The HBO comedy-drama Girls, the brainchild of Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow, is an awards darling. Its freshman series received both the Golden Globe for Best Comedy and Best Actress for Dunham the same night its second series premiered. Dunham, only twenty-six, is hailed as a voice of her generation, perhaps a well-deserved cosmic irony given that Hannah, whom Dunham plays, wants to be an essayist, declaring to her parents while stoned out-of-her-mind in the pilot: “I am the voice of my generation. Well, maybe a voice.”
Regarding racism, critics pointed out that all four of the main characters are white, though they live in Brooklyn, and that the only occurrence of minority characters are fleeting, one line or silent extras.
Dunham was largely open about the racial problem of the first series, saying: “The argument there are not enough minority characters to represent New York–that I couldn’t argue against. What I didn’t like was the angle that ‘therefore you are a racist, you are raised by racists, you come from a world of class and privilege.'”
The second series begun three Sundays ago and Dunham, who in addition to staring in serves as head writer, executive producer, and oft director for the show, appears to have taken the racial criticism to heart. We first encounter Hannah in the series premier in the middle of a sexual encounter with her new sort-of boyfriend, played by Donald Glover.
However, critics identified this as a form of pandering, for Glover appeared to serve no purpose other than a minority character that Hannah was willing to sleep with in order to ignore the tensions created with her ex-boyfriend at the end of the first series. Yet an extended conversation in the second episode of the season, in which Hannah breaks things off with Glover’s character after an impassioned, ignorant, privilege-laden rant about race, seems to communicate that Dunham is well-aware of the racial tensions the show has caused and the very privilege her lead character flaunts as a badge of authenticity.
Herein is an important question for the arts and their relation to theological engagement.
Concerning the depiction of race, in tandem with Dunham’s frequent nudity and realistic sex scenes, the art reveals an uncomfortable factuality. White urbanites in Brooklyn are not necessarily free of racial prejudice, benign or otherwise, and the realism of Dunham’s sex scenes again is a testament to her sensitivity to factual accounts, however humorous or undignified they may be on film. The appeal of Girls is that for all its ills, it is relatable in a painful sort of way.
We know this world. Racial prejudice still exists. Degrading sex still happens. And it happens, frequently, to the young adult demographic that Dunham appeals to.
One must wonder then why critics have been so adamant about critiquing the show for what is ultimately its realism. If it successfully depicts a real world experience, even if that world is burdened by privilege and poor decisions, can it be faulted for doing so? Dunham has not set out to create a fantasy in which her characters live romanticised versions of themselves. The second episode of the first series largely takes place in a Planned Parenthood clinic, where one of the characters has an abortion scheduled and Hannah takes an STI test, only to learn she has HPV.
Particularly, such criticism has come from the Christian community, which I suggest is because these critics, knowingly or unknowingly, are demanding from Dunham’s work that which it was not designed to give. Girls is not a Christian worldview. Girls likes the idea of the social gospel, but it does not want its consequences or rootedness. It wants to be free of racial prejudice and the problems of sexuality in a fallen world, but it does not want the Christological centre that allows such reconciliation to occur. Moreover, it wants a version of events that depicts humanistic ideals over human reality. It wants a version of a white-washed world that is no more representative than the very one it is rebelling against; it simply features a different mold of characters. Only a world in which the Divine is truly present may be spoken of in the terms of the now and not yet or things are not yet as they should be, but someday.
Perhaps, if we are able to move past the question of immorality in Girls, we can find that it serves as a surprising insight into the real world of many in the millennial generation. Dunham has done nothing more than invite us into a stylized version of ordinary life, and that perhaps by seeing these things as they really are, not how shows like Sex and the City a decade before veneered them, we may return to important conversations within the Church that have gone by the wayside: dignity in race and sex.
If Girls is anything, it is painfully factual. Perhaps, for that, we can give some sense of thanks.
Girls is currently in its second series, airing on HBO, Sundays at 8 pm EST in the States.
Preston Yancey is earning his MLitt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the University of St. Andrews. He is the author of the popular seePrestonblog and Tables in the Wilderness: Scripture and the Enchanted World, under representation by Darrell Vesterfelt.