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Rebecca Wanzo Headshot

I Know You're Tired of Hearing about Girls, but How about a Puzzling Piece of History?

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I'm not mad at Lena Dunham, creator of the new HBO show Girls. She wanted to write about her life -- which is filled with white folks -- and people gave her some money to do it. Her voice is a new voice for television. Despite the misogynist rants of Three and a Half Men co-creator Lee Arohnson about television reaching the point of "labia saturation," women have hardly been at the center of television or film production.

I think the backlash against the show -- largely by feminists of color -- is as much about the kind of praise it received as it is about the show itself. When countless reviews gush about her representing this generation, of course it is going to irritate all the people who are invisible on the show and to the critics. Duhnam didn't help herself with the claim that the white casting was an "accident," and with the casting calls for racially stereotyped characters. While I don't expect her to add a new close friend of color (please no underwritten brown folks or sassy black girlfriends, I'm begging you), I hope, as the show continues that the world the lead characters live in can reflect the racial diversity of Brooklyn. Most people have fairly racially homogenous social circles, and I think this show reflects that. But the world the characters inhabit should, well, look more like the world they inhabit.

Part of the reason I'm never particularly worked up about a racially homogenous cast is that while I grew up watching shows like Family Ties and Cheers, I also watched The Cosby Show, A Different World, 227, Amen and shows with black leads of white casts like Benson, Webster, and Diff'rent Strokes. So I saw people who looked like me on TV. I wasn't watching dramas until much later, so it took a while for me to realize that dramas didn't star many black people. This is all to say that I came of age in a period where I expected to see black shows, so I wasn't all that bothered by white shows.

One of the things I find odd about conversations about diversity on television is that the issue isn't that we need to look toward some future moment that network executives or audiences can't quite imagine yet, we actually have moved somewhat backwards in terms of inclusion on television. Admittedly, the inclusion I'm talking about is only African American, but in the 1970s and 1980s there were demographic and historical reasons that African Americans would be the first people of color to breakthrough on TV. Moreover, when networks were struggling, black shows seemed to be the go-to choice for networks.

NBC was struggling before The Cosby Show became the lead show in its resurgence. When FOX was building up the network in the early 1990s, The Arsenio Hall Show, Martin, In Living Color, Living Single, Roc, and even a drama with people of color in the leads, New York Undercover, filled a pretty small lineup. As the network defined its identity with shows like The Simpsons and Beverly Hills 90210, the diversity of the lineup also fell away. Anybody remember how many black shows the WB and UPN had their lineups in their first few years? Sister, Sister, The Parent 'Hood, The Wayans Bros., In the House, Malcom and Eddie, Moesha, The Jamie Foxx Show, Smart Guy , and my personal favorite, Girlfriends. Then the WB rebranded with shows like Buffy and Dawson's Creek and became the White Body network (every time you saw a person of color on those shows you should have made a wish), and UPN defaulted into the U People Network. Once they combined, the black shows disappeared.

What, if any, lessons should we take from this? First, we should recognize that we have had points in our television viewing history in which shows about people of color were considered marketable. The idea that networks are understandably not greenlighting shows about people of color because they won't be profitable is not necessarily true. We live in a different time than the Cosby heyday with much more competition for the viewing audience, but there was once a market for shows depicting people of color -- why do we think this won't be true almost thirty years later?

Second, we should know that there are talented people of color trying to get funding who don't have a Judd Apatow helping them out. For example, Issa Rae's web sensation Awkward Black Girl has not garnered a deal, and it is hard not to imagine that if Rae were white that she would have had more support. Moreover, memories of successes seem short lived and memories of failures seem to go on forever. Is Ugly Betty the last word in shows about Latinas? Will an Asian American woman never get a show after Margaret Cho's ill-fated All-American Girl, a show in which they transformed Cho and her vision so greatly that it (literally) almost killed her?

So I'll direct my irritation to the proper place -- the gutless wonders who have no vision about diversity on TV. And don't know their TV history. NBC is in the dumps again in terms of ratings. Brown folks might be their salvation. Someone should get them Issa Rae's number.