HBO's 'Girls' Uses TV's Success Model

HBO's show starring young white women is about succeeding, not necessarily about excluding blacks.

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Girls on HBO Facebook page

HBO's latest hit, Girls, has come under fire for showing yet one more version of New York as a white world where people of color don't exist. Writer Rebecca Carroll of the Daily Beast talks about feeling left out of the show as a black girl.

I'm more inclined to agree with the article "What's the Big Deal About the Lack of Black 'Girls?' " in which Madame Noire's Brande Victorian takes on critics of the new "it" show, saying that its writer, Lena Dunham, should be allowed to represent her version of reality, which may, in fact, be all white.

The drama and criticism surrounding Girls is not unlike the criticism lobbed at Mad Men for the lack of diversity in that show during prior seasons. Like Victorian, I didn't find that to be much of a problem; rather, I read it as a true reflection of how life often operates: When you're privileged, you create and live in a world where disenfranchised people don't exist, even when they are physically present.

I find it interesting that as Ralph Ellison's classic book Invisible Man turns 60, we are still grappling with these issues, even in popular culture. It does boggle the mind that when folks have the opportunity to create any world they want, they replicate what they know and see (which is what you're often taught in screenwriting), as opposed to creating a world that they would like to see. This is the aspect that critics of these shows are responding to, in addition to the social and creative exclusion of blacks from certain spaces, including show locations and casts.

I think we have to remember that not all television shows or films can be everything to everyone. When the world that is our reality (multiracial and multiethnic) is replicated on television, do we really support it, anyway?

HBO canceled How to Make It in America, which was one of the best shows on television. How to Make it in America featured a multiracial cast trying to succeed in the fashion industry in the capital of the world. It was an extremely well-done show -- great storytelling, acting, editing and production values -- and yet the show only had 560,000 viewers in two seasons. To give you some perspective, Entourage, which went on for eight seasons, averaged 2.6 million viewers during its second year.

There's often a disconnect between what viewers say they want to see and what they actually watch consistently. When what we want to see isn't qualified -- "I want to see more black women on television," as opposed to "I want to see more trained black actresses on high-quality television shows" -- then we get an onslaught of reality programming with black women engaging in sheer and utter foolishness, which ironically garners millions of viewers, many of whom are black. We won't even mention when black folks are included in fantasy vehicles (The Hunger Games) and comedies (The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl), that hate and backlash often ensues.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Ratings drive everything in television. Shows with young white women -- whether those characters are normal-sized, bohemian, hipster, simple, brilliant, sweet, evil, chasten, loose, rich, poor or on the come-up -- get ratings and strong, consistent followings. Girls fits into that model of success, even if some critics profess that these are "girls" we've never seen on television before. Depictions of New York without people of color have proved successful, even if such depictions are insulting and not reflective of the diverse New York that many know and love.

Television programming is more complicated than which racial group is included or excluded from a cast or setting. This may be an unpopular opinion to give, but unfortunately it is what it is, until someone concretely changes the game. Hopefully that will happen sooner rather than later.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is founder and editor-in-chief of the award-winning news site the Burton Wire and chair of the department of communication and media studies at Goucher College. Follow her on Twitter.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM