'Living' In Color, Long Before 'Girls'
The second season of HBO's critically acclaimed series Girls begins Sunday night, but the show about 20-something girls navigating their social and work lives in New York has itself been criticized for not being diverse enough.
By now, most of you have heard the buzz about Girls: It's written by 26-year-old Lena Dunham, and stars a quartet of young women whose plans sometimes crash face-first into life's nasty realities.
The show's smart dialogue attracted writer Allison Samuels, a cultural critic for Newsweek/The Daily Beast.
"I love the writing," she says. "I think it's really well done."
But she doesn't watch Girls regularly.
"At the end of the day, if you don't have someone that represents my reality as well, I don't feel like that's an invitation to come in and watch," she says.
'It Does Bother Me'
Girls — the first season, anyway — is relentlessly white: the leading cast, the supporting cast, even the people on their Brooklyn streets. Samuels is African-American, as is Marissa Jennings, CEO of Socialgrlz, a mobile Web company designed for African-American teens. Jennings says she has watched a couple of episodes of Girls, but it didn't sustain her interest.
"The lack of African-American women in the show, it does bother me, because that's not the way of the world," Jennings says.
She remembers loving two shows when she was younger that were similar in construction to Girls but that felt more familiar.
"Growing up, I watched Living Single, as well as Girlfriends," she says.
Living Single featured four young professional women living in New York, and included Queen Latifah as Khadijah James, the penny-pinching editor of a small magazine.
Girlfriends showed four friends in their early 30s trying to lead grown-up lives in Los Angeles. The comedy focused a lot on balancing work and life pressures, and starred Tracee Ellis Ross as Joan Clayton, a driven lawyer who sometimes drove her other three friends a little crazy.
Both casts were all-black. Mara Brock Akil, creator of Girlfriends, says she loved the TV friendships she saw as a young woman but felt there was a hole.
"I was a fan of Friends, and Sex and the City was my favorite show. I enjoyed that," she says. "But I just didn't see my details, the women I knew, included in the story. They weren't part of the conversation."
So she created Girlfriends, which ran for eight seasons, ending in 2008. But since then, times have changed, and so has Brock's focus. Her production company now works at BET; she says the current shows she's producing, while geared to black audiences, have casts that are becoming more multicultural, because they need to reflect the reality of quickly changing demographics. Her new shows include actors who are Dominican, Puerto Rican and Filipino.
Akil is always looking to make sure the new additions make sense to the storyline and don't just add color to the scenery.
"I try to choose organic diversity," she says. "I think that's a problem when you start putting people together just because 'you need to have diversity.' "
Daily Beast writer Samuels says the world is changing rapidly, and the entertainment industry had better realize it or risk losing a lot of income. Producers like Shonda Rimes, who cast her hit ensemble dramas Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal with several lead actors of color, have shown that reflection of the real world can pay off in coveted ratings.
Reflecting social change on TV is not a matter of ability, Samuels says, but of will. So she thinks the television industry going forward should "be as open-minded about, I think, racial issues as it has been about gay issues," she says. "I think they've led the curve on gay issues."
If TV shows can do the same thing with race and ethnicity, they might have a long future in a country that's no longer just black and white.
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