But I’m a Feminist: On Lena Dunham’s “Girls”

This essay is featured on SheWired.comGirls Renewed

Millennials, hipsters, young, white feminist rejoice! Lena Dunham’s wildly successful series, “Girls,” is returning for it’s third season so soon you can almost smell the twenty-something angst rolling off your screen. You know you’re excited.

When “Girls” premiered on HBO, Metacritic.com named it the highest rated fictional series premier of 2012. Then “Girls” continued it’s awesomeness by winning an Emmy in 2012 for Outstanding Casting in a Comedy Series, to it’s notable Golden Globe wins for Best Television Series (Comedy or Musical), as well as Dunham’s Globe for Best Actress in a TV series. No doubt, since it’s start, “Girls” has been a force to be reckoned with. And no wonder just about every one of my friends tunes in to watch “Girls,” without fail.

But it’s not all awesome possum for “Girls.”  After loving fans and loyal critics got over the brilliantly crafted writing style, fresh perspective, and edgy subject matter, they looked to the lack of minority representation.  Seriously, the social lens of “Girls” is so small, you rarely even see minorities in the background (be that Asian, Black, Hispanic, gay. lesbian, queer, or anything other than heterosexual,white, cis men and women). Sidenote; I’ll give “Girls” the one representation of a gay man, though extremely flat and stereotypical, does technically count. But I digress; On NPR, Dunham woefully responded to the criticism, saying,

“I take that criticism very seriously… As much as I can say [writing four white main characters] was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, ‘I hear this and I want to respond to it.”

Dunham’s NPR interview was in May of 2012, in the middle of the first season. So that must mean her response was the weak sauce premiere of the second season, in which Donald Glover a.k.a Childish Gambino made a quick cameo as her black boyfriend. That’s right, Glover played Lena’s boyfriend who broke up with her by the end of the episode, and was never spoke of again for the rest of the season. To that, I say fail.

But why were people so pissed? I mean, “Sex and the City,” a show “Girls” is often compared to, had very few people of color. Well, they’re pissed because the creator of “Girls” is a self-proclaimed feminist who is supposed to be all for progressive thinking and equality. Because rather we should or not, we see “Girls” as a show representing a huge chunk of Generation Y. It is supposed to be a narrative all us Millennials can relate to, or so the media feels. And that is why Dunham has been accused of such passive artistry. Allow me to explain. A passive artist is a one-trick pony, a creative thinker that knows what of theirs sells, and sticks to those things and those things only. Lena Dunham, thus far, has been a passive artist, and while there is nothing wrong with having a niche career, it’s not alright for Dunham. This is because no one sees Lena Dunham as a passive artist. She has been called the voice of our generation, a strong female writer that represents young women and other Millennials. But to say she represents our generation is to assume a white, privileged female, hipster narrative on every Generation Y’er around- because that is, in fact, the narrative Dunham has stuck to in the whole of her television and film career; see “Tiny Furniture” here. The issue is, during the creation of “Girls,” Dunham never even realized the impact she had on media with her show, “Girls.” Here’s what she said about critics calling her “the voice of our generation,” when prompted on her character, Hannah, being high on opium;

“I don’t think I ever imagined that it would haunt me the way it is,” Dunham said in a recent interview. “The character was on opium! I think the ‘voice of a generation’ concept was lost with beatnik literature. Because of globalization and increasing populations, my generation kind of consists of so many different voices that need so many different kinds of attention. But if my writing can show what it’s like to be young, I’m happy.”

Lena Dunham was never trying to be a voice of a generation. Her goal was not to speak for us all, but to share her own, limited, yet interesting,  perspective. We, the media, and critics bestoed a responsibility on Dunham she didn’t even know she carried. I understand that. But as a strong, feminist voice in our media, I believe it is a responsibility Ms.Dunham must take on. I  hate to add to the pressure, but have you noticed the progressive shift in our society over the past few years? In 2008, our first Black president was nominated into office, gay marriage is now legal in 18 states, and the gender disparity equal pay have gone from 77% on the dollar to 93%. Get with the times, Dunham. Be a part of that progression. Use your voice for positive change, not just personal gain.

Not to say that one little tv show can change the world, but one little tv show can change how we see the world. Take “Star Trek,” for instance. On the surface, ” Star Trek” may seem like some nerdy. inter-gallactic, super-show with no real impact on society. But the show’s inclusion of a number of strong female leads, and characters of color, coupled with it’s undeniable success and popularity as a series, helped to shift how society saw minorities in media. It changed how we cast, and opened doors for future minorities to not have to be so trapped in limited, stereotypical roles.

So much of what we see in the media are mindless fillers for overworked people that really just want let their brains rest by not having to think about what the Kardashians will do next or which Beverly Hills house wife will fight whom. It’s not often we come across a television show that is not just extremely popular, but also intelligent. I’m not asking for Dunham to completely change her style or even change the show all that much. I simply ask that when creating one of her brilliant episodes, to recognize her voice as a powerful reflection of modern feminism, and make of that what she will.

 Here’s what I hope to see in “Girls,” season three;

 Rather than being a white-washed world, unaware of real issues dealt with by people less privileged, the show would recognize it’s privilege and add a tone of self awareness, similar to it’s often compared, tv relative, “Louie.”Whether “Girls” likes it or not, it is influencing our society with it’s representations, and a mis/lack of representation of minorities in relation to whiteness is troublesome to our culture. Visibility is a powerful thing. Just think, for an old, white-man, executive of some big entertainment company to turn on the tv and see a bunch of people of color on a show that rivals his own, he will notice. In modern culture, tv shows have the power to make real differences in the move to social change. And with the news that a the first black, female main character will be joining the cast,( Danielle Brooks from “Orange is the New Black”!) things are already looking up.

  As you can probably tell, I’ve been known to get my hate on when it comes “Girls,” but I stand by the belief that a well-written show, no matter it’s subject matter, is worth watching. Intelligent shows boost discussion, and promote critical thinking, and I’m all for that. So you go, Ms.Dunham. I’ll definitely be tuning in on January 11th along with millions of others, to watch Hannah and her friends act a fool. 

Blue Charm by Jaz Joyner

      We’re barely moved in. Yet, my Barbie of a mother’s already decorated a sizable corner in our house to show off her gaudy pageant winnings from back in the day. She once told me her favorite award was a dark blue ribbon that read Most Poised in golden cursive stitching.

She’d say with a gratified grin,

“Even without a crown, royalty must have poise. Poise is the most important virtue  of any important person, you know.”

    Flash forward to now, as my mom scurries around like a little squirrel. Poise. Please.

“Get the boxes in the study first, Rainn! Bring them up to your room, immediately!”

      Mom pushes a big desk towards the hallway with all her might and I hear her squeal in despair. She could obviously use some help. I’m sitting on an uncomfortable step, doodling in the notepad she gave me for cursive practice as if I were writing something of importance. I’d help out but I can’t stand, my legs won’t let me; Possibly because I didn’t want them to. Ok, so I didn’t want them to. The stairs were hard wood and shiny like their second function was a convenient mirror for the ever- vain. I see why my parents picked this house.

     It’s nothing like the old house, and I’m not sure if I like it yet. She’s calling again, like a screeching alarm on a school day. What’s the point? I thought. Just because my bags are unpacked doesn’t magically make this place my home. I set down my notepad, full of doodles and four letter words. I’m 15 and a girl but I have this thing for vulgarity, in spite of that fact.   I’ve been told 15 year old girls should refrain from this sort of behavior. However, I pride myself in surprising my teachers with loud, spastic bleeps, Tourrets -esque if you will. My mom used to hate leaving her in-house work space to bail me out of the principal’s office.

She writes. My dad reads. For a living, I mean. I think that’s the only reason my mom got published, even though she swears her book was “worth every sparkling review.” It’s ironic how much positive reception she gets for writing about raising the perfect child.

I think they secretly wanted me to move from my old school. I had made such a name for myself; I don’t think they could bare it. Heaven forbid their flawless reputation be on the line. It’s a day’s drive to my old home. I guess I shouldn’t call it home anymore. I hate my dad for getting promoted.

I had a best friend. Dagan. Ok, only friend. He taught me everything I know about cursing and sneaking live rats into certain punk’s lockers. My parents hate Dagan. Or I should say hated, since they probably won’t see him for a while. I think that’s secretly a reason for our move, too.

     My new school reeked of plastic charm and good will. Uniformed robots would smirk and murmur as they passed me down the hall to the lunch room, with their neat little brown bags full of organic, jicama tossed-salads packed by their perfect littlerobot parents. I’d come home every day with my mom and she’d ask,

“Have a good day at school?”

I’d always give her some smartass remark like,

“Oh, mother, you know every day is a good day when you’re given the privilege to learn!”

She’d get annoyed with me then and stop talking. Sometimes she’d gather up the brass to critique my attire or my hair.

“Rainn, honey if only you would wear those dresses I bought you. They’re in the catalog! Just like those ridiculous slacks you chose to throw on instead. I’m sure the girls at school would be far more receptive to you.”

      She goes on but I tune out by then. I’d stare out the unblemished window of my mom’s vintage Beemer into an abyss of chic boutiques and five star restaurants; the kind you need reservations months in advance to get in .Mom loved those.

     I’m standing now, on those hard steps, contemplating my next move like my life depends on it. Mom still shouts as if I hadn’t heard her the first thirty times. I always wished for siblings. Not because I want automatic friends for life (not that I can’t use that). No, I want siblings so they can help carry the load of my parents.  How do they manage? My parents, I mean. All of the time and dedication it takes for them to put on such a show every day. It seems impossible, if you don’t have a backstage pass, like me.

I see all of those faulty ropes and curtains separating them from reality, and I wasn’t fooled. Honestly, I didn’t get how other people didn’t see it. I mean they weren’t’ the best actors in town, that’s for damn sure. But somehow, some way, people did fall for it. And I was stuck, by default, playing their perfect little princess. That was my role, even if I didn’t want it. And trust me, I didn’t want it.

Sometimes they’d even try to fool me, like I was some idiot sitting in for the day in place of their daughter. They’d do this thing where they shared what could be a perfectly normal, spousal love-peck on the lips. It would be that, if of course they actually loved each other. But instead they looked like what I’d imagine the adult form of my robot classmates would look like if they had a mission to save their planet and the only way they could is by touching together on the lips in an odd, yet simulated-romance kind of way. Why did they feel the need to perform for me? Once, I caught my mom fishing for a compliment from dad.

She asked, “ Oh, I feel old honey, I think I need botox. Should I make an appointment?”

    He didn’t say what he should have. He told her to get the botox. Ouch. If anything I think my mom wishes she was still that pageant girl. So she could at least present some sort of beauty to the world, even if she didn’t feel it. I think that’s when their relationship started dying. She tries so hard to be like her trophies, it’s ridiculous. Botox  day is when I acquired this X-ray vision on fakeness I’m so glad to have now. I go out of my way to be the opposite of how one would expect the only daughter of Harold and Blair Swenton to behave. You could call it a rebellion. I call it survival.

       I went down the steps, slowly but surely. I spotted those auburn curls as my mom marched grumpily to the front of the stairwell and plopped a box twice her size at her feet. She just missed them. I think to myself how funny it would be if she did.

“Rainn, this is unacceptable! I’m tired of you mopping around like the world is against you. You sit around like some miserable homeless child. You are far to privileged to be so ungrateful! Now get down her and gather these boxes with me!”

   I never understood what she meant by that. You sit around like some homeless child. She acted like just because she and dad had some cash, I should be floating around like some graceful Disney princess that just found out her father is secretly the king of  Happyville. I’m supposed to be happy now? Really?

I say, “I think I’d rather be homeless than living in this lie of a family!”

     My mom’s really pissed now; like she truly values our mother, daughter relationship; or the lack thereof. I laugh in her face, but regret it immediately.  A laugh, not in an amused way, but in a sarcastic, mocking sort of fashion that makes parents want to slap their children. Only, parents usually don’t go that far. You know, wanting to but not actually doing it. But at this point, I’m in perfect slapping distance, and she smacks me one good. It should hurt. I feel nothing.

     I don’t even want to hit her back. She doesn’t deserve my energy. In a weird way I feel like she didn’t mean to do it. I think she’s mad, but not at me. She’s mad because I’m right. At least I want to think that. I walk away. She shouts back to me but all I hear is       “Wawwawawwa.” like from Charlie Brown, except worse. Dad’s home. Mom runs to him like she’s the child. I see them from where I stand, in a corner full of tiaras, like I’m giving myself a time out.

      I hear her talking about me. Like she was the teacher’s favorite little tattle tale. I don’t care what she said. I don’t care what he said. I don’t care. He calls me. No use hiding anymore, I think. He nags and nags and calls himself punishing me.

“No TV, no computer games, no art class, this week, or next week, or the week after that!”

    He goes on and on through a list of things he thinks interest me. I wish I could say he’s wrong, but he not. I’ll miss those things for sure. Way to make your kid hate you more. I don’t even tell him about Mom. It won’t make a difference anyway. They’re a team, and I’m the outsider. I don’t want to play their game and they punished me for it.

   I wonder if Mom’s right. That I should be happy, because I go to one of the best private schools in the country, and I live in a house that’s ever ready for a Better Homes photo shoot, and my parent’s wealth and prestige automatically make me a shoe-in for the best prep SAT courses in town. Not to mention in spite of my defiance I’ll maintain all As just to piss off the teachers that hate me. This would lead me into a fine, prestigious university where I’ll double major in something like Classical Civilizations and Anthropology. My fake parents would be so fake proud of me. I’d be considered an accomplished young woman. My successful parents could brag about their little girl.

“She’s gonna’ be a success, just like her old man.” He’d say with a boisterous laugh to his country club buddies.

“I always knew she’d grow out of that awkward phase!” She would say with a tint of blue charm her fellow, wealthy housewives so admired.

   That would be my initiation onto their team. I’d be blue like the ribbon my mother won for Most Poised and anyone that wasn’t would envy me. And I could look down at the jealous ones on my charming, blue pedestal. One could assume I’d be happy there. If only they don’t see behind that charming, blue curtain.

Poor Kid, Rich Kid

   My sister teaches special education and my father has worked in the school system for over thirty years, helping to form my unapologetically biased love and respect for the value of our teachers in the United States. Furthermore, it’s no surprise that education was hugely emphasized in my upbringing. my ability to focus so strongly on school related greatly to my financial privilege, coming from a financially stable -middle class family. I recognize this privilege and understand  not every child is so lucky. However, it doesn’t seem our education system cares so much about this disparity, as child after child from lower income families is being left in the dust when it comes to quality schools.

 

With income disparity among the poor and the very rich higher than ever, and a system that values instant gratification over investing in our future, many low-income children are left in the dust of a stale and antiquated education system.

In  high-poverty schools, more than one in every five core classes (21.9 percent) are taught by an out-of-field teacher, compared with one in nine classes or 10.9 percent in low-poverty schools

  Though legislation like No Child Left Behind set laws to close the gap of unqualified teachers per low-income schools versus higher-income schools,the disparity between the two is still strong today.The Independent Budget Office of New York released a study showing the link between poverty and low test scores, stating that students who qualify for free lunch are far more likely to fail tests than student who are eligible for subsidized meals. Wealthier areas can afford to invest in their programs and curriculum, furthermore helping students from already privileged backgrounds, to excel even more. This goes the opposite for low income areas, in which poorer schools are not invested in, and students that already have late starts academically are left behind.

More than 40% of Low-Income Schools Don’t Get a Fair Share of State and Local Funds.

Teachers cannot adequately invest in this disparity.  In a response to the editors piece on the need for higher pay for teachers, T. Elijah Hawkes, principal of  James Baldwin School in Manhattan, stressed the dilemma in expecting teachers to transform lives of students in hardship simply by teaching.

Until we perceive child poverty as something to be fixed not by our schools but by wage, labor, taxation and health care policy, we will continue to place unrealistic expectations on teachers, and see them as to blame for dashed American dreams.

Low-income schools are subject programs that force underprivileged students to learn from insubstantial teaching standards.  Teach for America, while offering wonderful opportunities  for recent college graduates, does not benefit our education system as a whole. Unqualified teachers are sent to low income, over crowded schools where unaccounted for students need closer attention, not less. After months of minimal training and often times, no previous teacher’s training, these TFA recruits attempt to teach students to reach minimal test requirements. If we want to expect more from our teachers, we must raise our standards of what it means to be a teacher. Professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University, Mark Naison wrote a piece about how Teach for America has spoken out about his disdain for the program in the Washington Post

Until Teach For America becomes committed to training lifetime educators and raises the length of service to five years rather than two, I will not allow TFA to recruit in my classes.  The idea of sending talented students into schools in impoverished areas, and then after two years encouraging them to pursue careers in finance, law, and business in the hope that they will then advocate for educational equity really rubs me the wrong way.

Every child deserves the opportunity to excel, not just the kids from well-to-do backgrounds. No Child Left Behind, in which the administration attempted to close the gap between school’s successes failed, and much of that reason is because poor schools were not given the adequate resources to meet those standards that were expected of them. Teach for America is not the answer, and it’s time we move more towards a system that better recognizes  financial disparity rather than general requirements for students that are not starting out on the same level playing field as their peer.