In 2009, at a speech to Bergen Community College, Junot Diaz described his work as the process of making mirrors. He likened the experience of growing up Dominican in America to being a vampire and having no reflection: “if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” It’s a powerful metaphor, one that sticks and carries with it a myriad of implications for minority populations.
Making mirrors is what all of us do, when we make art. At its core, art is about connection. We are contributing to the pool of cultural artefacts in the hope that they will resonate with someone. We make mirrors in the hope that our younger selves can see a little bit of themselves in the world and feel less monstrous for it. It’s one of the most bone-chilling arguments on the importance of representation, really driving home how desolate it can feel to grow up in a world that never shows you faces likes your own.
Lena Waithe wrote Twenties because she believed that what she had made was exceptional and that nothing else like it already existed. She’s not wrong: Twenties, which follows the lives of young, black twentysomethings, is almost entirely unique in its portrayal of people of colour, at least in today’s television landscape. Women of colour make up most of the primary cast and the show is focused on their stories, rather than relegating them to supporting roles. Clips of the pilot episode have been released on Youtube, but it is not a web series. The project is backed by Queen Latifah’s company, Flavour Unit Entertainment, and Waithe’s only request of her viewers (many of whom she already won over with Dear White People) is that they introduce the show to twenty other people, the point being to garner enough public interest that studio executives pay attention.
It’s alarming that this kind of grassroots campaign is necessary. Twenties is well-written, engaging and funny – it should appeal to a media that is obsessed with the lives of twenty-somethings, the Thought Catalog and Girls generation that values the kind of gritty honesty found in a narrative like this. (The “lesson” on tampon application, in particular, had me choking on my tea.) The series of four short YouTube clips ends with the protagonist making an unexpectedly honest confession. She looks into the camera and tears up. She talks about her complicated love life, her less-than-ideal situation. “Fuck The Voice,” she says, her chosen topic for the day. She chooses to bare her soul instead. It is instantly the kind of scene that ought to make television gold; relatable, heart-stupid and naked.
Despite its charms and star-backing, the show is unable to find a home. There’s no other explanation for it – networks and studio executives don’t care about the stories of women of colour, of queer women of colour. Networks have plenty of time for shows about young white women finding their way through the world, battling thorny love lives, dead-end jobs and dodgy living conditions in the big city (The New Girl, Girls, 2 Broke Girls, Whitney, Inside Amy Schumer) but not a single spot for similar fare led by a girl who isn’t white or named Mindy Kaling. The same media that lauds Lena Dunham for her ability to successfully pull off running (and starring in) a TV show at her young age is reluctant to give Lena Waithe the same opportunity.
I can’t help but think of a recent interview with Mindy Kaling, where she admitted that being so involved in the creation of The Mindy Project wasn’t necessarily her first career choice, but one she was steered towards after realizing she wouldn’t be content playing the best friend to white female protagonists for the rest of her career. That an accomplished performer like Mindy with shows like The Office under her belt has to create a show with a role for her in it is one of the many reasons that Twenties is essential.
The change isn’t going to come around right away; we’re lucky that there is talent like Kaling and Waithe to bridge the gap. They’re not alone – Issa Rae of Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl has just inked a deal with HBO, teaming up with Larry Wilmore of The Bernie Mac Show to write a comedy series that about the sometimes-uncomfortable personal encounters and sexual adventures of a young black woman.
For Waithe, comparisons with Dunham are going to be inevitable. The shows share the same wry tone, similar themes and succinct, nondescript titles. Waithe has admitted to being flattered by the comparison. After all, Dunham’s Girls is a critical and commercial success. It’s garnered the kind of critical attention usually reserved for the angst of middle-aged white men. (See: Don Draper, Walter White, Ned Stark.) There’s not necessarily anything wrong with the white female protagonists of all these shows. They just aren’t enough.
The lack of representation is unfair to young women of colour and unhealthy for their younger counterparts. Lena Dunham and her all-white cast will never be the voice of a generation because they aren’t representative of anything. The generation is bigger and more diverse than the tiny world of Girls could ever conceive of. It’s an important part of our cultural voice but it can’t continue to be the only voice we have.
If Lena Dunham wants to be the next Tina Fey, than good on her. She’s on her way there already. But Mindy Kaling, Issa Rae and Lena Waithe aren’t working towards the same goals. They’re making their own; they don’t produce these shows just as a showcase of their talent (although they are talented) but because they are making these mirrors, they are creating representation where formerly there was a vacuum. These women grew up watching primarily white protagonists on television sets and they’re going to make sure that the next generations don’t do the same. There is no established institutional precedent for them to work their way up to. Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham are the first of their kinds, and Lena Waithe will be too.
Sarvat Hasin is a writer, reader and part-time student. She lives in Oxford and likes to talk about fairytales, feminism and things she read in the paper.