fired from the show for refusing to use a Spanish accent to play a crazy pool boy.
"Why a Spanish accent?" asked Hoch. "Because it's funnier," said Seinfeld.
In 1998, the year Seinfeld went off the air, Sex and the City premiered and continued whitewashing the titular City. Though Carrie Bradshaw and her shoe crew were always out and about in the ultra-diverse New York, they were somehow able to constantly avoid serious interactions with black and brown people (save for obnoxious transsexual prostitutes). To be fair, throughout the majority of the show, the quartet refused to leave the whitest parts of Manhattan, lest they should run into the unwashed dark thugs in the outer boroughs. But that never totally explained how women so professionally and personally invested in New York's culture scene, a scene influenced deeply by young black people, were also content never talking to black people.
In the off chance one of the foursome did date a black man, it always went wrong somewhere along the way. There was the handsome doctor, Robert, who lasted about four episodes before Miranda dumped him. Robert got his revenge by being such a paragon of sexuality that he was able to essentially fuck two women in front of Miranda's white boyfriend, Steve, who slinked away from a would-be confrontation in shame. Then there was Chivon Williams, the black rap label executive who dated Samantha. That relationship was going fine until Williams' sister told Samantha to get her "little white pussy" away from her brother. Angry black women, amiright?!?!
After Seinfeld and Sex and the City, most of the all-white, fictional New Yorks start to blur together into what we can call the "Friends Vortex." The problem of Friends' almost total whiteness was complex, because there were several black people in speaking roles on the show—they were just eminently forgettable. It's a dilemma many TV programs face: a desire to have some color, but no real desire to add minority characters that are substantive or layered. In the end, you're left with a black waiter here and there, or a black school principal or temporary lover. They're good for a couple laughs, and they let your audience know you're aware black people exist, but they're also distant enough you don't have to start incorporating "Black Issues," like, y'know, weaves and welfare. What makes the black-person-as-ambiance routine especially upsetting is that it's how many black people feel they're treated in the real world: off to the side, immaterial, seen and heard but rarely remembered.
Other shows caught in the Friends Vortex are Mad About You, Caroline in the City, How I Met Your Mother, et cetera, et cetera. Gossip Girl hints at giving you a brown character in Vanessa, but not in any direct way. I think you're just supposed to assume she's a Latina because she wears patterned clothing and big earrings sometimes. You'd think that show could include a black boy or girl somewhere; they could make him or her a rapper's child.
Put into this context, one hopes it should be easier for people like Lesley Arfin to see why blacks and others who criticize Girls for its lily-white depiction of Brooklyn are so offended: because after a while you get tired of rich celebrities pretending that you don't exist. Beyond that, you get tired of them pretending that if you do exist, you work at a rap record label or are a bum, as the only black guy in the Girls pilot was.
I also think it goes much deeper than just wanting to be characterized as being normal, or be characterized at all. One of the reasons Girls seems to be so adored is that its depiction of upper-middle class, Urban Outfitters ennui reads as more true than most everything before it, as if, at long last, there is finally a team of young people that "gets it." Many sub-30, post-college men and women look at the show and nod their heads in agreement with every abortion joke, drug reference, and unfortunate sex scene. This stuff is indeed happening in Ivy League pockets throughout the United States, the only difference is it's happening to black, Latino, and Asian people as well, not just Dunham and her trio of white friends.
It's a failing of contemporary American culture that if there's ever a discussion about adding a black character to a show, people immediately think that means a slang-spitting, wise-cracking stereotype. They assume the person asking for diversity is asking for the show's creator to change the entire dynamic of the program. Instead, what's more often happening is that the person interested in diversity is simply asking for the show's creator to understand that black people can and do do everything white people do, usually making a character's race irrelevant.
There is currently not a single leading character on Girls that couldn't be played honestly and convincingly by a black actor or a Pakistani actor or a Taiwanese actor. It may come as a surprise to some Americans, but there are women of all races who freeload off their wealthy parents and work in tony art galleries. Alas, if you look at the full cast list for Girls, you'll see that minority actors don't play those kinds of girls. They're saved for special roles, a sampling of which includes:
- Sidné Anderson as "Jamaican Nanny"
- Jermel Howard as "Young Black Guy"
- Moe Hindi as "Roosevelt Hotel Bellhop"
- Jo Yang as "Tibetan Nanny"
When he won the Pulitzer this year for criticism, the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris owed part of his victory to his writing about the Fast and Furious film series. Though the Fast movies are almost universally mocked as obnoxious pieces of shit, Morris calls them "incredibly important" for their depictions of race. "[U]nlike most movies that feature actors of different races, the mixing is neither superficial nor topical," Morris wrote of Fast Five. "It has been increasingly thorough as the series goes on—and mostly unacknowledged. That this should seem so strange, so rare, merely underscores how far Hollywood has drifted from the rest of culture."
The thing that sucks about Girls and Seinfeld and Sex and the City and every other TV show like them isn't that they don't include strong characters focusing on the problems facing blacks and Latinos in America today. The thing that sucks about those shows is that millions of black people look at them and can relate on so many levels to Hannah Horvath and Charlotte York and George Costanza, and yet those characters never look like us. The guys begging for money look like us. The mad black chicks telling white ladies to stay away from their families look like us. Always a gangster, never a rich kid whose parents are both college professors. After a while, the disparity between our affinity for these shows and their lack of affinity towards us puts reality into stark relief: When we look at Lena Dunham and Jerry Seinfeld, we see people with whom we have a lot in common. When they look at us, they see strangers.