I kind of think Jezebel has been barking up the wrong tree with their series of posts on how women are represented–or underrepresented–in the writing staffs of various television shows. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important that women who want jobs in television be able to get them, but I’m far more interested in the representations of women that writers of either gender produce.
Let’s take the first question, purely of numbers. Women are employed as 28 percent of television writers and 18 percent of film writers. As men’s earnings have risen in those fields, women’s have fallen. Now, that’s not a great thing, for sure. But I write about personnel issues in my day job, and these numbers raise a couple of questions for me. What percentage of total applicants for television jobs were women? What percentage of head writer positions do they hold–and what percentage of women employed in television are lead writers? Are women’s wages falling while men in comparable positions, rather than men in general, see their wages rise? Or are women simply concentrated in the lower ranks of writers where wages are falling, whereas men hold higher-ranked positions where wages are rising quickly, or a few positions where wages are rising dramatically? The answers to any of those questions could point to a genuinely discriminatory work environment, but I’d want to see those answers before I decide that women are being systematically and persistently discriminated against in television employment. If they are, that’s a huge problem, and it needs to be corrected.
But really, what I care about is the results of who’s in the writer’s room. And the list of shows Jezebel presents with the most female writers and the least female writers is fascinating in that regard. Californication, told from the perspective of a philandering man, has a writing staff that’s 66.7 percent female. The Closer, which, for all that I joke about it is an interesting and nuanced portrayal of a woman, has no female writers. The Wire didn’t have female writers either, but that doesn’t make Kima Greggs or Brianna Barksdale any less compelling. For that matter, The Hurt Locker is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen about manhood, and it’s directed by a woman. I feel extraordinarily hesitant to claim that we absolutely have to have female writers on every show about women, or that women necessarily represent or express some unique experience, if only because I think that’s limiting. If women always write better about women’s lives than men do, then how can we ever claim to write powerfully and incisively about the lives of boys and men? I’d hate for representational feminist demands about writing jobs to cut women off from writing opportunities.
Ultimately what I want is a true and unbiased meritocracy. It may be important to get women consistently in the writing rooms of shows like Saturday Night Live to changed ingrained cultures. But once those cultures have shifted, women shouldn’t be there to keep a leash on men, or to push a culture in one direction or another. They should be there because–and only because–they’re the absolute best. I understand representational demands may be a necessary first step. But it would be a damn shame if folks thought that was the end of a multi-faceted effort to make our movies and television more interesting.