Thought Catalog

Is Hipster Racism Real?

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The Los Angeles Times, paragon of journalistic integrity (not to mention hard-hitting reporting on the latest box office figures for The Hunger Games), recently published an article on the subject of ‘hipster racism.’ Until I read the piece, I was completely ignorant of the idea that 1) people are still casually using the word ‘hipster’ in public in the year 2012 and 2) racism exists. You can imagine how flabbergasted I was when I clicked on the link. I half-expected the byline ‘by Isaac Asimov’ to be on the article, since I thought it was some kind of surreal science fiction.

When I ruminate on hipster racism, I can’t help but picture girls in vintage dresses pushing little old ladies down stairs or arguing over who uses the most ‘authentic’ ethnic slurs. The phrase is really just an easy way to encapsulate the controversy surrounding the Lena Dunham sitcom, Girls, which is the predominant topic of the article. Half-hour sitcoms have a long tradition of exposing cultural issues, from the exploration of prejudice on All in the Family to the obvious sexism inherent in 1960s NBC series, My Mother, the Car. Comparing a mode of conveyance to a matriarchal figure was just ripe for a scathing critique in The New York Review of Books! I mean, I could have written a doctoral thesis on the communist subtext of Green Acres, but that’s surely been mined by greater thinkers than I.

The criticism of Girls has been well-documented. There are no African-Americans in Lena Dunham’s universe. For many, this is a damnable offense. Obviously, people of all colors and persuasions live in Brooklyn. Some of them are even fashionable. The question posed to the writers of Girls is then “why are none of these people on the show?” As an ethnic minority myself, I am supposed to wonder which character I am to identify with.

The Twitter response of Lesley Arfin, a writer on the Girls staff, was potent. “What really bothered me most about [the movie] Precious was that there was no representation of ME.” In a more measured world that exists outside of a 140 character limit, Lesley would have been able to fully articulate her point that art has historically been about personal expression. Obviously, no one was asking Bret Easton Ellis to put a bunch of minorities in Less Than Zero, since it was about privileged white kids in Los Angeles. Demanding that would be akin to asking Ellis to change the entire reason for his work existing.

The problem arises when a show is marketed as universal, and the protagonist actually utters the phrase “voice of a generation,” even if it is meant to be comical and absurd. If a television program is called Girls (not Rich, White Girls) and is lauded by the critical masses as an important document of modern femininity, the producers of the show are trapped having to answer for the lack of actual universality, whether that is fair or not.

The experience of being a ‘hipster,’ however you want to define that subculture, is not universal. Most people don’t live in Brooklyn, Echo Park, San Francisco or Austin. Most people don’t ride their bikes everywhere. Most people don’t read Tao Lin books. In fact, most people don’t even read books not written by JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer or Suzanne Collins. Specificity is what makes a subculture a subculture. Girls never had a chance to be for everyone because the ‘hipster’ lifestyle was not meant for everyone. It just happens to be sold to everyone.

Subcultures are supposed to stand apart from the mass consciousness, at least until they are commodified by corporate entities. Girls is a show made for and about people in their 20s living urban lives who are free to fret about trivial problems. It’s not so different from Seinfeld, Friends, How I Met Your Mother or other popular sitcoms because it revolves around neurotic people who live relatively comfortable lives. If stories about relative privilege were racist, Whit Stillman and Woody Allen would be damned to hell for eternity. Unfortunately, consumer culture tries to say this is normal because that’s how everything we buy has to be marketed. “You need this product in your life because everyone else has it too!” People started wearing old man sweaters and fake glasses because it was, in part, a reaction to the Abercromie-ification of youth culture in the early to mid-2000s. Now, that aesthetic has permeated the zeitgeist, and Lebron James wears giant, black frames and bow ties to press conferences.

In the age of the internet, nothing is normal anymore. There is no true mass culture because the online experience gives us the ability to find the exact subculture we’re looking for without having to do more than type the word ‘dubstep’ into a search box. This is the real source of the comedy in Lena Dunham’s character’s “voice of a generation” line. There can never be a person to speak for all of our anxieties and foibles. I can be a 27 year-old mixed race Jewish person from Los Angeles who listens to Beach House and loves Star Trek and I can find someone with those exact details to date if I search hard enough. They’re probably an insufferable narcissist who loves the sound of their own voice, but that’s not my point.

The truly racially problematic element of this whole discussion is media outlets trying to define what is normal. As I said, Girls is not for everyone. It’s a TV show, and if Lena Dunham doesn’t have an overwhelming need to put minorities in her work, that does not brand her a racist. It is a series that comes from a unique perspective, and lives in a fragmented cultural zeitgeist. The true sign of racial maturity and tolerance is learning to enjoy art that is not about you, that you don’t naturally identify with. That’s the only way a person can experience the depth and breadth of experience. The only thing universal left in our culture is that we are all human beings. Let’s try to acknowledge that more. TC mark

image – David Shankbone

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    • http://twitter.com/AliPants Nosilla Remarc

      THANK YOU.

    • Anonymous

      HIGH FIVE! 

    • kaykins

      *claps*

    • Vanessa Checchio

      Lesley Arfin, hysterically accurate. Love her.

    • ATAK91

      The examples of Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother, and now Girls, are all representative of the same invisibility of ethnic minorities pervasive in mass media. All those shows take place in New York City, an incredibly diverse city, and ‘hipster’ culture (and seriously in Brooklyn?) is not just for privileged white girls.  The persistent exclusion of certain types of people from media is not solely a product of one writer’s ‘self-expression.’  Have you ever thought about why people of color are not given the same platform to express themselves?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1616790001 Annie Streats Streater

        While I get your point,  I would be interested to hear how you would answer your own (perhaps rhetorical) question. I don’t watch a lot of TV myself, and live outside the US, so I actually don’t know a lot about the industry or what is currently “out there” in terms of mainstream media that ethnic minorities can/do relate to in ways they don’t seem to with these sorts of shows… but I am genuinely interested to know. Perhaps it is not about being given a platform, but creating one? Again, I have no idea if there have been shows that have tried and failed so feel free to enlighten me.

        • Selfcongrats

          So, separate but equal platforms, then? Nothing weird about that.

        • ATAK91

           I was not saying there should be a separate platform for every race, which I think would hurt the larger cause.  I’m saying we should acknowledge that we don’t live in separate worlds, and we should acknowledge that most people’s social / work / family lives are not limited to one racial group and should be represented as such.  I’m also pointing out that there are nearly zero shows that have lead characters that are people of color, not advocating that there should be uniformly black / latino / asian shows, but that our society is diverse and most media erases that diversity. 

        • ATAK91

           US Media is mostly dominated by white men in terms of filmmakers, producers, executives, etc.  People of color usually get pidgeonholed into stereotyped roles (such as the one black character in the first Girls episode who portrays a homeless man).  There are a lot of examples of Asian Americans taking advantage of independent media, such as Youtube, to put forth their stories that mainstream media has declared ‘unmarketable’.  While creating new platforms is one way to address the issue, there should also be more efforts at diversifying the people who get jobs in mainstream media (from actors up to filmmakers) as well as putting forward more shows that tell stories that deviate from the default white perspective.

    • http://twitter.com/karlusss Karl McDonald

      I am not sure you have said anything here.

    • Colin

      Uh-oh. I hope nobody jumps in front of a Segway again.

      • http://twitter.com/emilcDC Emil Caillaux

        Going out to the streets to find one. It’s tourist season in DC so my odds are good. 

         I am tired of all the Lesley Arfin. Goodbye, cruel, hipster-racist world.

        • Colin

           single tear and a wave goodbye…

    • Cat

      “The true sign of racial maturity and tolerance is learning to enjoy art that is not about you, that you don’t naturally identify with.” BAM. 

      • Anonymous

         BAM!  I’m white and most media portrays my experiences and reflects me at every turn!  So I get to tell those who AREN’T reflected in the majority of television, film, and other popular art what they should and should not be comfortable with in order to be perceived as having “racial maturity and tolerance” as defined by ME, a white person!  BAM!!!!

    • Oliver Miller

      Ugh, hipster racism is so last week, see what I did there?  I’m so funny.

    • http://twitter.com/Nadiaaa87 Nadia

      Hey minorities can be hipsters and privileged too! That is, to me, the strangest part about not portraying them on shows like “Girls”. The show wouldn’t need to diverge from whatever aesthetic it’s claiming because minorities are within that subculture as well. That was a little less so with a Seinfeld or Friends in the mid 90s, but really? You can’t find any nonwhite female who fits right in with the “Girls” framework?  

    • Selfcongrats

      “The true sign of racial maturity and tolerance is learning to enjoy art
      that is not about you, that you don’t naturally identify with.” Translation: Shut the fuck up with your complainin’ non-white people. You’ll take all these shows and movies and books about people who don’t look like you that somehow get made over and over and you’ll LIKE it.

      Also, you make it seem like Twitter was the only place Lesley Arfin could’ve fully explained what she meant with that tweet about Precious. If she wanted to discuss it further elsewhere she could have. Instead she chose to delete the offensive tweet, play at an apology, and then delete that too. But benefit of the doubt (even though her problematic racial statements are well-documented), right?

      All that to say: Fuck yeah hipster racism is real, though Lena Dunham probably isn’t guilty of it (See ‘Vice’ for examples). No one should be excoriating Dunham for creating something true to her experiences. What we should be doing is asking what is meant when we consider something ‘niche’ or ‘universal’ and how our history as a society influences those designations.

      • Matthew

        It might aid your understanding to note that Dave Schilling is a black man writing about a television program made by a white woman.

    • James

      Congratulations. Fooled into reading yet another Girls article. 

    • shakyhands

      I don’t know when we decided it was still okay for an “important document of modern femininity” to be entirely whitewashed. Stop making excuses for the exclusion of nonwhite perspectives when it clearly serves little narrative purpose.

    • Guest

      Are new article topics so hard to think of these past few weeks that people continually write about Girls?

    • http://twitter.com/A_Tall_Ass_Dog John-Joseph Conway

      Please tell me you were being sarcastic saying that you were flabbergasted that racism still exists.

      This article serves as a poor defense to a show that has become infamous for whitewashing Brooklyn and only focusing on the lives of the most privileged in society. Because someone else can articulate my thoughts better than I can say:”Because privilege is conferred by social systems, people don’t have to feel privileged in order to be privileged.” – Allan G Johnson

    • Aaron_Hef

      I am SO bummed out with this article. It started off excellently by neatly summing up the Girls issues and how they have played out but then it just dropped into shoulder shrugging.

      Girls is a PROBLEM. Not because of racism or rich white girls or anything like that. It is a problem because Dunham presented herself as the mouthpiece for NYC. In doing so she appropriated something very important to millions of people around the globe – many of whom have never even visited the city. NYC is the idealised centre of creativity – a kind of OZ – to everybody in Western society. Now, we can all debate if the NYC of our imaginations really exists or not but that isnt the point here.

      The real point is she claimed to speak for the city. Okay, cool – everyone is allowed express NYC and what it means to them. That is why it holds a special place in our hearts. AND everyone is allowed to be totally wrong, or off, or whatever, in their expression. BUT also, once in a while…..people get to be right. They correctly express NYC and its magic to the world. And when that happens it furthers the myths of the city and renews its place in the public consciousness.

      BUT Dunham didnt pull that off. She wasnt right. She acted like she was but she wasnt. Again, so what? Everyone has the right to be portentious afterall. Except that when an in crowd of media critics acclaim something so wrong, they cause a cultural rift. That is what happened here. And it has deep fallout. 

      Dunham claimed to speak for NYC – she doesnt. Futhermore, the deluded intellectual bullying she exemplifies in claiming to express NYC is at her core. And that delusion imputes itself into every other topic she touches – race, money, WHATEVER. She is just totally out of touch.

      Dangerously, her delusion found an echo chamber in the form of the in-crowd of critics who either praised it because they want to be friends with Judd Apatow or else they really found it to be excellent work which they connected with. It is actually probably a combination of the two but in all instances the acclaim indicates only one thing – the tastemakers of our culture have gotten drunk on the supply and they are too sloshed to tell the public what is good and what isnt.

      This is why Girls is a PROBLEM. Because it is a bad, out of touch, show with morals not in keeping with this era that the public has been pressured to LOVE. It is not acceptable to shrug our shoulders like this article does and try locate the problem with defining normal etc. We need to instead take a stand against this show  – because indoctrined art is mentally tyrany.

      Normal DOES exist, it Always will. You identify it by seeing the landmark art of a society. Girls is, without doubt, landmark art. Unfortunately, for Dunham, she is on the wrong side of the binary here in that her art is a landmark defining of what this society is not. Girls is the opposite of normal for these times. And if we all shrug our shoulders we let critics enforce our preferences rather than influence or read them.

      It is a problem and we must actively say it sucks or it will suck us down with its bullying delusion.

      Aaron Heffernan
      @ThisIteration:twitter 

      • tha kid

        You think the show would have been better if each of the characters represented a different ethnicity? Wouldn’t that feel extremely contrived and car commercial-ish? 

        People need to chill out.

         It’s not a show about being a white girl, it’s a show about being 20-something, and most of the experiences are not unique to white people. 

        • Anonymous

          ” it’s a show about being 20-something, and most of the experiences are not unique to white people. ”

          And that’s the root of the criticism w/r/t lack of diversity in the cast.

        • Aaron_hef

          I agree the show isn’t about being a white girl. But I think the show is about one person’s ego rather than about being mid 20s in general. Dunham thinks she can mouthpiece for NYC which led her to go all white because that is what Friends, Annie Hall, etc did in very different eras. I really believe her egoistical belief that she is the next heir to NYC art causes to her make decisions based on how NYC looks in classic TV and movies. She is accidentally racist in my opinion – though that is not to excuse it. For the same root reasons she is accidentally elitist. All this chatter is actually people recoiling from her ego and being disappointed Apatow vouched for her in the first place.

          AH

      • Gmo Saza

        TL;DR

    • Guest

      there’s a black girl in the new Whit Stillman movie. can we all stop complaining now?

      btw, this just reads like yet another long-winded comment left on any of the other “Girls”/race related articles.

    • Grace

      I love your perspective on racial maturity. I think it’s easy to be dismissive about other races and cultural subgroups enjoying certain lifestyles inherently attributed to others. We accuse each other of misappropriating culture all the time. You can’t appreciate X because you’re just going to copycat it and steal it as your own without rightful acknowledgement of cultural origin. And it’s true, we do do that. The beats misappropriated jazz culture and the woes of black men living in 1950s Harlem (or so I’ve read and been told, I certainly won’t imply firsthand experience). But if we all stick to our own and can’t enjoy something because it’s not “our” culture, then how the hell do we progress? 

      Also, I wish critics would challenge/place more blame on the networks for not picking up shows that are racially inclusive. If people want to see more of the real world in the media, then distributors and exhibitors need to put this stuff out there. There have to be anti-homogenous-white-cultural-hegemony programs being conceived if not physically produced in this country. Not all writers and aspiring filmmakers are white, so it shouldn’t be skewed that way on television. You can point out racial stereotypes and offensive imagery within a text, but you can’t blame the individual show for a narrow (niche) perspective. Gotta blame the collective whole of programming that lacks the scope of realistic socioeconomic representation in this country. And that’s my film school kid take on that, suckas! Bam!

    • Em

      This was a decent yet some what off topic rant about Girls, not hipster racism. Hipster racism from what I know is more about being overtly racists while pretending to be ironic. And while 1) I have not watched the show and dont plan too, it has to be said that white washing Brooklyn is strange and some what racist and 2) Its an excuse in 2012 that just because an artist has a vision that it should only be white. A show in NY cant be exclusively white and try to be a voice of a generation…which you pointed. I think the fact that you said you did not even know that racism still existed is the REAL issue. That is completely ludicrous and might be what makes hipster racism whatever that is, acceptable/very real in media and day to day interactions. 

      • Mathlvr

        come on now, he was definitely joking about not knowing that racism still existed…

        • Em

           I couldn’t tell, his article veered so far off topic, in addition to his comments on “racial maturity” seems like he was serious to me. And he was just making excuses for white racism instead of addressing it, like his title indicated he would…got lost on the road to his point!

      • Guestropod

        Yeah, when I think ‘hipster racism’ (and from what I’ve read), I picture, you know, thin white girls in  sundappled fields smoking a cigarette and wearing a feathered headdress… y’know, Tumblr, basically. 

    • Meg

      that show is terrible anyway. they whine and complain far too much and, yes, they’re all extremely rich and unrelatable. 

    • Casam

      Well said.

    • Will

      Every article I read about Girls makes me miss How To Make It In America just a bit more.

      • Martin

        +1

    • http://twitter.com/robwoh Robert Wohner

      This is an interesting article that brings out points worth discussing but it doesn’t really address the initial question. The website Racialicious recently released a “Historical Guide to Hipster Racism”. They even claim ownership of the origin of the phrase.  It predates the Girls phenomenon by several years and involves areas outside of scripted television. Even if one doesn’t agree with their arguments, it’s worth considering and checking out. Arguing that Girls isn’t racist doesn’t reject their hypothesis that hipster racism exists. Making this just another well-written article about Girls.

    • Glasstongue

      This is kind of ridiculous, you’re relegating an entire ethnic issue to one subculture. One, I seriously doubt “hipsters” have any command in any studio projects, two most of those Hunger Game racial issues were tackled by 12 year old midwestern white girls when most “hipsters” are centrally located in large metropolis cities. Girls is not about hipsters, it’s some ignorant middle aged writer’s concept of what a hipster is and the fact that she decided to leave out an ethnicity doesn’t mean hipsters are racist that is a ludicrous accusation. The whole concept of culture and subculture is that it is divided amongst people who share these specific ideals, that’s like calling BET racist because it supplies a product specified for black society. And Girls is not by FAR a hipster show, it’s a damn Sex and the City in puberty. Perhaps you should do a little more research than throwing in a few vague descriptions and city  names to target hipsters in.   

      • -w-

        Girls is written, produced, directed by, and starring a 25 year old. “do a little more research”

      • Vika

        damm, middle age at 25? The writer is the main character btw. Write what you know

    • -w-

      Girls got bad ratings anyway. No one is even being exposed to this whitewashed Brooklyn bloggers won’t shut the hell up about. Girls is a great program if you love AIDS jokes, tubby, mind-numbingly depressing sex, and people who remind you of your boring cousin. That’s all you need to know about it. No one on it represents me ethnically and for that I am glad.

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