In a flash of political ignorance and immaturity, the lone Republican character was gone from Lena Dunham’s Girls. But despite the typical conservative view of the HBO comedy as emblematic of all the social values they abhor, the ignorance and immaturity was on the part of Dunham-portrayed protagonist Hannah Horvath. And Sandy, Donald Glover’s Republican character who served as Hannah’s love interest through the first two episodes, was most definitely the good guy.
That a Republican would be portrayed sympathetically might come as something of a surprise to fans of the show, who generally share the cosmopolitan liberal politics of Lena Dunham and might share the general attitude of the show’s characters towards Republicans. But Dunham’s characterization of a Brooklyn-dwelling Republican was an apt response to early critics of the show and an important challenge to the worldview of her own fans.
A miniature firestorm swept through the critic industry during Girls’ first season, as there appeared to be a dearth of minority characters in Hannah Horvath’s world. While it’s certainly believable that a group of four recent college grads from elite liberal arts schools could settle in Brooklyn while maintaining a paucity of diversity in their social circles, this criticism was meant not an assault on the believability of Hannah’s world, but on the diversity-blindness of its creator.
Dunham maintains that Sandy wasn’t a response to this diversity-based criticism, but nevertheless, she chose to make her black love interest into something actively abhorrent to many fans of the show: she made him a Republican. After all, when going for minority representation, why not go all-in and make him a Republican from Brooklyn?
Within the show, Sandy didn’t serve as much of a vehicle for political commentary. Indeed, the viewers know little to nothing about his politics. He owns a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. He thinks policy issues surrounding gun control are complicated. And that’s about it. To Hannah and her friends, however, he’s a Republican, and that’s all they need to know about it.
At first, Hannah dismisses Sandy’s politics as inconsequential. “People are different,” she says to her roommate Elijah, “You were with George for a very long time and he’s still on Hotmail.” Hannah swings wildly from this sentiment to telling her friends she broke up with him because of his politics. Now, a potential romantic partner’s politics aren’t as light as choice of e-mail server, but the way Hannah and her friends treat Republicanism ensures their collective ignorance.
It’s way more complicated than that.
Sandy’s politics are under almost constant assault from Hannah’s friends, both when he’s in the room and when he’s not around. Despite the time we spend watching the characters talk about Sandy’s views, we never actually learn anything about them. He weathers assaults on topics from gay marriage (there are pro-gay marriage Republicans, of course) to the disparate impact of crime policy (there are even some Republicans enthusiastic about criminal justice reform). By all means, it could be that Sandy is a doctrinaire Republican who holds every policy view that the typical progressive finds noxious (owning guns is okay sometimes, perhaps). His actual politics are secondary to the fact that he illustrates Hannah and her friends, like many Brooklyn-dwelling twentysomething liberal arts graduates, don’t particularly care what Sandy believes about anything. They merely care that he generally chooses to align himself with the wrong national-level coalition. They can’t get past the R-word.
The way that Sandy interacts with his peers is likely familiar to many city-dwelling liberal fans of the show. Think about when you go home to your insanely conservative families in red states during the holidays. Think about how even the mention of your dissenting opinion on political topics sends them into a frothing rage, refusing to give a fair hearing to ideas they disagree with and refusing to even characterize the views you hold accurately.
In these situations, the best course for Sandy to take is the one that he takes with Hannah’s gay roommate, Elijah: ignore the unfairness, say something witty, disarm and walk away. Add alcohol (or, for example, literary criticism) and you’ll get a more explosive situation, but for the most part, Sandy is so used to people who wouldn’t even attempt to understand him that he’s learned it’s best not to even engage.
Dunham must actually know some Republicans who run in educated New York social circles, because the way Sandy’s character acts is exactly as a Republican in those situations would. I speak from personal experience! There’s often an attempt made to explain away traditional center-right coalition politics. “The hipster conservatives that I know are Libertarians,” for example, or “he doesn’t seem to be a practicing social conservative,” as if these caveats make his center-right politics more palatable. The default attempt is to explain away how someone so personable, so smart, so nice, would possibly self-identify as a Republican. Doing so robs Sandy of agency and makes the show’s characters come off as the ignorant naval-gazing twentywhatevers they are.
Sandy’s character exposes a fault line in the personal politics of the Girls constituency: is it better to be an ignorant Democrat or a thoughtful Republican? Surely the choice of political alignment is more of a moral stance than the choice of e-mail server, as Hannah attempts to explain it away as. But is it more important than being generally rude to strangers? More important than donating time or money to charity, no matter the political cause? More important than being a good person?
This line of thought was kicked off by a Gawker commenter, of all things:
Supposedly Sandy is a “mythical rational Republican” that Gawker constituent NinjaCate yearns to meet and debate. But, again, we know nothing of Sandy’s actual views. He could be the mythical Gawker stereotype of a Republican: anti-gay marriage, pro-life, perhaps even (gasp!) someone who thinks Sarah Palin ain’t the worst. All of those are tangential, however, to the fact that he’s a pretty good guy who treats strangers with respect and is considerate of his friends and love interests. (Not that he’s perfect; he handles his critique of Hannah’s personal writing with kid gloves, and in a bit of an insulting way.) Gawker commenter NinjaCate seems to have a strange idea of what a “real Republican” is, and it’s possible NinjaCate just imagines every single one to be an intemperate, intolerant jerk who treats friends and acquaintances with the callousness typically ascribed to elected Republican politicians. But that’s not actually the way the world works; Red America isn’t a dystopia where common courtesy doesn’t exist. Treating everyone with whom we have major political disagreements as a potential Sandy would make the world a much better place than the current polarized status quo.
Hannah’s ignorant breakup rant ends in her coming off like a Stephen Colbert caricature. “I never thought about the fact that you were black,” she says. “I don’t live in a world where there are divisions like that.” (“That’s insane,” he replies.) There’s likely a large cohort of fans of Girls who believe it’s better to be ignorant and vote the right way, like Hannah, than to have given serious thought to politics and come down on the wrong side. The episode also brings up the question: what political issues are dealbreakers? Being anti-gay marriage? Being anti-gun control? Being pro-tax cuts? No two people agree on everything - the line must be drawn somewhere.