(The Root) — I'm really proud of Lena Dunham. No, we're not friends in real life, and, no, we don't even follow each other on Twitter. But if one can feel a certain delight, then disappointment, empathy and finally pride in a stranger's work, then that's exactly how I feel about the 26-year-old writer-director-actress as she embarks on the second season of her hit HBO series, Girls.
Returning to the small screen on Sunday, Dunham deftly navigates a clear path through the tsunami of deserved criticism over her show's lack of diversity. Girls follows four young women — all of them white — living the decidedly unglamorous life in New York City.
It's the polar opposite of Gossip Girl, and comparisons to Sex and the City are marginal at best, lazy at worst. But concerns that Dunham's New York, specifically Brooklyn, was shockingly "all-white everything" were well-founded. In a show with such a sweeping, all-inclusive title, the lack of even one girl of color was felt by fans and eventually by Dunham herself.
"But for me to ignore that criticism and not to take it in would really go against my beliefs and my education in so many things," Dunham said in an interview with NPR in 2012. And in the new year she made good on her resolution to take that criticism to heart without being campy.
Season two is all about new beginnings. In the premiere episode, Hannah (played by Dunham herself) has a new boyfriend, Sandy (Donald Glover of NBC's hilarious sitcom Community). Glover's casting could easily be dismissed by some as reactionary, if not blatant tokenism, but those rabble-rousers need only to actually watch the first two episodes to realize Sandy's character is hardly out of place. For a girl like Hannah, a guy like Sandy is a godsend.
"I love how weird you are," says Sandy after chasing Hannah down in a record store and planting a wet one on her. He's uncomplicated. But still gun-shy from her last relationship with the intensely strange Adam, Hannah is trying to take things slow with Sandy.
"I'm going to make logical, responsible decisions when it comes to you," answers Hannah.
Sandy is the kind of guy your girlfriends can get behind. He is nice and in law school. He has a clean apartment minus the annoying roommates and, most importantly, he is just that into Hannah. Sure, Sandy's a Republican, but nobody's perfect. By contrast, Hannah's ex, Adam, is like an emotional scab you just can't stop picking.
"When you love someone, you don't have to be nice all the time," a crippled Adam tells Hannah, who has been taking care of him despite his mood swings and their "it's complicated" relationship status.
So therein lies the choice with which every young woman is presented at some point (if not multiple points) in her dating career: the nice guy or the bad boy? For Hannah it's pretty black and white — literally.
By this season's second episode Hannah, who appears to have matured considerably since season one, has at least ostensibly made the right choice. She's broken things off with Adam for good (for now).
"This opens up space in my life for the kind, sexy, responsible boyfriend who I always wanted but never had," says Hannah, who has even given Sandy one of her "voice of a generation" essays to read. You know things are getting serious when an artist wants her lover's "honest opinion."
And that's when things take a turn for the worse. I won't spoil it for those of you wondering whether or not the perpetually questioning-herself Hannah is ready to settle down with the uncomplicated nice guy for real, so let's just say she isn't. But in a genius move Dunham manages to expose Hannah's penchant for self-sabotage and her inherent naiveté when it comes to not only relationships, but also race.
Hannah and Sandy eventually get into one of those fights couples have when they're trying that brutal-honesty thing. Someone's feelings will almost certainly be hurt. The trick is to be mature enough to get past that. Hannah, we know, is not. So instead of accepting Sandy's criticism of her "work," she goes on the defensive and attacks his political beliefs. And a political discussion between two interracial hipsters who've sort of been blissfully ignoring their disparate races thus far can only go so well.
"The joke's on you because, you want to know what, I never thought about the fact that you were black once," Hannah blurts out at the height of the fight. "I don't live in a world where there are divisions like that."
It's not hard to imagine what happens next, and that's the great part about the conversation. As I watched Hannah's implosion in amused horror, my boyfriend, only half-listening before, spoke up from his side of the couch. "I can see those people having that exact conversation," he said. "It makes total sense." And in rushed my pride in Lena Dunham and my relief as a fan of her work.
What seemed to be Dunham's genuine surprise at the criticism regarding her show's diversity initially disappointed me. Really? Did she really not see that the main characters that she'd created — two WASPs and two Jews, as she herself put it — were almost offensively mainstream? Then once the pile-on reached a tipping point, I felt sympathy for a young woman who, in the end, was just trying to tell her story. She told NPR, "I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me." So for me what's great about this season of Girls is that Dunham has recognized that people who don't look exactly like her could help tell her story.
Sandy doesn't have to be black. He just has to be the nice guy for whom Hannah isn't ready — a necessary point in the narrative of her self discovery. A stepping-stone. But the fact that he is black is a step in the right direction.
Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.