HBO's latest hit 'Girls' has come under fire for showing yet another version of New York as a white world where people of color don't exist. In an article "What's the Big Deal About the Lack of Black 'Girls?'" 'Madame Noire's' Brande Victorian takes on critics of the new "it-show" saying that the writer should be allowed to represent her version of reality, which may in fact be all white. On the other side of the coin is Rebecca Carroll of 'The Daily Beast,' who talks about feeling "left out" of the show as a black girl.
The drama and criticism surrounding "Girls" is not unlike the criticism lobbed at "Mad Men" for the lack of diversity on the show during prior seasons. Like Victorian, I didn't find that to be 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 physically present. I find it interesting that as Ralph Ellison's classic, "Invisible Man" turns 60, that 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 writers are often taught in screenwriting courses) as opposed to creating a world that they would like to see. This is the caveat that critics 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? HBO cancelled "How to Make it in America," which was one of the best shows on television last season.
The show featured a multiracial cast trying to succeed in the fashion industry in New York City. The show was extremely well-done — 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.
Further, when what black viewers 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 you get an onslaught of reality programming with black women engaging in sheer and utter foolishness, which ironically has millions of viewers, many of whom are black. We won't even mention when folks include black folks in fantasy, "Hunger Games" and comedy "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl," the hate and backlash that can ensue.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, ratings drive everything in television.
Shows with young white women, whether they are normal-sized, bohemian, hipster, simple, brilliant, sweet, evil, chasten, loose, rich, poor or on the come-up get ratings and have a strong and consistent following for reasons far too complex to address in this one post. "Girls" fits into that model of success even if some critics profess that these are "girls" we've never seen on television before. A New York without people of color in the midst, has proven successful (Seinfeld, Friends, Sex and the City) even if it is insulting and not reflective of the New York that many know and love, for its diversity. I know it's wack (taken from my 1980s lexicon), but it's true.
Television programming is more complicated than which racial group is included or excluded from a cast or setting. This may be an unpopular answer to this dilemma, but unfortunately it is what it is, until someone concretely changes the game. If you want to see more actresses of Kerry Washinton's caliber on television, watch 'Scandal.' If you want to continue having mediocre black shows about women, keep watching 'Single Ladies.' I think there is room for both shows with all of these channels, but viewers need to realize that there will only be room for black and brown people at the center of television programming, when we support shows that reflect our experiences.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.