For a show about messy millennials, the season finale of HBO’s Girls wrapped things up fairly neatly, with one exception: Uh, what was the deal with Hannah’s baby? Like who does he actually belong to? I know, I know, the baby was fathered by windsurfing extraordinaire Paul-Louis, who is presumably as South Asian as Riz Ahmed, the actor who played him. And obviously the baby’s mother is Hannah Horvath, who is about as white as it gets. But the baby?
Friends, that baby is adorable as all get out, but said baby does not look half-Pakistani, half-white. That baby looks black. The internet noticed too.
It was perhaps the perfect flub of an ending for a show that consistently dropped the ball on characters of color. That the final episode ignored any implications of a mixed-race baby living in a presumably mostly white town could be chalked up to Lena Dunham’s erstwhile tone-deafness. But to actually cast a baby that does not appear to be the right race is profoundly, er, off-color.
Grover’s casting is even more troubling when you consider Hollywood’s penchant for misrepresenting characters of color—although with films like Ghost in the Shell, Aloha, and even The Hunger Games, characters are usually rendered white rather than a different kind of brown. In a way, Grover is a reverse whitewashing; but either way, he’s a product of white producers not caring enough about people of color to properly cast him.
“I don’t know if it’s as harmful as much as it is a larger consequence of [Dunham’s] own thinking about race and ethnicity,” says Kristen Warner, an associate professor of journalism and creative media at the University of Alabama and author of The Cultural Politics of Colorblind TV Casting.
Warner suggests that part of the issue with Grover goes back to how his fictional dad was cast. “There’s no language in his story or about his background that suggest that he isn’t a white guy that got cast as Riz Ahmed because Lena thought it would be fun to cast him.” If Paul-Louis had been written as a white man, it would explain why the baby’s race was never brought up, as well as the lack of consideration toward the baby himself.
Television has had plenty of instances of mixed-race babies, from Leo on Mindy Project to Morgan, Toni and Todd’s baby on Girlfriends, to Little Ricky, Lucy and Ricky’s son on I Love Lucy, to Parenthood’s baby Aida. (Fun fact: Aida was recast between seasons. When she was born at the end of Season 5, Baby Aida—the product of a black mother and white father—was blonde and blue-eyed. But she returned at the beginning of Season 6 suddenly darker, in what could be assumed was a course correction.)
So how, actually, do babies, particularly mixed-race babies, get cast? How much does ethnicity get taken into account? Or is it like finding the right paint swatch, but the swatch is a baby? How do babies get cast at all?
When it comes to infants, “they’re props, basically,” says Katie Taylor, an LA-based casting director for advertisements. For the most part, they’re booked as extras, based off their photos. (“What, are you going to ask a baby to audition?” Taylor asks with a chuckle. “They don’t have lines or anything.”)
But because casting is based on the photos, if the image has been edited, that can create a bit of a conundrum. “If there’s been any kind of retouching with the lighting or the exposure of the photo, the baby can look different,” she explains, which could have been the case when it came to Grover.
“Retouching notwithstanding, I think in terms of the look, there is something about this chubby deep brown baby that [Dunham] thought, ‘Yes,’” Warner says. “And I also think she thought it would be mildly funny.” After all, a hapless white woman ending up with a brown baby is so Hannah. “I think she just didn’t think that someone might have a problem with this or someone might not think this is funny.”
While it may not be necessary for actors to be the same ethnicity as the character they’re portraying (though it would be nice!!!), there’s something to be said for passing. Baby Leo on The Mindy Project may be half Indian, but the real baby who portrays him is actually half black—still, his complexion definitely fits better than baby Grover. Taylor often books babies for a Spanish-speaking market advertisement who are not Latinx. “It depends more on the look and read on camera, and less on what they actually are,” she says.
“On one hand, particularly because there is such underrepresentation with regards to various peoples of color, you want there to be a match for the role played,” Warner says. But there’s also the reality that race-based casting is against the law.
I’m not sure if the whitewashing (or reverse whitewashing) of baby roles is as big a crisis as the whitewashing of adult roles, but even something so trivial as casting a baby for one episode of television can contribute to the overall whitewashing of Hollywood.
In a constantly integrating world where there are more interracial relationships on television than before, it’s safe to bet that there will only be more and more mixed-race babies. Perhaps Girls’ Grover gaffe stands out because of the show’s shoddy history with characters of color. But hopefully the next time there’s a half-South Asian baby (spoiler alert: *cough, cough* New Girl), the extras casting company takes a slightly better look at their options.