'Girls' gets slammed for lack of diversity, but is the criticism fair?

OPINION - Perhaps we can hold HBO accountable for this glaringly white portrait of NYC, but we can't blame Lena Dunham for things she doesn't know...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

There are no black people in this woman’s world. At least, that’s the initial conclusion one can draw from the premiere episode of Lena Dunham’s hotly anticipated HBO series Girls. Many people crying foul over the show’s lack of diversity, but is there a legitimate cause for concern, or are we perhaps being hypersensitive to diversity on TV?

Girls is a new HBO show about young, affluent (and white) 20-something New Yorkers struggling to find their footing in the post-collegiate world.

The show’s creator, Lena Dunham, writes from her own personal experience as the daughter of two well-respected NYC artists. The 25-year-old began receiving substantial buzz after releasing her debut film (which had a similar theme of post-collegiate angst) Tiny Furniture, and was shortly thereafter paired with comedy film titan Judd Apatow to create this show for HBO.

Even before its release Girls was a critical darling, hailed as an insightful reflection of the Millennial generation. But there was that nagging bit about about the show’s diversity — for a series set in the melting pot of NYC (and Brooklyn no less), it was strikingly white.

Pop culture critic Toure tweeted the show’s creator after watching the first episode,”.@lenadunham Lena, I love Girls but how come there’s no Black people (except a bum)? Could a young NYer have no Black or brown friends?”

TV scribe Wila Paskin writes at Salon.com, “Girls does have one glaring, inexcusable flaw: race. Girls is confoundingly white. There are hardly any people of color in the first three episodes, and the two that appear have short, perfunctory roles. (Hannah interns with an Asian girl who knows Photoshop; her gynecologist is not white.) This whiteness is not particularly realistic — this is New York City, and it’s easy to imagine Hannah and her crew being more diverse, without sacrificing any verisimilitude.”

Dunham herself has grappled to explain the lack of diversity in her show, telling Huffington Post, “when I get a tweet from a girl who’s like, ‘I’d love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color.’You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I’ll address that.”

That’s the best her publicist could come up with? I suppose Dunham couldn’t give the real answer that diversity wasn’t addressed in the show because perhaps that’s not the life she knew. People write what they know, and the lack of diversity is indicative of Dunham’s experience as a privileged white New Yorker — she may have never experienced a genuine relationship with a person of color, let alone one of equal or higher status.

And shocking as this may be, she’s not alone in her experience. Despite its melting pot nature, it’s very easy to live a segregated social life in New York City, especially if you are a rich white person. The fact that Dunham’s show is so whitewashed shouldn’t come as a surprise.

And yet it does, perhaps because of not only because of the show’s hype, but its positioning of giving voice to a generation. With a name like Girls, you’d think the show would represent more diversity of the gender, as opposed to the homogenous experience more fitting for a show titled “White Girls.”

Are we to expect TV to elevate society, or hold up a mirror of our own experience? I rather Dunham write what she know than pander to the masses via magical Negro caricatures or sassy black girlfriends (as many shows are wont do when they finally throw in a token minority).

Perhaps we can hold HBO accountable for this glaringly white portrait of NYC, but we can’t blame Dunham for things she doesn’t know — some white people really don’t have black friends.

Follow Kia Miakka Natisse on Twitter at @miakka_natisse