When I started watching “Girls” final episode and saw Lena Dunham as Hanna Horvath holding a black baby in her arms - without anybody commenting on the baby’s color- I was convinced I had, by mistake, skipped an episode. In the last one I had seen, the baby had not been born yet, but we already knew it would be a boy (so they did not go for a sentimental ending of “Girls”: another girl being born.) The guy that had made Hanna pregnant was a sweet surf instructor played by a British- Pakistani actor. If this was meant to be realistic, the black color of the baby should have been a huge surprise, to Hannah as well as to her friends and parents. We know it is possible that a black baby comes from black ancestors, way back in the family line- possible but highly improbable. More often, there is a simpler solution to such mysteries: the guy that is believed to be the biological father actually isn’t. The conversation I was sure to have missed was everybody asking Hannah if there had been secrets in her love life that neither her friends nor the audience knew.
Endings are a big thing for me. I always have a hard time to find endings for my own stories. Therefore, I am eager to analyze the solutions people I admire come up with. I was very curious how Lena Dunham and Jenny Konner would wrap up “Girls”, a show I loved. I wondered how I could have missed an entire part of the final countdown. It turned out I hadn’t. It was exactly as I had seen it: in one scene she was pregnant. In the next one, she had a black baby - and nobody seemed to wonder how that had happened. Incomprehensible, at least to me. I waited for an explanation later on in the episode but nobody ever mentioned the color of the baby.
Ok, I thought after a while, it must be a joke. There had been many discussions about the almost all-white cast of "Girls"- how the series did not reflect the diversity of Brooklyn, how those “Girls” lived in a bubble. Lena Dunham had reacted to those accusations- both in interviews and by giving Hannah a storyline, in a later season, about an affair with a black guy who accused her of being color blind. The joke would have been: “You, the audience, told us all the time we were color blind. What do you mean by that? What color? The color of the baby? Is there anything special about the baby’s color? We didn’t see it- we must be colorblind.” I concluded it must have been this kind of a joke, and I had just been a little slow to get it. Who could blame me- the show is not about my generation and not about my country. I turned to Emily Nussbaum, my oracle and imaginary girlfriend, to check out what she thought about that kind of joke: wasn’t it a little lame? A little over the top, in a moment when everybody was so emotional about seeing those girls for the very last time? Emily Nussbaum is the television critic for The New Yorker. In my head I am discussing everything about my favorite shows with her. None of my actual friends is watching them, but I consider Emily Nussbaum a close- if imaginary- friend. Even closer than the characters in my favorite shows. So, I was eager to find out what she had to say about that black baby joke. But in her critic of the girls finale there is not a single word about the baby’s color.
That’s when I started to feel ashamed. Emily Nussbaum never misses a joke. So, there was no joke. I checked on the other big magazines: same thing everywhere. No one mentioned the baby’s color. Was I crazy? I watched the episode again. The baby was clearly black. But the educated writers from the good magazines did not consider this an issue that had to (or could?) be talked about. Just as the characters in “Girls”. When this was so disturbing to me, was it because I was terribly racist? Racist to an amount unpresentable among the educated people of nowadays?
I googled and found a lot of comments on Twitter. “WTF- how is Hannah’s baby black? Did I miss something?”. Those people were as confused as I was, they were my peers, but those where the naïve watchers, probably very young ones, and what was worse: the same people that had commented endlessly about Lena Dunham’s body, about her belly being too fat etc. Was the black baby kind of an educational program?
The many scenes in which Lena Dunham appeared naked sure were kind of an education. I love and admire her as an actress, as she apparently does not to give a fuck about her body not fulfilling the conventional norms of beauty. She is clearly not ashamed and acts naked on screen with complete freedom. I cannot praise this highly enough. It is a huge thing. It sure liberated hundreds of thousands of women enslaved by the dictate of the pictures of the porn industry. What she did there as an actress has to be celebrated by all feminists.
I have more ambivalent feelings about the writing, though. The series is taking it for granted that the shape of a female body should not be an issue to any decent person. So, it is mostly not talked about in the series. While Lena Dunham's naked body produced an outcry all over the social media Hannah Horvath's body was (almost) never commented among the cast. Just like the color of the baby. So, this seems to be the same tactic here. What is disturbing is that in the middle of a writing that is psychologically realistic- to a point that the characters seem to be completely alive- there is one thing that is treated very different from the way it is “in real life”. While the girls are depicted as fighting with all the difficulties that come from their different flaws, their narcissism, egotism, from the burdens they got from their parents, they never have issues with their looks. They have issues with their bodies, with allergies, illness etc. but not with their looks. In one way, this is great. It is education- it says: you simply can’t talk about this anymore if you are a decent person. Just stop thinking in those terms. Look at us: a whole crowd of people who never judge anybody in terms of their looks. And what’s more: among us even sexual attraction doesn’t follow the dictate of the media. I am sure that works. Just by seeing a world with different rules over and over again creates possibilities of change inside the heads of the audience.
On the other hand, issues that are excluded from the discussion obviously cannot be discussed. Good or bad? On one level the series scored a big win against the dictate of a misogynist beauty industry. On another level, it is possible that women “oppressed by the figures of beauty” felt even more miserable when the series seemed to say that it was not ok to mention those feelings of discrimination.
In German there is a phrase of Willhelm Busch that says:
“Darum aber merket scharf
nicht sein kann was nicht sein darf”
(Stick to the following wisdom: what is not allowed to happen cannot happen). This is funny because obviously very often people act in a way that is not allowed. It will not work not to say: no decent person can respond sexually to features promoted by the beauty industry. There are clearly other forces at work that cannot be annihilated by a moral claim. At least not immediately. Maybe they can be weakened by mere repetition, though.
So, maybe the black baby no one talked about was the same kind of strategy as letting no character talk about Hannah’s body fat. But to me, there seems to be an important difference: in the battle about women's bodies, Lena Dunham belongs to the party of designated victims. Ignoring that battle means standing up against the victimization of a group she herself is a part. While ignoring the battle that is going on about race means acting as if a fight in which she belongs to the privileged party was over. I think it is problematic to just ignore privileges you were born with , on the ground you never wanted them in the first place. It is for sure not the same thing as bravely ignoring when society wants you to be a victim.
But if this is true, how come that Emily Nussbaum didn’t say so? I still feel that I am missing something. And I am still confused about what to think of that black baby- and would love to read some comments.