The Price of Privilege: HBO's Girls and the Logic of Post-

Curator's Note

The reaction to HBO’s Girls (2012-present) was immediate and, at times, highly critical, pointing to a notable lack of racial diversity in the representation of New York City and commenting on the way in which the show evidenced a very specific twentysomething middle-class sensibility. Separately, these issues of race, class, age, and gender call to mind the various ways in which identity can be conceptualized but I would argue that the more pressing concern for critics is to understand how these dimensions are intrinsically related, particularly with respect to a worldview informed by a post-feminist and post-race sensibility.

As Anna Holmes notes in her piece “White ‘Girls,’” this particular HBO offering was not dissimilar from other representations of a New York City filled with (good looking) white people. To be sure, we can attribute some of this practice to a media industry that is based on appealing to the widest audience possible but I think that the more interesting question is to consider just who these girls are supposed to represent?

 In many ways, the word “privileged” comes to mind.

Privilege is an easy word to toss around and is somewhat unhelpful until we begin to break it down:  a sense of privilege in Girls is certainly tied to notions of class (i.e., the traditional implication of the term) but is also interwoven with the ideology of post-.

At its core, the logic of post- assumes that inequalities have been overcome and that “equal opportunity” has created a level playing field for all. It is unsurprising, then, that the core characters of Girls fail to comment on the lack of racial diversity for they simply do not see race in the ways that others do—their privilege is the luxury to not consciously consider race and to ignore the ways in which America continues to evidence structural inequalities that hinder, among others, women and racial minorities.

Ultimately, it is this sense of rampant individualism that stems from a viewpoint suffused with the post- that accounts for the self-centeredness and extended adolescence of Hannah Horvath but also, more dangerously, suggests a possible reason why the twentysomethings in Girls persist in their sheltered understanding of the world. These “girls” are not racist or necessarily insensitive; they are just privileged.


Maria San Filippo's picture

Counting class

I appreciate your reorienting the conversation about Girls’ non-diverse narcissism and the backlash it provoked to highlight privilege, Chris. The post-race sensibility is a flawed one, as you note, but like “post-feminism” has been employed both as a regressive assertion that we are beyond racism (or sexism) as well as a progressive acknowledgment of other structural inequalities – namely economical – significantly dictating contemporary Americans’ social privilege or lack thereof. In its “Third Way/ve,” formulation, feminist theory has negotiated these intersectional factors of oppression quite productively, I think.

As your clip reveals, however “accidentally” on the show’s part, whiteness is not always the color of privilege; before Shoshanna and Hannah reveal their own hardly oppressive “baggage,” we learn that the contestant identified as “the black one” confesses to similarly superficial and individualistic burdens: overspending, marriage madness, and knowingly compromising her birth control.


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