The Ongoing Saga of Racial and Gender Identity Politics Among the Millennials and Others

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about race and gender on American television. One thing can certainly be said, the conversation has not been dull. Internet blogs have been in overdrive, and the conversation has managed to find its way into the halls of academia. In my “Sexual Politics Since World War II” course that I taught this semester, we have covered a number of issues as they have related to race, gender, economics, sexuality, religion and geographic region. Cold War homophobia, sexism in the civil rights movement, conservative reactions to the modern feminist movement, etc., are just a few topics my students have engaged in lively and candid discussion. More contemporary media topics such as the Trayvon Martin tragedy and perceptions of Black male sexuality have also been discussed.

This past week, the class was scheduled to discuss the current state of sexual politics in America. Boy, did they ever do so! No topic was off limits; however, the recent hoopla involving the ABC television program “The Bachelor” and the new HBO television program “Girls” dominated the conversation. Those of us who are avid followers of popular culture and religiously watch the rapid, ever-evolving world of entertainment are aware of the class-action suit that has been filed by two Black men who claim the ABC program “The Bachelor” discriminated against them due to the fact that they were Black. The lawsuit further claimed that the reality program has never included a person of color in the central role of bachelor. Whether the two plaintiffs will be successful in their efforts remains to be seen. Although given the increasing level of criticism and scrutiny being directed at the major networks in regards to what a number of critics see as their relatively dismal record of racial diversity, the outcome could be interesting.

Another topic of hot conversation was the new HBO Generation Y female-oriented program “Girls.” The series produced by twenty-something wunderkind Lena Dunham, who also serves as writer, producer, director and consultant, explores the lives of four girlfriends who are frantically navigating the often complex maze of early careers, single life, conflicts with parents (her parents are college professors), relationships, and other issues that are commonplace for young adults in their early, mid- to late 20s. I will admit that, although I had read previews and a few articles about the show before its first airing on April 15, I did not watch the first episode when it originally aired. As a 40-something Black male about to enter middle age, I figured (and obviously wisely) that I was NOT the demographic that the show was intended to cater to. In all frankness, the show was not marketed to necessarily appeal to anyone (male or female) over 35, perhaps even younger, of any race. The discussion of “Girls” generated far more interest and passion among the students.

After all the hoopla that I witnessed among a number of my students, read in newspapers and online blogs, spirited commentary heard on satellite radio and television after the first episode appeared, I decided that I had to see what all the anger, fuss, ruckus and debate, in regards to the program’s lack of racial diversity, was all about. Thus, I tuned in to watch a repeat presentation of the inaugural episode that aired later in the week. I also watched the most recent second episode. The fact is that the show is intensely Eurocentric in its entire image. However, I was not offended by the content of the show.

Rather, the only scene that I found offensive was the ending of the first episode when a Black bum began chasing after Hannah (Dunham’s character) in a sexually suggestive manner. Such a scene conjured up all sorts of historically retrograde stereotypes of Black men being lustful, predatory creatures in constant pursuit of young White females. My philosophy is: if you are going to make pretty much everyone else in the episode White, you might as well employ a White bum as well.  Perhaps my age and generational detachment (Generation X) made me less sensitive to accusations that the show was deficient in addressing racial matters. After all, these were ladies almost young enough to be my daughters.

Moreover, I am not entirely convinced that the overwhelming Whiteness of “Girls” is a negative thing. The fact is that, although the Millennials are supposed to be more racially-inclusive than older segments of the American population, there are a number of those in Generation Y (like Generation Xer’s, 1965-1979; baby boomers, 1946-1964; and the silent generation, those born between 1925 and 1945) whose lives are largely segregated. For some individuals, such a decision is by choice; for others, by circumstance.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear, I am certainly not saying that living a segregated social life devoid of any contact with people of other races or socioeconomic class is a good thing. In fact, in our ever-multicultural and globalized world, those who find solace in living in a parochial, homogeneous world of like-minded people with similar melanin and income levels are living a very limiting, stifling and potentially problematic existence. Nonetheless, a large number of Americans live in such environments. I am just keeping it real.

However, I also believe that Dunham, a young White woman whose life has been one of advantage and privilege, is writing from her own personal experience. When I threw this comment out to my students, some began to rethink their initial assertions; others still held steadfast to their criticism of Dunham and the show’s lack of diversity. Moreover, I personally believe that it is entirely unreasonable as well as unfair to expect a program like “Girls” to represent the entire panorama of young women of her generation. In fact, there have been a number of shows that have had all-White or all-Black casts and no such demand was ever made of them. It is also potentially dangerous to entrust people who have had minimal or no contact with other groups by granting them or—in the case of “Girls”—demanding them to represent your experience. Such ultimatums can result in a disastrous outcome. Sometimes it is better to “do your research” and learn about something or someone before you write about it or them. Otherwise, the ignorance will often manifest itself in your product. I made this point clear to my students. After a while, I was able to win some of them over with my argument.

While a number of people, including young people, live largely segregated social lives, there are, in fact, many people (especially those under 30) whose lives are racially integrated. Perhaps much of the acidic rhetoric that has been permeating throughout the blogosphere should be directed at the executives at HBO and the other networks for failing to produce more shows that represent these types of stories. In fact, for two seasons, the network (HBO) aired the recently canceled “How to Make It in America.” It centered on four buddies—two White, one Black and one Latino—and their constant pursuit of achieving financial independence and living life in New York City to the fullest.

The “there is something for everyone” mindset is my motto. I found “Girls” to be a fairly entertaining show. It was a middle-class, Generation Y version of “Sex and The City,” another former HBO series that focused on three single and one married upper-middle-class White women in their late 30s whose lives revolved around meeting a potential Mr. Right. I cannot say that I will be a devoted fan of “Girls,” but I will probably check in from time to time and witness the ongoing journeys of Hannah and her sisterhood posse.