When Women Run the Show

Grace Bello
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On the long-running TV-industry sendup 30 Rock, Liz Lemon’s (Tina Fey) colleague Pete Hornberger (Scott Adsit) reveals how her show got the green light: “The only reason NBC picked up The Girlie Show was because of the flak they got from women’s groups after airing the action-drama Bitch Hunter.” The ludicrously misogynistic Bitch Hunter illustrates the worst of what can happen when women are denied a seat at the network’s table: hate-filled programming that glorifies violence against women.

Luckily for us, Lemon reigns as showrunner of TGS and, in real life, Fey helms 30 Rock (and previously SNL as its first female head writer). Moreover, we’ve seen a new crop of female showrunners in recent years including Lena Dunham, Whitney Cummings, Mindy Kaling, Veena Sud, and Elizabeth Meriwether. However, though there’s been a lot of talk of girl power on TV, there’s not nearly enough gender parity behind the scenes of the small screen; Liz Lemon is a minority. And without equal representation, viewers are bombarded with countless versions of the MILF Island-like The Bachelor.

WomansWork_MindyKalingTo be sure, Dunham, Kaling, and Meriwether have done much to represent their unique visions of what contemporary womanhood means. On Girls, we see female friendships that pass the Bechdel test, frank talk about abortions, and sexual relationships that—unlike its progenitor Sex and the City—skew complex, rather than cartoonish. On The Mindy Project, we follow Dr. Mindy Lahiri, who, in her career as an OB-GYN and in her personal life, supports young women. And on New Girl, we watch Zooey Deschanel make a leading lady out of the funny-best-friend type who on other shows would remain on the sidelines.

Great strides, yes, but it simply means there has been a greater number of female outliers rather than a significant, systemic change. As Ann Friedman pointed out in a post-election piece for The Cut, 2012 has been no Year of the Woman.

Take a look at the numbers from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, which found that

Women comprised 26% of all individuals working as creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography on broadcast television programs during the 2011-12 prime-time season. This represents an increase of one percentage point from last season (2010-2011) and an increase of 5 percentage points since 1997-98.

A bump for women in TV? Great! Still 24 percentage points from gender parity? Not so much.

Let’s take a closer look at TV creators and writers. So how robust was female representation in those categories? There were “increases in the percentages of women creators (from 18 percent in 2010–11 to 26 percent in 2011–12) and executive producers (from 22 percent to 25 percent). After a dramatic decline in the 2010–11 season, the percentage of women writers rebounded to 30 percent in 2011–12.” The Liz Lemons of the world exist, but there aren’t nearly enough of them.

So while we don’t have Bitch Hunter in our TV Guides, it doesn’t mean that such a show is so far off. Yes, the television landscape contains more woman-powered and woman-centric shows, but the fact that those shows tend to be judged especially harshly means that the fight for air time is an ongoing one. Efforts toward representation could mean, like Dunham or The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl’s Issa Rae, starting out by distributing your work on YouTube. Or, as comedian Sara Schaefer of Nikki & Sara Live advises, submitting your awesome writing packets regardless of what connections you may or may not have.

We not only need to support but also create the female and feminist narratives that we want to see on TV.


Read more of this guest blog Women’s Work, which explores TV portrayals of young women in the workforce.

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