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Push(back) at the Intersections: Who Writes These Representations, Anyway?

Back in May, Melissa Silverstein at Women and Hollywood posted a great breakdown of the fall television pickups, looking specifically at shows created by women. Across the major networks (ABC, Fox, CBS, NBC, and the CW), 27 new shows were picked up. Of those 27, five had female creators. The picture during pilot season was equally grim; of the scripts created by women, very few went to pilot.

Hollywood has long been recognized as a difficult place for women. Actresses are constantly under scrutiny and will be criticized for speaking out; look at the collective punishment of Katherine Heigl when she dared to suggest that she was unhappy on Grey's Anatomy, for example. Or the salacious reporting on women in Hollywood with mental illness. Women who want to get on the other side of the camera face an equally uphill battle, because Hollywood is most definitely a (white) man's world, female representation in upper management at the networks aside.

I've been reading and thinking a lot about the lack of women in television and film these days, especially as I started thinking about some of my favorite work while I was getting ready for this round of Bitch blogging. My favorite TV shows, for example, are made by creators like Joss Whedon. David Eick. Ronald D. Moore. Alan Ball. Rob Thomas. Bryan Fuller. Matthew Weiner. Oh, and Shonda Rhimes. That list is a pretty accurate representation of the slant when it comes to representing women behind the camera and in the writer's room, honestly.

When I get into discussions about representations in pop culture, one of the things I'm naturally curious about is who is responsible for those representations. Generally speaking, people write to their own experiences best. There's a reason David Fisher on Six Feet Under feels so complex and real; it's because Alan Ball is gay, and he can write and depict that experience really honestly. It's not that women would return 100% perfect and unflawed representations of other women, but surely they deserve a fighting chance, and on something other than a male-female writing team where for some reason the man gets all the credit.

And when you get into the representation of minority women in Hollywood, the statistics are even more dire. Few nonwhite women manage to become creators (Shonda Rhimes and her impressive and hard-won career being a notable exception). Likewise, disabled women are not well represented. Trans women? *crickets* Does it come as any surprise, then, that so many representations are so deeply flawed and troubling? Shows think to hire consultants on, say, medical issues, but not to hire consultants to discuss human experiences.

Men writing women is a problem pretty much as old as dirt, but so are people in general positions of dominance writing the experiences of people in marginalized groups.

The commonality of really problematic depictions in Hollywood and other aspects of pop culture is, to my eye, a pretty compelling argument for improving representation on the creative teams behind the media we consume. However, it's clear that better representations aren't necessarily something that people are interested in. Indeed, Silverstein notes that in the world of television, shows created by women about women are among the least likely to get picked up, which suggests that the networks don't care about accurate depictions.

The networks, the publishers, the studios, the galleries—the argument goes—care about what sells. And it's worth pondering what is selling in the current pop culture market. We the consumers supposedly dictate the market by choosing what we do and don't engage with.

And it turns out that what a lot of people are choosing to consume is incredibly problematic and troubling. Which might explain why there's so much resistance to feminist critiques of pop culture; we're not just raising a ruckus, we're ruining the fun. We're challenging the status quo by demanding that people examine the media they consume.

Why do we have to go dragging our feminism in front of the television set like that? Down in front!

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Comments

6 comments have been made. Post a comment.

This is why support and

This is why support and being really really loud about our desires is important. Yes, producers, networks, and publishers pretty much only care about what sells. That's why our support must go to the important things- like accurate and/ or meaningful depictions of women, and my favorite cause, women and others with disabilites.

From a woman trying to break in...

As a woman trying to break into the film industry, I can't tell you how confusing this issue is. My mind races circles around itself trying to figure it out. I'm a screenwriter, consistently placing in top contests with screenplays that I feel accurately depict women, in popular genres much like films in major theaters right now. It's close to impossible to get my work read by anyone who can do anything with it, much less sold. In a turbulent market, this is the woe of most writers, both male and female, but I find my male counterparts getting read far more often. The biggest difference between our work? Male leads vs. female leads. Despite recent strong box office numbers, there seems to be a widely held belief that female leads can't open movies in the way a male lead can. My work is often rejected on the female-lead premise alone. I've even been told (by male executives) that my concept is sexist toward women!

This puts me in a precarious position. I'm a woman. Naturally, I write most honestly when I'm writing female characters. And as a woman, I'd really love to see more stories that reflect my reality. But it appears more and more that my best career move would be to write stories that feature a man, just to get my foot in the door.

Female writers are told constantly that sexism doesn't exist in the industry and that to point towards it is only an excuse for your own shortcomings. I get that. Sort of. I certainly don't see women being outright rejected just on the basis of their sex. What I see is far more subtle. The message seems to be, "write for men, from their perspective, because your own perspective is simply not marketable." Maybe that's true, but it's hard to believe. It seems more likely that there's an enormous untapped market that we could find if we only gave it a chance. But it's a costly chance to take, and especially today, no one seems willing to risk it.

For now, I'm clinging to the broads who are making it happen. The Tina Fey's and the Diablo Cody's who are bringing strong female characters to the screen. Eventually, I'll figure out what they're doing right that I'm not. At least I hope so.

There's a reason David

There's a reason David Fisher on Six Feet Under feels so complex and real; it's because Alan Ball is gay, and he can write and depict that experience really honestly. It's not that women would return 100% perfect and unflawed representations of other women, but surely they deserve a fighting chance, and on something other than a male-female writing team where for some reason the man gets all the credit.

Agreed. Though, I do think SFU had a fair number of female writers on its staff, Katie Jacobs comes to mind. I think she writes for House now. Also, Kathy Bates directed a handful of episodes!

I think the other issue is female writers not being supported when they are visible, but not writing for specifically female centric shows - both Anya Epstein (Homicide: Life on the Street) and Julie Martin (also of H:LOTS) immediately come to mind. They are exceptional script writers who EACH have had projects that focused on women (Epstein had Commander in Chief, Martin had The Bedford Diaries), but failed to garner support. I mean, Detective Kay Howard from H:LOTS (Melissa Leo) was one of the best written female cops EVER - even when compared to Cagney & Lacey and definitely far more nuanced than Benson - yet, she was rarely discussed, despite being exactly the kind of female character that we as feminists long for.

I think there is a tendency within the feminist pop culture analysis ranks to privilege that which is overtly and obviously girl power-y in nature, to the exclusion of work created by females that lacks the right pedigree - like SATC, which used mostly female writers (contrary to popular notion) and directors, or Homicide, which featured females writers and female directors, one of which was - gasp - also of color! That would be Darnell Martin; the other one, none other than Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow.

What you've done with this post - as well as the series thus far - is present an accurate portrayal of what kind of accomplishments are privileged rather than others. Like, why aren't more feminists talking about how awesome it is there is a black female (chubby, even) helming two extremely popular and well received primetime shows? Hello, Shonda Rhimes is what we've been waiting for right? Or were we hoping she'd come in some other more feminist sanctioned packaging.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I agree. And as a veteran

I agree. And as a veteran freak, it particularly amuses me to see vanilla writers (mostly male, of course) trying to co-opt alternative culture in their attempts to add 'colour' to their hueless blandscapes. Cue the sulky goth chicks who really just yearn for acceptance and wouldn't dress that way if the normals took pity and taught them better. The gormless hippy environmentalists who just need to learn the middle way and let go of their misguided, inconvenient and yes, dangerous, principles. The aspirational coloured person who etc etc. BLEURRRKK!
Sticking to what you know is the best thing you can do for yourself and your audience as a writer. Unfortunately, what whitebread male Hollywood seems to *know* is whitebread male shite. Personally, if I thought my work was going to be plastered all over a screen somewhere in live action, I would get off my arsecheeks and actively pursue knowledge of the subject to hand instead of kipper-slapping the world with another round of insulting phallocentric clichés. Yes I am grumpy today! That is all.

I'm glad you mentioned the

I'm glad you mentioned the co-optation trick that is used so they can dust their hands and declare with satisfaction, "That's that for diversity! Now the non-white male sectors have a reason to pay for yet another white male fest-movie/show".

I don't buy the "If you don't support it, it won't hold" claim that is mentioned so often when it comes to the topic of media being more inclusive and actually representing groups outside of narrow, demeaning, offensive stereotypes. Basically, if the media is bent on not representing large sectors of society, and this persists to such a great extent today, I'm done with hoping for improvements. I don't watch movies/shows anymore for this reason.

I'm glad you mentioned the

I'm glad you mentioned the co-optation trick that is used so they can dust their hands and declare with satisfaction, "That's that for diversity! Now the non-white male sectors have a reason to pay for yet another white male fest-movie/show".

It's reductive to suggest the only way shows can be diverse is if more women are on them (and honestly, it's mostly white women who are so narrowly focused on bean counting). As a woman and a feminist, any time I see a complex portrayal of a person from a marginalized community that is reason for me to cheer - even if the character doesn't happen to share any of my lived experiences. Men of color NEED depictions of themselves that don't trade in racist tropes of criminality and sexual aggressiveness. When I see shows featuring MOC in those roles my reaction is not one of annoyance or dismissal because the character is not a female, but rather excitement because each time a marginalized person is given complex treatment in pop culture it lessens the struggle.

Also, the sentiment expressed in your comment reinforces the US vs. THEM dynamic as it relates to dismantling kyriarchy, which is as much of the problem as gender inequality on television and at the movies.

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"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse