Commentary: Progress For Some Women Doesn’t Mean Progress For All In TV

By Nina Metz Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) "The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film" has a new report which finds "startlingly high percentages of programs" employ no women at all in prime jobs like director, producer, writer, director of photography or editor.

Chicago Tribune

About half the U.S. population are women. But on TV, only 38 percent of major characters are women. And off camera? Worse.

Every year, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film compiles stats, and lately, when we're talking about who actually creates TV shows, 76 percent of the time we're talking about men.

The most recent report found "startlingly high percentages of programs" employ no women at all in prime jobs like director, producer, writer, director of photography or editor. That's right, zippo.

For a funny-scary reminder of what it looks like when men are driving most of Hollywood's output, get a look at producer Ross Putman's Twitter feed (@femscriptintros) for an ongoing catalog of female character descriptions ("ripe with young womanhood, lustrous dark skin and flashing eyes") from real scripts.

But even female-led shows aren't immune from stepping in it. Let's call these moments "unforced errors."

The other day I watched two series, created by and starring women, that casually "othered" a marginalized group in the name of comedy. And while it's relatively minor stuff, TV shows do say something about the culture we live in.

Michi Trota, a Chicago-based writer and managing editor of Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, put it like this: "Whenever somebody says, 'It's just entertainment, what's the big deal?' it's because entertainment tells us things about who we are and the way that the world is."

Take "Playing House," now in its third season on the USA Network. Created by and starring two women, Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair, it captures the ease and silliness of a long, supportive friendship between pals eyeing middle age.

Some of the strongest episodes this year have been about a breast cancer diagnosis (something St. Clair navigated recently in real life). These were not "very special episodes", they felt human and vulnerable. And funny. The stuff of everyday life, thrown into a tailspin.

That's the good.

The not-so-good was an episode of the show that aired recently called "Reverse the Curse." It included a story thread that randomly tossed in drag performers who became little more than human plot devices, there to give Parham and St. Clair's characters an excuse to cut loose: They both dress as Tina Turner (wig and fringed dress; no blackface, thankfully) and lip-synch through "Proud Mary."

Here's why this matters: The drag tourism felt off.

This doesn't mean lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer culture is off-limits. But context is important.

Sitcoms insert fleeting characters all the time to help drive the comedy, and they are barely developed characters because they don't matter in the larger scheme of things. That's OK!

But this is a show about the lives of straight, white women, and if Parham and St. Clair (who are the episode's credited writers) wanted to include LGBTQ characters, how about writing them as fully fleshed human beings who get to be more than sidelined figures? And maybe reframing the number onstage so that it doesn't have to erase someone like Tina Turner's blackness to work? (Keegan-Michael Key is the one person of color in the main cast.)

Tanya DePass is founder and director of I Need Diverse Games, a nonprofit based in Chicago, and her take is this: "We as the viewer aren't in the writers room, we don't know their intention. All we see is the final product. But the thing about intent, it's not a free pass to not take responsibility."

Too often progress for white women in Hollywood doesn't translate into progress for anyone else, including women in other marginalized communities.

But if you're aiming to push back against the boys club mentality, you're not doing it right if you're only pushing back against one of the "isms" (in this case, sexism) that vex show business.

Another example: Discomfort with the topic of race forms the basis of an episode of a new show called "I'm Sorry," a sitcom that premiered on truTV recently and takes a Larry David/"Curb Your Enthusiasm" cringe-comedy approach.

The show's star and creator is Andrea Savage, who told Interview magazine she worked to develope her own TV series because she was being offered too many roles that were "underwritten, underdeveloped, very one-note."

"I'm Sorry" is inspired by her own life as a Los Angeles wife and mother, and in the show's second episode (written by Savage), her young daughter announces at dinner one night that she dislikes skin darker than her own white skin and therefore doesn't want to have a playdate with a black classmate.

The joke is how stunned and quietly horrified these nonblack parents are, coupled with their complete inability to have a straightforward conversation about racism with anyone, be it the kid or each other. They (and by extension the show itself) go out of their way to not talk about racism. At all.

Which is probably an insightful commentary on its own.

Savage, who is the credited writer, goes for comedic bluntness with the episode's title, "Racist Daughter", but the episode itself treats its black characters as plot devices. Or to borrow Savage's own words from earlier: underwritten and underdeveloped.

The episode is self-aware enough to acknowledge at least one elephant in the room when her character asks her one black friend to help and wonders if this is a weird request. "Don't even sweat it," he tells her, "I am a lot of people's blackest friend."

Otherwise, the show doesn't want to talk about what it's really talking about.

And that's intentional. That's the comedy, of these knucklehead parents bumbling and fumbling and thinking that if they show their daughter enough videos of Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, it will solve everything. That ha-ha obtuseness is meant to be funny, and yet it isn't because it doesn't feel like the show is thinking deeply enough about any of this.

Trota, managing editor of Uncanny, had this observation: "White women are breaking barriers, but it's for other white women. They're not necessarily breaking barriers for people of color or queer people when they're reinforcing those tropes."

There are smart and subversive ways to lampoon both racism and the overwhelming task of parenting a tiny defiant human being. But if you're going to go there, then go there.

Something else notable played out recently. When the BBC announced that Jodie Whittaker will be stepping into the lead on "Doctor Who" next season, there was legitimate excitement that the show had finally cast a woman to play the Doctor.

Whittaker's hiring follows on the heels of other white women leading major franchise brands including "Star Wars," "Mad Max" and "Wonder Woman."

"All of those are really fantastic characters," Trota said. "But I'm really tired of seeing it all be white women. And I'm happy Jodie Whittaker got the role because she is a fantastic actress and a woman being the Doctor is a historic thing, but this is another example of how white women are seen as a universal stand-in for all women, and women of color are not."

DePass, who runs I Need Diverse Games, noted: "Whenever I bring this up, I'll get a response that's like, 'I guess you just want a trans, disabled, queer Latina protagonist,' and I'm like, 'That would be cool, and I've got friends like that. So you brought up what you thought was a ridiculous example and I actually know someone who is that description.'"

"Doctor Who" has a better track record on inclusion when it comes to companions. But: "The companion is not the Doctor," Trota said. "It's an important character, but the show is called 'Doctor Who' not 'Companion.'"

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