As “30 Rock” comes to a close and HBO’s “Girls” begins its second season, the buzz around Tina Fey and Lena Dunham is especially buzzy.
“30 Rock” is applauded for its often outlandish absurdity and “Girls” for its “real” and “unforgiving” portrayal of life for New York girls in their 20s. Praise surrounding both shows, however, often centers around the unstoppable, strangely lovable protagonists Liz Lemon and Hannah Horvath. Dedicated audiences have seemingly appointed these two characters as spokeswomen for those of us with “unique” and “quirky” personalities.
Fey and Dunham are directly influencing what we as audiences see as being “fresh,” “raw” and “innovative.”
For each of the millions of women who think Liz Lemon and Hannah Horvath speak for their unique brand of nerdy quirkiness, there are millions more women who don’t see themselves in these characters.
Tina Fey is undoubtedly talented and accomplished. But take off the rose-colored glasses, and it becomes easier to see that she operates on a very privileged sense of exceptionalism both in her personal and on-screen life. The only thing Fey’s brand of feminism does is decide that some women just don’t count. However, she is lauded as a boundary-breaking champion for women.
As The New Inquiry writer Anna Breslaw describes in her essay, “Some viewers seem to believe that it’s progressive to appreciate a weird, nerdy female loser, but there is nothing especially new about Fey’s attractive, upwardly-mobile, wealthy, white, college-educated Liz Lemon: only a mashup of existing formulas.”
These same existing formulas can be seen in the case of HBO’s “Girls,” a show that has had a history of problems concerning race and class.
Dunham has explained many times that “Girls” is a representation of her circle of friends and of the combined experiences of the show’s writers. This is all the more reason to pay closer attention.
In August of last year, Dunham tweeted a picture of herself wearing a black crocheted scarf, made to resemble a hijab, with the text, “I had a real goth/fundamentalist attitude when I woke up from my nap.”
She received backlash, not only because of her ignorance and racism but because the tweet was sent during a time of heavy violence for the group of people she was dressed up as.
In April 2012, show writer Lesley Arfin responded to complaints of the show’s lack of representation of people of color by tweeting, “What really bothered me most about ‘Precious’ was that there was no representation of ME.”
Audiences may think they’re seeing some groundbreaking portrayal of women like them but what we’re really getting is a representation of the vast privilege of Duham’s world.
Dunham is the daughter of a very successful photographer and her cast has their own ranks of privilege. We have to remember that these are the stories we’re getting.
After casting Donald Glover in season two as Sandy, Hannah’s brief love interest and a black Republican from Williamsburg, we get a taste of Lena Dunham’s style of negotiation. Glover’s first lines, repeated as the two are having sex, are “You wanted this and now you’re f-cking getting it.”
Was this Dunham’s answer to critics?
The entire subplot of Dunham and Glover felt like a forced appeasement instead of a well-thought reflection. If this was her answer to criticisms, it was hurried and uncreative.
We need to more closely examine the authors who are constructing such dominant narratives that are continuously being praised for being innovative, creative and real.
It is in the act of creating spaces for all people that we need to focus on how these spaces are informed. Both Fey and Dunham, no matter how talented, fall blind to their privilege and make the assumption that we are living in a very specific kind of feminist and post-racial world.
If women and people of color want to see ourselves in ways that are truly innovative, we’ll just have to do it by creating our own spaces ourselves. A feminism that doesn’t include me isn’t for me.
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