Tuned In

Girls Watch: White People Problems

Lena Dunham's show addresses complaints about its racial homogeneity with a scene that's funny and perceptive, but feels distractingly contrived.

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, stop cashing in on your sexuality and watch last night’s episode of Girls.
“Oh, I’ve got a fixed-gear bike and I’m gonna date a black guy!”

After the first episode of Girls season 2 aired, I saw some comments about the “tokenism” of casting Donald Glover as Sandy, Hannah’s new boyfriend. I didn’t want to say anything about it at the time, because I didn’t want to spill what I knew from seeing the second episode, “I Get Ideas”: that Sandy wasn’t being used as a token exactly but–as bad or maybe worse, at least from a creative standpoint–as metacommentary.

You probably know Glover from Community, which itself is one of the most meta comedies on TV. But what Girls did with his character was a far more sustained and jarring meta statement than anything Community has done: writing in a character for (seemingly) the purpose of addressing the criticism that the show had no major characters of color.

About that controversy: I believe it would be plausible to have the cast of a show set in Brooklyn, a very diverse borough, include a lot of people of color. I believe it is also (unfortunately) plausible to say that the social circles of these particular four privileged white recent Oberlin graduates do not include any people of color. But what’s not so plausible? Positing that Hannah’s social circle is racially and culturally homogenous–except that she ends up meeting and dating what might very well be the first black Republican to step foot in Williamsburg since the Reconstruction era.

Meta isn’t automatically bad: I could see this kind of device working in, say, 30 Rock, which regularly writes in storylines to address controversies in TV or involving the show itself. (Say, when it gave Tracy Jordan a story to parallel Tracy Morgan’s offensive comments about gays in real life.) In Girls, a very different, naturalistic show, the story felt like a sketch shoehorned in to say: we hear you, we get it, we’re thinking about these issues really hard!

It’s unfortunate, because, simply as a scene, the breakup between Hannah and Sandy works very well. (The episode is actually written not by Lena Dunham but co-executive producer Jenni Konner.) That Sandy wouldn’t love Hannah’s essay, but would try to skirt the issue to avoid a fight makes sense. (His compliment, “It was really well-written!” cuts to the heart of Hannah’s problem as a writer, or maybe as a person: she’s intelligent and talented, but to what end?) As does the fact that Hannah, not exactly open to criticism of her writing, would hit back against his politics. As a point-by-point deconstruction of Hannah’s self-centeredness, and a tour of her defense mechanisms, it’s one of the more insightful things Girls has done.

More important, I liked the realization that this is not the first time Sandy has found himself having this version of this argument. He’s a black guy who’s dated white women, but he’s also a black guy who doesn’t fit certain cultural norms because he’s a conservative. He’s seen things get weird and uncomfortable like this before, and it’s not always clear what portion of it is about his being black and which portion is about his not fitting someone else’s conception of what being black means.

Conversely, the exchange is funny and unsparing about Hannah’s limitations. She is, in fact, a white liberal woman with (apparently) no friends of color who drops Missy Elliott lyrics and reflexively uses stats about black incarceration rates as a trump card. Her theoretical experience of race is hitting up against actual experience, and the scene gets at something real when she claims that she doesn’t see Sandy’s race and he answers, “You should!”

Individually, I believe Sandy as a person, and I believe Hannah; but the circumstances bringing them together simply so they can break up this way are too contrived and distracting. Contrast their fight, say, with any one of Adam and Hannah’s–at the end of last season or at the end of this (otherwise very solid) episode. It’s organic and frightening and funny (especially as the police get involved: “I can’t believe you guys come everytime someone calls, I mean, that seems really alarmist and crazy”). But it feels like an outgrowth of an actual relationship that had time to develop. Hannah and Sandy’s breakup, on the other hand, feels like a set piece, albeit a clever and on-point one.

I guess what I’m saying is, well: It was really well-written! And I mean it sincerely. I leave it to Girls’ makers as to whether to take that as a compliment.