‘Girls’ Needs to Glance Away from the Mirror

Even the created reality of a television show can benefit from a diverse worldview.

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Zosia Mamet, left, Lena Dunham, center, and Allison Williams pose with the award for best television series – comedy or musical for
Zosia Mamet, left, Lena Dunham, center, and Allison Williams pose with the award for best television series – comedy or musical for "Girls" backstage at the 70th Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday, January 13, 2013, in Beverly Hills, California. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Although I’m decades past the target demographic of “Girls”—the HBO series that has triggered devotion, discomfort, and criticism in its two seasons on the air—I’m a faithful viewer, brimming with likes and hates about the show’s friendships, jobs, sex, clothes, parents, and apartments.

Besides all that, there’s another aspect of “Girls” that feels worth noting—its uniform worldview. Although the secular universe of “Girls” is vastly different from the strict Calvinist one that I was raised in, the show feels familiar to me. Both the worlds of “Girls” and the one of my religious childhood are insular and tribal. Both have moral codes that seem to the inhabitants to be universally true while in actuality they are culturally specific.

In “Girls,” the highest good is self-expression. The greatest wrong is to judge someone else. Combine the two and you get a moral code that encourages experimentation, adventure, edginess, and transgression—no matter how demeaning or risky these things might be.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the main characters on “Girls” question or debate these values. Nor have I seen minor characters pose contrary views in any significant way. Seeing that kind of interplay would be a breath of fresh air—as would seeing characters who are more racially and economically diverse.

Lena Dunham, the creator of “Girls,” got a lot of criticism during the first season of her show for having an all-white cast. After all, her characters are 20-somethings—the most diverse generation in history—living in New York City. You’d have to wear blinders not to see the vibrant differences around you. To her credit, Dunham responded honestly to the criticism last year, saying she took it seriously and that she never meant for the show to feel exclusionary.

To be sure, it’s not Dunham’s obligation—or the obligation of any artist, for that matter—to replicate the Census Bureau in her characters or mimic news headlines in her plots. But it is strange and disappointing that she has so limited her imagination. Including characters who aren’t like her doesn’t require storylines about race theory, economic inequality, or working-class history. What it does require is curiosity—the urge to go outside familiar boundaries and capture the conflicts, hopes, and dreams of more than one strain of young people in New York City. Doing that increases the odds that a viewer will say “ah-hah” in recognition.

The term “diversity” too often carries the smell of political correctness, as if it’s somehow opposed to creativity, while in fact, it can spur the creative urge by being one more tool in the kit. That’s one reason why universities, businesses, and the military actively seek out diversity in their ranks. They want a creative and competitive edge, and a good way to accomplish that is to mix it up. The United States has one of the most diverse populations in the world, which gives us a leg up in the global economy. We’ve learned better than most other countries how to work and live side by side.

But it’s not just economics and politics where diversity thrives. Biodiversity is a hallmark of a healthy ecosystem. Even when it comes to matters of finance and investments, diversity is seen as a healthy thing. And it’s essential to a well-balanced financial portfolio.

The Calvinist world I grew up in was a monochromatic place filled with pale Dutch immigrants who spouted a uniform code of conduct and belief. As a child, I thought that it was the world. But it was actually just a small community in New Jersey, only 12 miles from New York City. I hopped on a bus as soon as I could and explored that amazing city block by block. That’s where Lena Dunham lives. I hope next season she gets out a little more.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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