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HBO's 'Girls' Isn't Racist, Television Is Racist (And Sexist)

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You know what I would really love to see?

I'd love to see a huge outcry when, next fall, the broadcast networks unveil schedules that are full of TV shows that are full of white characters and which will be, for the most part, created and run by men.

You know what I'd love to see?

I'd love to see a mass campaign catch fire, one in which thousands of TV viewers bombard the heads of the broadcast networks and cable networks, asking those executives why they don't commission more shows from women and people of color.

I've written about the sexism in the TV industry many times. By any measure, the television industry is woefully behind the times and shockingly unwilling to change. According to statistics from the Writers Guild of America, women have never exceeded 28 percent of working writers, and according to statistics from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, the representation of women writers in television has actually dropped from 35 percent in the 2006-2007 season to 15 percent in 2010-2011. Also according to the WGA, writers of color have faced the most relentless bias of all: They've never been more than 10 percent of the working writers in the TV industry.

As many TV writers pointed out in the piece I wrote about the industry's lack of progress last September, women and people of color, who are often treated as the tokens they usually are, are typically the junior members of a writing staff, hardly able to challenge those around them and push for the kind of stories that would reflect their lives and worldviews more accurately. There are precious few female showrunners and showrunners of color, and that's just wrong for any number of reasons.

You know what I would love to see? My colleagues in the media writing about these matters regularly.

There are a few exceptions (Alyssa Rosenberg is always worth reading on these topics), but most of the people who write about TV just trudge along with our eyes focused on the new shows coming down the pike, or on the buzzed-about programs, or on the critical favorites that we can't stop jabbering about. We don't often enough lift our eyes from the day-to-day grind long enough to take a look at the bigger picture. We rarely contemplate, let alone write about, the fact that most of scripted television reflects the worldview of a pretty small slice of humanity.

It's very rare to find voices in the media who regularly talk about the documented sexism and the racism of the TV industry as a whole. But you can't swing a cat without hitting another think piece about the lack of diversity on "Girls."

Why are there so many stories about this one show on HBO, of which we've seen exactly two episodes? Where are all the pieces taking television studios and networks to task for commissioning shows that have, for the most part, been created by and will be run by middle-aged, upper-middle-class, heterosexual white men? Standard caveat: I have nothing against middle-aged, upper-middle-class, heterosexual men (I'm married to one, after all), but don't television executives -- or those in the media -- ever stop to think that viewers grow ever more weary of the repetitive tales that tend to result from repeatedly going to this particular well?

Where are the think pieces taking networks to task for the millionth procedural about a troubled male cop or the millionth comedy about a guy who has problems with women? Why are we holding Lena Dunham's feet to the fire, instead of the heads of networks and studios? That troubles me, not least because it's easier (and lazier) to attack a 25-year-old woman who's just starting out than to attack the men twice her age who actually control the industry.

I am not going to wade too far into the fine points of the debate about "Girls" and race, which has been covered to death at this point. The short version of my opinion: Sure, "Girls" could use more non-white faces, and if the show gets additional seasons, I hope that Dunham finds ways to both hone her vision and to skillfully incorporate the undeniable diversity of any bohemian enclave.

Other than that, I have to say that I'm absolutely astonished that, of all shows, this is the one that is being attacked for being too white. I could list the shows on television with all-white casts, but then we'd be here all day. If I threw a roster of the shows that are all white but have a token non-white person who is rarely the focus of any important stories, we'd be here well into the evening.

We are taking "Girls" to task, but not the dozens of other shows on television that do the same exact thing? I understand that "Girls" carries the expectations and dreams of a certain segment of the audience, some of whom want their reality reflected. I really do get that.

But can I just say that "Girls" adds greatly to television's diversity by reflecting a worldview not often seen on the small screen?

This is a show in which a particular female point of view is not filtered or adulterated or otherwise bastardized. It's not a show in which female characters are neutered, cute-sified or created to please male viewers. As I said in my review, part of what makes it so refreshing is that it isn't editing itself or censoring itself in order to avoid offending any particular audience segment. The specificity of the show's female point of view is part of what makes it a good show, and that's also what makes it as rare as a nuanced, non-white recurring character on "The Sopranos."

I'll be honest, I am tired of "Girls" taking brunt of the criticism for a massive failure on the part of the television industry as a whole, especially given that it's doing something that very few other shows on television do. And I'm really surprised that nobody seems willing to recognize that this show is presenting a voice and a viewpoint that is not the norm on television. Shouldn't we be celebrating that, at least a little bit?

In closing, I entirely agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic, who wrote a great essay about the "Girls" situation:

"It is not so wrong to craft an exclusively white world -- certainly a significant portion of America lives in one. What is wrong is for power-brokers to pretend that no other worlds exists. Across the country there are black writers and black directors toiling to bring those worlds to the screen. If HBO does not see fit to have a relationship with those writers, then those of us concerned should assess our relationship with HBO." 

But it's not just HBO. It's TV.