Justin Halpern is a lucky guy. His "Shit My Dad Says" Twitter scored him a sitcom deal about three months after he began the account. Unfortunately, after airing 18 episodes*, CBS pulled the plug and the show died a quick death. But don't cry for Halpern; he's already written a book called I Suck at Girls (ugh) that was optioned three months before it was even released.
I don't doubt that Halpern might be a swell guy, but his shows are indicative of the type of ideas that are often given initial opportunities (and second chances) in the TV industry. A white guy telling his story is agonizingly familiar territory, and yet it's awarded a rich pilot production commitment from a major studio. When I hear news like this, I can't help but think about all the challenging, unique, and better ideas that are passed over for the same old shit — and I bet a lot of them come from women.
Yes, there are exceptions, not every show on TV is about a white dude, or run by a white dude, but there aren't nearly as many women writing shows as there are men. A 2012 Center for Study of Women in Television and Film study found that 68 percent of all TV shows don't even have one female writer on staff. [Update: That stat is based on analyzing the individuals working on one randomly selected episode of every prime-time drama, situation comedy, and reality series airing on ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, and NBC.] In 2011, only 15 of the top 50 TV showrunners on The Hollywood Reporter's list were women. Even with Mindy Kaling, Whitney Cummings, and Liz Meriwether, I can't imagine today's numbers are much different — especially considering some of the shows on the 2011 list are no longer and today's cancellation of Nahnatchka Khan's Don't Trust The B—— in Apt 23.
I did some research to see what smart people inside the Hollywood machine think might assist in upping the representation of women writers. These ideas can easily be expanded to include ridiculously underrepresented people of color in TV writing, and women in other male-dominated industries. There is no simple answer, but here's a few things that could help.
1. Everyone needs to admit that it's a problem. It's a problem that the majority of TV showrunners and writers are white men. The sheer quantity can't be explained away by saying they're just better at it. White men are not intrinsically better at writing for TV, it is not a special gene they are born with.
Everyone who can't acknowledge the problem should stop reading now, 'cause you're realllllllly not gonna like the rest of this.
2. Anyone who's in a position to hire a writing staff needs to want to hire fifty percent women. The "to want" part is key. People in power need to view this as a real problem, a problem whose solution includes being more aggressive about hiring women. There are TONS of women writers, they're all over, they exist, they are talented, and they want jobs. It might not be as easy as hiring your male friends, but it's critically important when creating quality collaborative work.
It's easy to want to work with people you feel comfortable with, people with whom you share cultural codes. While that's great for friendships, it's not ideal if you want to produce the most compelling art. You need people in the mix who don't share your same points of reference. They can share a common vision for your TV show, but they don't need to see the world through your eyes. In fact, it helps if they don't.
Dan Harmon learned this when he was forced to hire women for half of his staff. Check out what he told the AV Club:
AVC: You've employed a lot of female writers, in both seasons. That's not true of a lot of other TV comedies. Was that a conscious decision?
DH: It was conscious on the part of [former NBC programming head] Angela Bromstad, before she left NBC. Angela said, "Get more women on your staff. Make it half women." I remember going, "Are you fucking kidding me?" to myself. "Okay, I got a sitcom, and this is as far as you go," because I've just been told that half of my staff needs to be a quota hire. From the mouths of bureaucrats come the seeds of great things. I dug extra hard. You find somebody like Hilary Winston. You find people later like [Emily] Cutler and [Karey] Dornetto.
They're harder to find. It's definitely not because women ain't funny, because I'm finding the opposite. It's because there's fewer of them. The statistical probability of picking up a shitty script, it's compounded for women. There's the same percentage of genius happening in both genders, but there's less women writing scripts and out there looking for the job. So you dig a little extra-hard, and you end up with a staff that took a few extra meetings and a few extra shitty scripts to read. Now you have a staff that is just as good as the staff you would have had, but happens to be half women. And it seems like the greatest thing in the world, because the world is half women. And the male writers across the board, from top to bottom, in their most private moments drinking with me, when they're fully licensed to be as misogynist, reactive, old-boy-network as they want, all they can say is, "This turned out to be a great thing."
The energy is different. It doesn't keep anybody polite. We're not doffing our caps or standing up when they enter the room. They do more dick jokes than anybody, because they've had to survive, they have to prove, coming in the door, that they're not dainty. That's not fair, but women writers, they acquire the muscle of going blue fast because they have to counter the stigma. I don't have enough control groups to compare it to, but there's just something nice about feeling like your writers' room represents your ensemble a little more accurately, represents the way the world turns.
Insightful stuff, right?
Stephen Falk, a writer on Weeds was developing a sitcom (that unfortunately never made it to air) and had this to say about women writers:
I will brag about something for a second, though. I can now say with certainty: if you ever find yourself in the position to get to put together a comedy writing staff, and then you complain that you can't find enough funny women … Nay, if you already have a show on the air and you have like 12 guys and 2 women: you didn't look hard enough. I insisted on having as near even as possible ratio of females to males (not including me they were 5:4), and aside from getting to be smug about it, it just makes for better energy and perspective in the room to have an even gender balance. Do it.
I like that guy!
Even considering those things, I'm guessing some people are still saying stuff like "I tried, men are just better at writing comedy!" or "All the scripts by women writers aren't good!" Well, first, you're just not looking at enough scripts then, and second, maybe you need to evaluate why you prefer certain writers over others.
It reminds me of a friend who works at an upscale boutique publishing house. She regularly tries to introduce more books written by women and people of color, and there's often resistance, with many arguing the work is "not up to standard". That's often code for "this book doen't sound like some old dead white guy wrote it". What they're really saying is, this one's kind of good, and it sounds like Hemingway. Sure, women and people of color can "write like" old white guys, and some of them do naturally, but this sort of nearsightedness about what's good is for the detriment of art as it means stifling tremendous new voices. Ignoring or shutting down people because you don't understand them leads to so much lost treasure, and it's a disservice to the rest of us who count on the gatekeepers to show us the good stuff.
I think one of the challenges here is that people have to overcome the systemic preference of white men's stories and voices. This is hard since it's so much a part of many of our lives, and I can imagine it's especially difficult when it's white men doing the hiring. Often when someone connects with something — be it a script, a book, a play, whatever — they talk about instinct, they say they "just knew it when they saw it." I think it's important to talk about why we're drawn to something, why it excites us. We need to think about our preferences and reflect on whether certain things resonate with us because they're truthful, good, and/or important — or because they reflect our own experience, they're comfortable, they're "like us". Maybe men connect with men more often, and think men's work is good, because that's what they know... hell, it's what we all know. If we begin to read with extra care, we can start to find "good" and "connection" with a variety of work, it expands our minds and challenges us in rewarding ways. It makes us funnier, cooler, more engaging, and generally much more awesome. It is really fucking great.
3. It would be wonderful if the women who are currently in positions of power in the industry were front and center in mainstream media more.
Female showrunners that most people don't even know exist are being replaced — Smash, Whitney, and Nurse Jackie are all examples of shows that removed female showrunners and replaced them with men — and nobody even noticed. Matthew Weiner takes a shit in the woods, and the entire world talks about its complicated, brilliant aroma.
The media focuses much more on the events of Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Chuck Lorre (Two and a Half Men) and Dan Harmon's (Community) lives than Shonda Rhimes, who created the hit show Grey's Anatomy. These men have reached somewhat of a celebrity status while these women can quietly lose their jobs without people taking much notice.
I never want to stop hearing about Shonda Rhimes, Lena Dunham, Liz Meriwether, Mindy Kaling, and Tina Fey. I want more, more, more with Emily Kapnek, Emily Spivey, Nahnatchka Khan, and DeAnn Heline. And not just because I think writing for TV would be crazy fun, but because there are so many girls and women who feel the same way, and we need success stories to look up to. Not just one or two success stories like previous generations had (thank you, heroic trailblazers!), now we need buckets of them. And no, having more women writers doesn't make for more "women shows" — which is a ridiculous idea to begin with and a whole different post — but when you bring in point of views that are historically underrepresented, it broadens the scope of stories and possibilities become endless.
I will never get tired of Lena Dunham doing Lena Dunham — she's smart, thoughtful, and hilarious — and I know there are lots of 15-year-old girls who think the same thing. How cool would it be if those girls could look up to a hundred Lena Dunhams?**
And, for people complaining about how much Jezebel (and other websites) talks about Dunham, if there were a hundred Lena Dunhams, maybe we wouldn't have to. Maybe everyone wouldn't be so obsessed with her "otherness" because she would be the norm. A talented writer's success story. Not a talented female writer's success story. Inclusion and abundance is the key to normalcy here.
I think many of us felt really strongly about the lack of diversity on Girls because it IS a good show. When something is genuine and fresh, when it reflects things in us, we want to literally see ourselves on it. Most people didn't give a crap about the lack of diversity on Entourage because it's a shitty show. Lena Dunham faces more pressure to feature a wider swath of people because more people want to watch her show. That's cool.
[An aside: I know this doesn't get into why we don't talk about Shonda Rhimes more, but I think part of it is that she's just not in the spotlight as much, her shows do race-blind casting (so awesome), and she's super supportive of talented women and people of color — Hello, Issa Rae show! — and calls out bullshit. Why that hasn't translated to a non-stop Shonda Rhimes show on every media outlet, I do not know exactly. I have some guesses, but all I do know is that I'd like to see more of her, and I will make it a priority to do my part.]