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Push(back) at the Intersections: Women Making Pop Culture

I thought it might be fun to start this series by exploring some female creators who are shaking things up in their industries. These women are a sign of great things to come, like some shifts in the way that women are treated as creators both by fellow creative professionals and the general public.

Women creators are subjected to some pretty incredible rhetoric, simply because they are women. They are scapegoated, they are blamed for anything that goes wrong with the shows they are on, and some of that rhetoric is surprisingly antifeminist. Looking at female creators who are rising above not only the normal sniping leveled at anyone working in pop culture, but the very special hatred people reserve for women in pop culture, provides some interesting insight into how pop culture consumers, including feminists, deal with women in pop culture. We will be coming back to the way we talk about female creators (and female characters!) in the weeks to come.

Let's take Felicia Day, who went from a relatively minor role on Buffy to being the powerhouse behind The Guild, a web series featuring a group of gamer characters that defy a lot of stereotypes not just about gamers, but about society. Day has singlehandedly forced the industry to pay attention to her and she works in some surprising and interesting ways. She's also not afraid to challenge depictions of women creators working in pop culture.

Felicia Day & Summer Glau at a Writer's Guild of America protest.

Social networking definitely made The Guild. The ability to interact directly with fans, to use a lot of creative tactics for promotion, and to use social networking as a vehicle for the show itself, was critical. Day also tapped deep into gamer culture, and by subverting the myth that all gamers are men, she won herself a lot of fans. Including male gamers.

Sure, The Guild isn't perfect. It sometimes does things that make me unhappy. Really, really unhappy. But 'Do You Wanna Date My Avatar' was a smash hit, and a remarkable hit for the way that it disseminated across the Internet. Other female artists like Lady Gaga, Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monae are also utilizing social networking to promote themselves and their work, to provide access to work that might not be seen if they were completely dependent on the whims of a studio or label.

The Internet has allowed us to access some creative work that would be impossible to see otherwise. There's no way that something like The Guild would be airing on television. But now that it's becoming seated in the public consciousness, now that people are watching it and talking about it and loving it, there's a chance that television is going to shift in response. Day isn't just making a way for herself in a tough industry, she is flipping the industry upside down.

Shonda Rhimes, a Black woman seated at an interview. She is smiling broadly for the camera. In the world of television, Shonda Rhimes is another example of a breakout creator. She's paid her dues, and they are paying off in a big way. It's a breakthrough enough to see one show created by a black woman on primetime, but three? Grey's Anatomy and to a lesser extent Private Practice are anchors for ABC, and I suspect that they are hoping for the same out of Off the Map.

Grey's takes place in a rich world populated by complex characters who break down a lot of barriers and social attitudes in the process. That is directly due to Rhimes. Grey's is one of the few places where we see lots of nonwhite folks/people of color and where they resist being put in the boxes they are usually stuffed into. Yes, in the end it does revolve around the white lives of Mer-Der, but characters of color are allowed to have actual storylines. The Bechdel Test is passed.

Rhimes has laid the groundwork for other shows to do the same. For shows to be unafraid about casting nonwhite characters in non-stereotyped roles and of exploring sometimes complicated and controversial storylines. Rhimes has also done a lot for the depiction of disability on television. This is huge. It's huge to see a show like Grey's on the networks; even if you think the show is soapy (oh, it is, how it is), even if you don't particularly like it, it's doing something pretty monumental, and that's because its creator has the tenacity and the ability to make that happen.

Jane Espenson is another example of a creator I really love. She's worked on a variety of projects and she brings her unique brand of snark, insight, and wit to all of them. Her work may not always challenge social attitudes, but sometimes it does, and there are some interesting embedded messages that she manages to convey. Given that she works in science fiction, a genre that is often sneered at, I have to take my hat off to her for being unafraid to challenge people with her content. She's gone from a writer working on some pretty mediocre Buffy episodes to a co-executive producer on Caprica. It takes a lot of work to get to that position, and I'm hoping to see a lot more from Jane in the future.

Jane Espenson being interviewed at an event. She is slouching sideways in a chair and laughing.

It's hard to make it as a woman creator, whether you are fighting your way up the ranks like Jane Espenson or breaking out of the model altogether like Felicia Day. All of these women are bringing something fresh and exciting to pop culture in addition to increasing representation for women on creative teams, and paving the way for the possibility of seeing even more women behind the camera and in the writers' room.

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Comments

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Good first post

I will look for the next post in the series. I would especially like to hear about media created by women that I might not know about.

the term "creator"

I was confused by your use of the term "creator" and "creative professionals"; I had expected to read about different types of creators and creative professionals in various industries, but it seems that you are using these terms exclusively to denote people who create TV and video content. I'm assuming it is the preferred terminology within the various fields of multimedia recorded visual production, and if so, I think it's part of an interesting and curious shift in which creative industries which produce a lot of revenue have begun to claim their own terminology, and in so doing, redefine terminology for other industries.

As an example, if you do a search with the term "artist" in it nowadays, you'll first pull up returns related to musicians (a usage I noted in this post as well). Visual creators who do not work in the music, TV and video content industries now have to append "visual" in front of "artist" (some append "performance" or "installation" instead of "visual"). I'm strangely fascinated by the privilege of those (big money) industries which adopt the most inclusive terminology for their own while then forcing the (lower money) industries to use increasingly specialized, niche terminology. Creators in these other industries are not inherently more specialized than screenwriters or actors or musicians--and in fact, individual visual, performance, or installation artists (creators) often have a very diverse skillset. Further, what about the costume and set designers in the TV and video industry? Are they also referred to by the generic "creator"? I somehow doubt it.

I've been watching this happen for a while, and honestly, I'm mystified. Does it have to do with the idea of authorial content? With distribution? With the inherently more collaborative nature of TV and video multimedia production? With money? Why do the big industries get to own terms which ought to belong to everyone?