People Of Color Finally Appear On GIRLS And It’s The Same Ol’ Fucking Story

May 8th, 2012 | 2 comments | Posted by Jen

After all the talk about the Small White World in which the GIRLS of HBO’s new comedy live, it was revealed Sunday in episode 4, “Hannah’s Diary,” that there are actually people of color living in that pale version of the City. And they come out of the woodwork, all at once, like…a herd of zombies!

There’s Hannah’s Puerto Rican coworker (played by Selenis Leyva) at her new temp job who 1) wears large nameplate earrings to the office, 2) tells Hannah she’ll “get used to” being sexually harassed by their boss Rich, 3) doesn’t see the point in speaking up about the sexual harassment–particularly because their boss buys them gifts–and 4) says “sassy” things like “That’s a hella different. A hella different,” in case we didn’t process ALL THE OBVIOUS SIGNS that she is, um, a hella different from Hannah.

Then there are the nannies Jessa, a newly-minted childcare worker, tries to “organize” on the playground. There are four of them, one in every flavor: black, brown, yellow, and ginger (the inclusion of the ginger manny was hilarious, actually). On IMDb, the nannies are credited only as “Jamaican nanny” and “Tibetan nanny.” (No listing for the “Latina nanny,” played by Angelic Zambrana.) At first, the nannies mistake Jessa for a young mother, which leads to this conversation:

LATINA NANNY: You’re the babysitter? I thought for sure you was an actress with some baby.

JESSA: No, I’m just like all of you.

When Jessa says “I’m just like all of you,” it’s a wink to the audience, because she so obviously isn’t. Jessa, too, is a hella different from her coworkers–those nameless nannies and, in the case of “Tibetan nanny,” speechless, too–and her attempt to unionize them is supposed to seem patronizing and naive in that well-meaning, white liberal, white guilt sorta way.

This bit of awareness vis-à-vis race and difference–which, admittedly, was refreshing–doesn’t change the fact that GIRLS has a race problem. At first, the problem seemed to be how whitewashed its version of New York was. After episode 4, it’s clear the problem is the show doesn’t know what to do with characters who aren’t white, which is perhaps why it defaulted to a Small White version of itself in the first place. (And why it should consider returning there.)

Like the black homeless guy in the pilot episode, the people of color who appear in “Hannah’s Diary” function as props, plot devices, and foils…for the white leads. Hannah and Jessa’s coworkers are one-dimensional, which only throws Hannah and Jessa’s three-dimensionality into starker relief. Hannah and Jessa’s coworkers are familiar types we’ve all seen before–the nameless, identity-less underclass of New York–and their stereotype-y un-realness only makes the white girls’ “realness” seem all the more staggering, realness for which the show has been endlessly lauded thus far by its admirers.

Consider how this dynamic plays out in Sunday’s episode. Hannah’s Puerto Rican coworker tells her to dump her bad boyfriend; Hannah finally works up the nerve to dump her bad boyfriend. (It should be noted that another coworker, played by GIRLS writer Lesley Arfin of the now-infamous Precious tweet, chimes in with similar advice, and though Arfin is white, her character is a class stereotype, with her regional accent and weird ideas about nutrition.) Of course, confronting her bad boyfriend only makes the bad boyfriend want Hannah more.

Jessa, meanwhile, in imagining herself to be some kind of Cesar Chavez for disenfranchised New York nannies, loses track of the children she’s been hired to look after. This should be a disaster–if she were brown, the plot would demand she be deported–but it magically works to her advantage, deepening the bond–and ratcheting up the sexual tension–she’s developing with the married father of those children.

Even with the addition of some ethnic characters, GIRLS is still a white world, people of color just live in it–interchangeably, anonymously, and when there’s a need to push the narrative along for the leads. Because only white people, apparently, have “real” stories.

[HBO.com: "Hannah's Diary"]

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