HBO’s Girls: White Guilt, Precious, Privilege, And The Myth Making Factory


“We exist — whether HBO adapts our stories or not.” — Ta-Nehisi Coates

Funny — ludicrous, perhaps — that the above quote, the above reminder, is still required, still needs a voice. Funny because this is post-race America, or so I’ve been told, where, as a nation, we’re finally above race as a separator and classifier of people.

Post-race America is a convenient lie, a myth, a falsehood which seemingly sprouted the moment Barack Obama won the 2008 Presidential election. For if it were true, why must Ta-Nehisi Coates make such a statement? What’s the basis for his reaffirmation of black people’s existence and stories?

The basis stems from the new HBO show Girls, which is, according to the official website, “a comic look at the assorted humiliations and rare triumphs of a group of girls in their early 20s.”

The show’s lack of diversity, its whitewashing of New York City was obvious to many viewers during the series premiere, myself included. Accordingly, Girls received criticism (and, in all fairness, praise) throughout the Internet, including one from Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic. In Coates’ article (the one I quoted above) he chooses to focus on HBO, labeled as a “power-broker” perpetrating the fallacy of whiteness as the sole source of American narrative.

“Whiteness” is not Coates’ word; it is one I’ve co-opted from novelist Toni Morrison’s Playing In The Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, a slim piece of literary criticism I read sometime around 2002. Literature and television are merely different methods used to deploy narrative; strip away the overt differences between these two mediums, textual vs. visual, and one is left with story, perhaps the oldest and most universal art form in human history.

What is, in this context, “whiteness?” Since I’ve lost the book (a consequence of a romantic break-up), I refer to the text made partially available by Google. That said, from Toni Morrison:

“[T]raditional, canonical American literature [which] is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African Americans in the United States. It assumes that this presence…has no significant place or consequence in the origin and development of that culture’s literature.

“…[A] more or less tacit agreement among literary scholars that, because American literature has been clearly the preserve of white male views, genius, and power, those views, genius, and power are without relationship to and removed from the overwhelming presence of black people in the United States.”

In other words, “whiteness” can be described as a mode of revisionism, a myth-making factory which imagines, then projects, narratives “free of, uniformed, and unshaped by” black people.

This is not a racist tactic; it does not originate from some warped hatred of a specific people. Rather, it is born of, and used as a remedy for, “white guilt.” If one, guilt notwithstanding, cannot or will not deal with race, with racial issues, with black people and one’s relationship to black people, then the easiest solution is to pretend black people do not exist and, therefore, exert no influence upon one’s life.

I must confess. As an artist, I can understand why Girls is devoid of black people: to make any kind of artistic statement, one must remain authentic to his/her perspective and experiences. Perhaps it’s a stretch to suggest Girls makes an artistic statement — then again, I’m of the belief that art is always the act of making a statement, be it personal, political, social, etc.

Art is never created in a vacuum and it is never without an overarching statement or critique of a larger entity. Girls is touted (perhaps more by others than its creator) as the voice of a generation. I believe that to be true, for Girls erases race not only as yet another reinforcement of whiteness, but to acknowledge a generation’s indifference to race beyond, on occasion, overt racism; every one knows a burning cross when they see one, but not all people can see or admit to “white privilege.”

Therein lies the artistic statement of Girls and, just maybe, it explains this nation’s continued fascination with the “post-race” myth: race is an issue unworthy of our time and energy; race is not a ‘white’ problem, and should not be projected onto us; race is ignored and, therefore, no longer exists for us; we have reached, finally, a post-race era in our society.

Racial hatred in the United States, particularly hatred toward black people, fueled lynchings, rapes, bombings, unlawful arrests, illegal and immoral experimentation (see: Tuskegee syphilis study), segregation, denial of voting rights, denial of education, denial of freedom, and the treatment of humans as products, livestock, machines to build a country (see: slavery — yes, we’re still talking about slavery).

Racial indifference, however, is far more subtle and far more egregious. Racial indifference is whiteness: a world drained of its color to represent the imagination of its white creator, be it a director, screenwriter, or TV producer; not only is color — race — absent from the narrative, it is wholly dismissed as an issue specific to some other world, some parallel version of Earth where non-white people live and roam and tell their own stories and, god forbid, demand that those stories be recognized as equally valid and relevant.

Naturally and predictably, the counterattack to such claims is deflection, particularly in the form of Girls writer Lesley Arfin’s tweet.

“What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.”

Precious, and its source material Push, the novel written by Sapphire, is about (what?) black mothers beating black daughters? Illiteracy? Rampant incest in the black community (as some writers have had the gall to suggest)? To understand Precious, you have to understand Push; to understand the novel, you have to understand the novelist or, more to the point, her artistic statement.

From an interview with NPR’s Michele Norris of All Things Considered, Sapphire said:

I wanted to show that this girl is locked out through literacy. She’s locked out by her physical appearance. She’s locked out by her class, and she’s locked out by her color. I encountered this. I had a student who told me that she had had children by her father.

Yes, the representation of an upper-class, college-educated white woman certainly belongs in Push and, by extension, Precious, the story of an obese, dark-skinned, illiterate girl living in the projects, a girl impregnated by her father.

What Ms. Arfin — and perhaps, the generation depicted in Girls — lacks is a general understanding of history, of connection, to say nothing of perspective. Girls exists despite the fact that, in New York City, there are black people who are as rich, talented, and beautiful as the show’s stars.

Precious, conversely, is a story that cannot be told without white people. Precious Jones did not end up poor and in the projects on a whim, but rather through institutionalized racism and discrimination. Directly or otherwise, white people’s influence is exerted upon Precious Jones’ life. It is so because, according to Morrison, Sapphire, like all black artists, “is at some level always conscious of representing one’s own race to, or in spite of, a race…that understands itself to be ‘universal’ or race-free.”

Such representation of black people, of blackness in whole, cannot occur without attention paid to white people, to whiteness. As a black writer, I may very well create a short story comprised of all black characters, but this is done as an escape from whiteness, a reconsideration of blackness — inherently influenced over generations by whiteness — with whiteness stripped away, as if to say, “Enough. No more. Let me tell it my way, if you don’t mind.”

Shows like Girls reinforce the notion that stories rooted in whiteness are universal. This idea comes at the expense of stories from blacks who are shoved to and, to quote Morrison, left to “hover at the margins.” Consequently, the universality of whiteness casts marginal blackness as a toy, as a decorative trinket to be picked up and dropped with little care.

No wonder Jay-Z’s “On To The Next One” was the music of choice during the dinner party scene; naturally, it is a black homeless man who says to “Hannah” (played by Girls creator/director/writer Lena Dunham). “Oh girl, when I look at you, I just want to say, ‘Hello, New York!’”: blacks used for entertainment and validation for whites while, at the same time, exerting no influence on the lives of the white women in Girls. Yet another among “assorted humiliations,” I suppose.

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image – Girls