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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