Last week, Rebecca Carroll wrote an interesting piece for Gawker, titled: “Lena Dunham’s Race Problem.” She explored Dunham’s trajectory and the freedom she has as a white woman who has been able to be both creative and earn a significant amount of money while doing it. This can be a rarity for many artists, not just Black ones. Carroll also explores how Dunham is able to thrive and be supported in the entertainment industry vs. Issa Rae (Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl creator) who while popular and gaining traction, still seems to go unnoticed by majority white Hollywood.
As lovely as it is that the genuinely talented Dunham is white and normal-sized, as opposed to white and skinny, her career trajectory looks a lot different than that of another normal-sized, genuinely talented artist: Issa Rae—who, for the record, is a Dunham fan.
One year older than Dunham at 29, Rae’s hit web series Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl has been seen by over 20 million viewers. She’s been in development with HBO for an untitled pilot for nearly two years, and has been featured on the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list twice (including this year). Recently she and her business partner Deniese Davis launched ColorCreative.tv to “increase opportunities women and minority TV writers,” because: “Sure, networks have diversity programs and initiatives set in place to combat the jarring homogeneity that is the writer’s room, but those programs have yielded very few high-profile success stories.”
She is an ambitious and hardworking artist writing about her experience as a young woman in the world, and who is also slated to publish a book of essays in 2015. I’m guessing her book advance was less than $3.5 million.
Rae is Black; Dunham is white—and Black artists, particularly Black women artists (see: Shonda Rhimes, Janelle Monáe and Beyoncé), are rarely afforded the luxury of being celebrated as individual artists. Entertainers, yes. Angry, sure. Afro-futurists, definitely. Feminists, occasionally. Individual artists, almost never.
Carroll makes a good point, but I wonder what’s the point to point out the obvious. Yes, it’s 2014 and we should expect more of the entertainment industry and for it to treat people of color equally and give them the same opportunities, but we know that’s not happening. We know how difficult it is for people of color (especially women) to get work in general, decent roles, and fair pay. So, how can you criticize Dunham when she is simply working and twerking a system that she didn’t invent? In the words of Tupac, “She was given this world, she didn’t make it.”
It would be great if Dunham and other white artists of her ilk were more willing to share the stage and spotlight with Black folks, but then they would have to give up a piece of their pie. Would that happen? Doubtful. Should that happen? Obviously. Carroll, however, expects more.
Dunham uses shorthand in her acknowledgments to thank “David, Esther and the whole Remnick/Fein clan”—as in David Remnick, editor in chief of The New Yorker, and wife, Esther Fein. Among her biggest supporters is Judd Apatow.
Dunham’s biggest and most powerful champions, in fact, appear to mostly be straight white men. Jon Stewart all but licked her face in praise of her unbelievable talent when she appeared on his show to promote her book…
Still, if Dunham were to say to Remnick and Apatow, “Guys, you know what would be awesome? If we did a movie or an entire issue of a magazine or dedicated the whole New Yorker festival to conversations about centralizing racial representation in media,” they would likely listen, and that would be radical.
Would they listen? Really?Is it Dunham’s job to usher in more people of color into a very closed and racist environment, when white women are really starting to do slightly better in the entertainment industry themselves? Carroll wishes Dunham would be Black women’s ally when all she might want to do is get her coins. And I guess make her art. Ok. Good luck with that. Carroll is essentially waiting for the white person assist. When someone with clout brings “unknown” (because Black people have been knowing about it for forever) Black art and entertainment to the masses, to the mainstream, and deems it worthy of acknowledgment. As if that praise is all that matters.
Even though Issa Rae did get a development deal with HBO, I applaud her for continuing to chart her own path and do things outside of Hollywood studios. If she didn’t then she would have been waiting forever and a day for some more recognition. For them to deem her worthy. And who has time for that when you have your own dreams to follow, your own goals to accomplish?
James Brown once sang, “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door, I’ll get it myself.” A door needs to be opened for Issa Rae and the talented writers, actors, and directors of color. But it’s not Dunham’s job to turn the knob.
Are you a Lena Dunham fan? Issa Rae fan? Or both? What are your thoughts on their place in the entertainment industry?