Ain’t I a Girl?

// 22 October 2012

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This is a guest post by Farah Kristin. Farah is a a twenty-something graduate with an incurable case of idealism and a pen. She can be found blogging here.

 I have no personal or professional beef with Caitlin Moran. Until this point, I had remained largely unaware of her, though I had heard both complimentary and uncomplimentary things about her in passing. After reading her recent comment on twitter regarding Girls, I sort of wish they had stayed that way. Reading about her as a person, she seems like a ballsy, scrappy character who I would support as a writer and as a woman. In many ways, I like her, or at least, what I know of her. I do, however, feel that the twitter comment which launched a thousand protests was at its worst hurtful and at its best ignorant.

I am an upper middle class twenty-something girl struggling to make my way in a big city. I gchat obsessively, date the wrong boys, try and be sophisticated, have daily existential crises and spend time wondering which shoes go with which dress. I’m also half-black, half-Indian. And yes, I have friends who are equally middle class and equally mixed race. While I understand that it is easy to accuse those who point out the problem with the racial uniformity of these shows of oversensitivity, I politely but firmly disagree. The girls on the show are entertaining representatives of different sides of all of our silly twenty-something selves, emotionally. The physical aspect should be a mere detail.

The problem is, it isn’t.

The fact that Girls is entirely white wouldn’t be an issue if skin colour were mere decoration. If we existed in a world where race was not a factor, where it had not been a long and painful struggle for many generations to arrive at the point where it was feasible for us to enjoy the wonderful angst of being an over-privileged twenty-something, then yes, I would agree, Caitlin Moran. Who gives a shit. It did, however, take time, effort, humiliation, bloodshed and an extraordinary amount of sacrifice to get us here. And despite the years of fighting and proving ourselves, Britain and the United States remain largely, albeit somewhat more secretly, prejudiced.

I spent my college years at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, home of the Enlightenment. And what I found was surprisingly unenlightened in terms of racial progressivism. From the BNP to a number isolated incidents, I left assured that there is still a healthy dose of unapologetic racism. Far more insidious, however, than the small but permanent pockets of society who long for the days of Jim Crow, is the unspoken but automatic assumptions one makes about a person with heightened pigmentation.

Why is it, for example, that whenever I dated a Caucasian boy, it was surprising? Why is it that when I would walk into a corner store to buy M&Ms before a lecture, people would assume I was working there? Why did my first-year friends assume I knew which the best curry was to buy? (As background information, I’m from Jamaica. I know nothing of curry.) Why did my skin suddenly become a means of identifying me? I certainly gave no other indications.

The main problem with these shows is that they propagate the idea that a middle class, Girls lifestyle is an exclusively Caucasian experience, one that it is unusual for women of colour to experience. I need not point out that this is bullshit. A writer of another column pointed out that watching two white characters have sex on television is risqué, but fairly commonplace. Watching two black people have sex, or a white person and a black person, still has a touch of the shocking or animalistic. Because in the media, and in the mass subconscious, minorities do not belong in the same places as Hannah, Marnie and Jessa or Charlotte, Carrie, Samantha and Miranda. They do not intersect, they do not interact. And if that statement is untrue, why is it at all acceptable to have media that so blatantly omits them?

As much as I’d like it to be, race is not a detail, and not a decoration. To ignore this fact is a dangerous and insulting omission. The fact that it has to be brought up that there is an alarming lack of diversity in Girls or Friends or Sex and the City shows that subconsciously, we as minority women have yet to break into the consciousness of society as valuable, contributing members, equal in importance.

I, for one, refuse to be relegated to the role of guest star in someone else’s life because I am a woman, so too do I refuse to be looked over because I was born with darker skin. And I refuse, Caitlin Moran, to hear that nobody gives a shit about that.

Public domain image of blue Girls logo on a black background sourced from Wikipedia.

Comments From You

Kirst // Posted 22 October 2012 at 7:39 pm

I absolutely agree with what you’re saying about the lack of diversity in certain TV programmes, although having read the writer’s explanation about Girls, I see her point – she’s writing about what she knows, her own experience, and I’m not sure it would be any better had she written about black characters from a position of ignorance or tokenism. I’m not sure that any writer has or should have an obligation to depict a more inclusive world in the fiction they create. But I know how annoying it is to see drama after drama focusing on men, with women at best an afterthought, if there at all, so I can see how marginalising it must feel for women of colour to be excluded, or not included. I just don’t know what the answer is. More women writers = more female characters. Would more writers of colour = more characters of colour? More black women writers = more black female characters? In the same way many feminist women make sure they buy new copies of books and albums by women artists rather than second hand, should we as feminist viewers try to watch films and tv programmes with majority female casts in preference to the ones with primarily male casts? Should we be contacting heads of programming and requesting more shows with female leads and more diversity in the cast?

I’m sure if I asked 100 black women “would it be better or worse for a white writer to write black characters from no real position of knowledge, for the sake of improving the diversity of the people we see on screen?” I’d get 100 different answers. If I was a writer, I wouldn’t want to deliberately exclude people and hurt them by doing so, but neither would I want to patronise people by including half-arsed badly-written characters I really knew nothing about.

Obviously it would be great if more shows had women writers, black writers and black women writers, but it’s going to take a long time to get to that position. Maybe writers should be looking for co-writers to help them write realistic diverse characters. Maybe heads of programming and commissioning should be sending scripts back and saying “too homogenous.” Maybe we need more diverse heads of programming and commissioning.

Edinburgh, and Scotland as a whole, are very white places. I always forget how white Edinburgh is until I visit my family in Yorkshire, which is much more diverse. The 2001 census shows that less than 2% of the Scottish population are not white. There’s little excuse for the ignorant assumptions you faced, but perhaps some of the behaviour you experienced was down to simple unfamiliarity and lack of knowledge on the part of people who have probably had very little interaction with black and minority ethnic people. There’s no excuse at all for the fuds of the BNP/EDL/SDL though.

FaraK // Posted 23 October 2012 at 9:28 am

Hi there! I appreciate your comment, and while I see what you’re saying, I think we have differing views on what the central problem is. When you say: she’s writing about what she knows, her own experience, and I’m not sure it would be any better had she written about black characters from a position of ignorance or tokenism. I’m not sure that any writer has or should have an obligation to depict a more inclusive world in the fiction they create.

The problem here is that writers assume middle-class girls of a different race are undergoing a different experience. At the end of the day, my race should be as superfluous as a difference as the fact that Jessa has wavy hair and Marnie’s is straight. It is a mere physical detail. There is enough fodder in the material of Girls to appeal to strongly appeal to anyone in the same position, regardless of race. The fact that writers see another race as significant enough detail to prevent the inclusion of them in their depiction; as though race would define 70% of existence, which it doesn’t, is a problem. Not only in the individual perspective of the writer, but in the propagation of the idea that people of different races lead different lives, undergo different experiences and are, at essence, different.

The problem with the media is the presentation (and subsequent fuelling of) this idea. If there are prominent mixed race artists, authors, athletes and a black president in the United States, it should not in any way be out of the reach of a major television program to acknowledge that there are up-and-coming mixed race middle-class professionals who are struggling with the same daily frustrations and worries as the white middle class.

We should not need a mixed race programmer to put a mixed race actor on television, the same way we shouldn’t need someone who drives a car to work to acknowledge the majority of people in cities use public transportation. I don’t believe race, today, is a huge problem unless we make it one. I think we’ve been lucky in that people have fought long and hard for this particular cause, and that the majority of people today are intelligent and would scoff at the idea of racial inequality. I do however, believe that like anything, it deserves due diligence, and allowing comments like Moran’s, and media like Dunham’s to pass unquestioned would be flagging in upholding a certain degree of basic consideration to everyone across the board, regardless of race.

Kirst // Posted 27 October 2012 at 3:38 pm

Thanks for your response. When you say “The problem here is that writers assume middle-class girls of a different race are undergoing a different experience” – I think the problem comes the fact that very often we’re told that different races do undergo different experience. As you say, black people still have to face racism – white people, in predominantly white societies, don’t. People of all different skin

colours often have different cultural and family backgrounds which inform their experiences, and their perception of their experiences. I’m not saying that this is what Lena Durham has thought, but it might be that some white writers feel anxious about writing black characters because very often they’ve been told that they don’t know and don’t understand what it’s like to be black in a mainly white society, and as they don’t wish to offend or hurt people by getting it wrong, or by being thought of as making assumptions, they choose not to do it at all, and just write white characters. That is a ridiculously long sentence, but as it is well punctuated, I will leave it.

You’re arguing that skin colour isn’t the primary defining factor or difference in people’s lives, and I’m sure lots of people would agree with you. And I think in lots of ways you’re right. Other people though, would see their lives and experiences differently, and I think that’s where the difficulties come from for the writers who do think about the races of the characters they’re playing – if I include black characters, will I write them the same way I write everyone else, if I do will people hate me for assuming their experiences are the same, or will people hate me for portraying them as different, and will I get the differences right? That sounds a bit like I’m saying “poor white writers, vilified no matter what they do” and that’s not what I mean. I’m just trying to say that if some black people feel race does mean significant differences and some feel it doesn’t, no matter what they do, someone will feel the writer got it wrong. On the other hand, I suppose someone somewhere will feel a writer got it wrong on matters that have nothing to do with race. I shout at the telly every time someone tries to pronounce Holmfirth or Slaithwaite, and every time someone tries to depict an injured person undergoing rehab (Coronation Street, I’m looking at you).

I also wonder if some of it come down to cultural differences between the US and the UK. I haven’t spent much time in the US at all, but my impression is that on the whole the US seems to be much more open about racial issues – the racists are more overt than the racism here which seems to be more insidious – and people seem to feel that there is a distinct difference between “the white experience” and “the black experience” and are more open to talking about it. I think the UK, with our dislike of making a fuss and horror of talking about “awkward” topics in public, would rather just go “everything’s fine here, let’s move on” and not confront the subtle racism around us.

Anyway, back to Caitlin Moran. I agree with you about her tweet. I thought it was awful. It would have been so much better if instead of the very dismissive “I literally couldn’t give a shit” she’d said “that wasn’t the focus of the interview” or “that wasn’t a priority for me to ask her about in the time available” and then followed it up elsewhere with a piece about why she wanted to focus on other things and/or why she didn’t want to focus on that. But then, maybe she literally doesn’t give a shit about how black women feel about how they are depicted or not in the media; maybe she doesn’t think it’s important. And yes, I think she should be questioned about it.

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