I really think that this has been spoken about by several excellent people already, making this kind of useless, but considering that I've written a tiny bit about it on here, more for the school paper that got seriously cut down, and a furious rant on my angsty teen girl tumblr, I feel like I ought to collect it all in one neat piece of writing. (My previous post about Girls is HERE.) So here you go: a long rant about Girls, Lena Dunham, Caitlin Moran, and Elementary.
Lots of television shows set in cities like New York lack diversity despite being set in diverse environments and/or make use of racial stereotypes whenever there is a non-white character in the cast (like 2 Broke Girls, How I Met Your Mother, etc). Some people perceive that Girls has been "unfairly" attacked for its lack of diversity because of the "look at all the other shows that have all-white casts!" defence but to put it bluntly: as "feminists" you ought to be doing better. A show that's supposedly All About Real Women Beyond Stereotypes only featured non-white characters as passing stereotypes.
Just last year, Shonda Rhimes (creator of Grey's Anatomy) criticised the show Bunheads for its lack of racial diversity. Do you know what Amy Sherman-Palladino's response was? "I’ve always felt that women, in a general sense, have never supported other women the way they should." I am really sick of people refusing to accept any legitimate criticisms from other women on issues such as race because we're supposed to be part of some sort of magical sisterhood.
Regarding the issue of diversity on television, the thing that annoys me just as much as all the problematic things related to Girls is the unwavering defence of it by lots of supposed feminists. Lots of the articles I've read on places like the Guardian by the Vagenda (more on that later) and Feministing making a passing comment about these criticisms and basically say that the "real issue" is the lack of positive representation of women in pop culture so we ought to shut up about wanting more diverse representations of everyone because isn’t it swell that we have a couple REAL (WHITE) FEMALE CHARACTERS ON TV?
I understand that not everyone will necessarily have the same privileged experiences as the girls on the show, but being shut out means that Girls is not the radical "voice of a generation" that it's hailed as. The great issue with Dunham's work isn't just because she excludes people of other races in developed roles (even though duh, a non-diverse New York is not realistic) but when she does include them, they're blatant racial stereotypes that exist for the sole purpose of being contrasted with her character.
So, now it's time to look at the issue surrounding Caitlin Moran's tweets. A lot of people have tried to pass off her initial tweet where she said she "literally couldn't give a shit" about all the racial issues around Girls as being "out of context" or whatever, but she made her point seriously clear by saying that "asking every female artist to represent 3.3b women in every project she does is a crippling and unfair request" and really doesn't seem to understand why the exclusion of marginalised people is discriminatory, as seen where she compares the lack of representation on television with "not having someone Chinese" in her house.
It's disheartening to see all the people who really don't "get" the issue of lack of positive representation of minorities on television. To quote an excellent piece on the issue by Bim Adewunmi: "Is it unfair to ask Dunham to represent all of womanhood onscreen? Of course it is. But here’s the thing: no one did. We merely asked that she take a step back and question the underlying reason for why Girls looks the way it does."
Graham Linehan tweeted that people are "actually DEMANDING tokenism" and if that's all you've picked up from this whole debate, then you really haven't been listening. No one is asking for "token" POC characters (we're seriously not). Asking for more positive representation in the media shouldn't be this horrible stifling burden. The excuses people come up with for lacking well-written POC characters are ridiculous. If you can't do it, hire staff who can. Though to be honest, if you can only seem to write POC characters as token stereotypes and not portray them as the developed human beings that they are, you probably suck as a writer and seriously need to reflect on the racist attitudes you've internalised.
Feminists like Moran, Dunham, and Arfin dominate the portrayal of "mainstream feminism" and promote a brand of feminism that only really thinks about their needs. A lot of the feminists like them promote "equality for some women now, everyone else later!" - and when they fuck up because they've continually refused to understand issues surrounding their privilege, they don't actually LEARN from their mistakes. And they will continue to be praised by liberal outlets as the "face of modern feminism".
The way that feminism ought to move ON from being limited to the needs of certain types of women is that feminists should listen to critiques of problematic aspects of it. It's not feminists calling out other feminists for problematic shit that's dividing feminism, it's feminists that stifle the voices of other people within the movement and refuse to listen, learn, and acknowledge their privilege that make lots of people uncomfortable about identifying as a feminist. Why should they have to identify as feminists, if their existence isn't even acknowledged by the most dominant voices in the movement?
So the Vagenda saying instead of fighting the patriarchy, "we're in-fighting" about the Dunham-Moran situation is absolute bullshit because if you're not going to acknowledge why all the things that Moran said were hurtful to women of colour who always tend to be sidelined in "mainstream feminism", then you're not bloody fighting for all women. You're really just upholding the same oppressive standards as before. I'm both amused and annoyed at Moran and the Vagenda, who talk about how men patronise women about sexism, but don't see themselves doing the same thing as white women to women of colour.
The Vagenda also wrote an article in the New Statesman as a defence of Caitlin Moran where they dismiss intersectionality as something too academic to comprehend and claims that "Moran at least speaks a language that we all understand". As the post on intersectionality by stavvers sharply counters: "If by “we”, they mean the privileged women with a national platform, then yes, they understand it. But not if you’re one of the groups Moran doesn’t give a shit about. At best, it’s dismissive. At worst, it’s actively oppressing others."
In the film A Girl Like Me, an experiment is conducted where African-American girls are asked to choose between a white doll and a black doll. The majority of the children chose the white doll, giving reasons like the white doll is "pretty" or "good", and the black doll is "ugly" or "bad". Pop culture influences us so when everything from children's shows to teen dramas to adult sitcoms lack diversity - or only perpetuate harmful stereotypes - then we shouldn't become shocked that these stereotypes become a part of the way we think. We shouldn't dismiss a problematic part of pop culture as just a film, or just a television show - there's no "just" about it. Pop culture does not exist in a vacuum as it relates to reality, to human history and human experience.
I've only seen the pilot episode of Elementary so far, but I quite enjoy it as a modern adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. "What about the modern day television show starring Benedict Cumberbatch and his cheekbones?" you cry. Sherlock is quite problematic with regards to its portrayal of women and minorities, and some of the cast and some of the writers often spout a lot of questionable things. Sherlock makes me quite uncomfortable.
I think it says a lot that Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed as a mouse without any uproar, but apparently it's a cause for panic if there's an adaptation with an Asian-American woman playing Watson. It's set in New York and its cast is representative of that. Lucy Liu's Joan Watson and Jonny Lee Miller's Sherlock Holmes are portrayed as real human beings, and not reduced to stereotypes of Asian-American women or recovering drug users. Furthermore, the show presents non-white actors playing complex characters just as realistic and deeply human as the white characters because they’re a part of the real world, not just to be contrasted with the show’s hero.
On Joan, Lucy eloquently said: "It’s nice to be able to portray an Asian-American on camera without having an accent, or without having to be spoofy. And I think that’s a big step forward, because there are still representations of people that are more comedic. And that’s not what I’m playing. I’m just playing somebody who represents anyone else who would be living in America or outside of it, who is just a regular person."
I enjoyed Elementary because I thought it was witty and smart (with two very beautiful people in the lead roles), but also, watching a show that manages to portray women, people of colour, drug users, and so on as ACTUAL REAL HUMAN BEINGS is something that's unfortunately rare in pop culture. Right now, the discussions surrounding these shows are crucial - and everyone should be paying attention, no matter how uncomfortable the harsh truths may make you feel.
FURTHER READING: "Dear Vagenda Editors", "Why I Didn't Run the Caitlin Moran Interview", "What the Girls spat on Twitter tells us about feminism", "A problem that stubbornly refuses to budge".
I mentioned it in the post, but "How to be better: on intersectionality, privilege and silencing" is a worthy read.