What TV Tells Us About Being a Writer
On television, there's no shortage of portrayals of young, aspiring writers. From a ruthless journalist on House of Cards to a confessional novelist on Underemployed to a sensationalist writer on Girls, current TV shows offer us a wealth of female publishing hopefuls. And while this inspires a new generation of women to make themselves heard in a largely male-dominated landscape, TV portrayals of female writers reflect how the publishing industry represses young voices in general—and young, female voices in particular.
For Underemployed's Sophia (Michelle Ang), postgrad life has been cruel. She graduated valedictorian of her college class. But upon graduation, she's not the novelist she'd hoped she'd be. Instead, she works the cash register at Donut Girl. She continues to work on her manuscript, and when she finally finishes it, she doesn't land a contract from a traditional publisher but self-publishes it online. Her prose is intimate (and, we hope, explores her newfound sexual orientation)—so intimate that it expresses everything that Sophia thinks is wrong with her best friend Daphne. Daphne flees, betrayed. And Sophia is left to wonder whether it's worth losing her best friend in order to work toward the career of her dreams.
Girls's aspiring memoirist Hannah (Lena Dunham) wants to share her stories, too. Yet we see her struggling to find a subject. In the episode "Leave Me Alone," we see her at a book launch party for a much more successful author—her former college classmate Tally Schifrin (Jenny Slate) who wrote about her own boyfriend's death. Later, Ray encourages Hannah not to write about her dating life but instead to write about topics of national import: "racial profiling, urban sprawl, divorce, death." But in the episode "Bad Friend," her new editor at the fictional website JazzHate suggests that Hannah snort coke and write about it. "The magic happens outside your comfort zone," reads the JazzHate office's ridiculous wall art. And so Hannah tries coke for the first time and not only ends up in a fight with her best friend Marnie but also hooking up with her downstairs neighbor Laird "for work."
So what does television tell us about what it means to be a young writer? First of all, it implies that writing as a career is often a luxury that the working class can't afford: Roseanne's Darlene pens a poem in the episode "Brain-Dead Poets Society" and Washington Heights's Frankie writes poetry, but they're the exceptions rather than the rule.
Secondly, these TV portrayals of young, female writers show how hard it is for young writers to find someone willing to publish their work. In another era of publishing, perhaps a traditional publisher would take a chance on a new voice such as Sophia's or Hannah's. After all, in 1972, The New York Times published an 18-year-old Joyce Maynard: "Every generation thinks it's special....My generation is special because of what we missed rather than what we got." Sophia and Hannah, I think, both gesture toward this theme of young people's malaise. But, more specifically, these young women on TV write about their generation through a much more specific prism—themselves.
Which leads me to my third point: on TV, writing careers are fraught for young women in particular. Girls are expected to be nice. So when Sophia writes critically about her friend Daphne, of course there's blowback. And when Hannah gets a freelance gig at the salacious JazzHate, of course they want her to do something that's taboo and edgy. These characters are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a young women (albeit privileged, college-educated young women). And because their writing amplifies their experiences, I'm interested to see the increasingly negative consequences that await them; look at the real-life backlash Girls creator Lena Dunham has already experienced.
As the Op-Ed Project’s founder and CEO Katie Orenstein told writer Ann Friedman, "I have a mantra: If you say things of consequence, there may be consequences. But the alternative is to be inconsequential." So as Sophia and Hannah continue to pursue their ambitions, I'm curious to see whether they choose to behave—or whether they choose to keep writing.
Another character worth mentioning is House of Cards's Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). A low-level reporter at the fictitious Washington Herald, she hungers to be heard. Perhaps, as she suggests to her boss, a first-person blog? He turns it down. But when she allies herself with the nefarious Congressman Underwood (Kevin Spacey), soon she's awash in front page scoops: a leaked draft of the education reform bill, a tip on the not-yet-announced Secretary of State nominee. Said The Awl's Carrie Frye, "I like that the show features a young woman with super-naked ambition and smarts and greed and doesn't make her straight-up evil for having those qualities." True, but what's also intriguing about Zoe is that she is so single-minded about her career. We learn in episode seven that she's distant from her family. They never visit; she rarely calls. And she turns down one man's affections because she's not in a place where she's "thinking romantically." There's only room in Zoe's life for work, and while it's great that she's succeeding, the viewer again wonders what personal costs she pays for her professional ambitions.
For these young, female characters, their friendships and relationships are often at odds with their ambitions: these women can't have it all.
So, for us real-life girls, how we can succeed in a world that undervalues our voices and only encourages us to write about pink topics? Like these complex female characters, we can continue to share our opinions—not just on blogs but also in newspaper op-eds and through independent creative projects. Only then can we engage more fully in public discourse and become the heroines of our own stories.
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