As a followup to yesterday’s post about my ambivalent feelings towards HBO’s Girls, I’d like to talk about a recent article from Jezebel that sarcastically criticized Veep for being all about white people. “We’ve Been Shitting on the Wrong Show” implies that the criticism against Girls is unfair because there’s another recent HBO show with a female lead that is also heavily white, and yet no one is complaining about that.
I’ll write a more in-depth perspective about Veep closer to the end of the season, but for now, I want to offer a list of possible reasons why Girls is getting criticized for racism while Veep is not, and also whyVeep has not received the same negative backlash in general. (“Possible” is the key word in that sentence – I’m offering theories, not declarations of fact.)
- Veep is in the Vice President’s Office. Girls is in Brooklyn.
The population of Washington, D.C. is very diverse, but Congress and the inner circle of Washington D.C.’s elite is not, despite many people wanting to believe that racism is done forever because we have a black president. Brooklyn, however, is only one-third white. Veep reflects the population of its setting more accurately than Girls does.
- Veep has at least one black character as part of the main cast.
So far, Selina Meyer’s executive assistant Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but she’s had a few funny lines and she isn’t written as a stereotype. On Girls so far, the only people of color have existed as set dressing or to lecture Lena Dunham’s character on how selfish she’s being. And the upcoming characters we’ll see are the sexy Latina nanny and the thick-accented Jamaican nanny. No, Veep isn’t breaking new ground with race as of yet and there’s only one person of color in the main cast, but it’s still better than Girls on the race front so far, which just makes people facepalm with race fail.
- Girls claims to be realistic. Veep is satire.
A show that has realism or naturalism as a goal is going to receive more criticism when it’s, well, not that realistic. Satire, meanwhile, is over-the-top by definition. A clear satire is not going to get slammed for being unrealistic because the audience understands that realism is not the point.
- Girls has a relatively unknown cast. Veep has Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Buster Bluth, a UCBer, and My Girl.
Dismissing all criticism of Girls to come from people who are “just jealous” of Lena Dunham’s success would be unfair and inaccurate, but I do think jealousy is one factor, at least for some people. She’s twenty-five years old (younger than I), she has famous parents, and her co-stars include the daughter of the drummer from Bad Company, the daughter of NBC anchor Brian Williams, and the daughter of David Mamet. Who do these snotty upstarts think they are, getting this gig because of nepotism when so many of us creative types have to struggle and flail blindly before maybe, maybe finding success?
Veep, on the other hand, has beloved comedy veteran Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the title role. She’s probably the only cast member of Seinfeld who is universally beloved and constantly getting good work, and who cares if she’s also the heiress to a huge fortune? She’s been kicking butt in the comedy arena for so long that no one cares if she got a head start in the game. Besides Louis-Dreyfus, Veep also stars UCBer Matt Walsh (glad he’s getting some high-profile work!), Tony Hale (I really miss Arrested Development) and Anna Chlumsky (OMG I haven’t seen her forever since My Girl and I had no idea I missed her this much!!!)
In short, Girls has famous people’s daughters who haven’t proven themselves yet, and Veep has comedy veterans and actors we really miss seeing on TV.
- Girls has a female creator.
Could Girls be getting more criticism than Veep in terms of race because Girls was created by a woman? After all, if Lena Dunham is a woman, she has a better ability to understand the needs and struggles of another underrepresented group (people of color). Armando Iannucci, though – well, he’s just a white dude, so how is he supposed to know any better? We’ll give him a pass on the race issue because he’s so privileged that he can’t possibly be expected to do better, but Lena – Lena, how dare you, as a woman, not understand the struggles of people of color. (This paragraph is sarcastic.)
- Girls has an all-female main cast.
After seeing movie after movie and TV show after TV show that fail the Bechdel test, women are craving for an amazing show that focuses on women and female friendships. Now Girls finally exists almost a decade after Sex and the Citywent off the air. Even if the show was perfect, was it ever going to live up to the expectations of something that viewers have been wanting for such a long time?
- Real-life girls under pressure.
In addition to women genuinely wanting to see more shows about female friendships, I also think women felt pressured to like and support this show BECAUSE it focused on female friendships. If a show starring a man fails, then that show fails. If a show starring a woman fails, then it means that shows about women will usually fail. (See this comic, and apply the point about math to film, television, and marketing.) Women may think, “I have to watch this show so that more shows about women will be on the air!” And feeling pressured to like something will only lead to resentment when you don’t enjoy it.
- Jerks reign supreme on Girls AND Veep, but they’re different kinds of jerks.
Audiences may feel more comfortable laughing at the Washington-insider jerks on Veep than at the spoiled whiny twenty-somethings of Girls, especially because the Veep writers don’t try so hard to make us feel sorry for the characters on their show. Many Americans are fed up with the state of United States politics and the state of the economy. Veep lets us laugh at the jerks in Washington, D.C., while Girls wants us to identify with whiny, jobless twenty-somethings who feel like it’s reasonable to ask their parents for $1100 a month.
- Veep is funnier than Girls.
Obviously, this is a completely subjective opinion, as are all opinions about humor. But I don’t think I’m the only one who laughed throughout Veep and only cracked a few smiles during Girls. When I watch Girls, I tend to think, “That was amusing,” or, “That was a clever line,” or, “I can see why others would find that funny.” I feel like I’m watching more of an exercise in comedy than an actual comedy.
Maybe the simple reason that Girls gets criticism for being white and Veep doesn’t is that people are more likely to forgive problematic aspects of shows they really enjoy, and shows that aren’t as enjoyable will feel the full brunt of the criticism.