The fall television season’s a great time for fresh starts — to welcome back favorite television shows and hope they’ll continue their momentum, or find great new shows. This autumn’s been heralded as a breakthrough for women on television, particularly women in comedy, following the massive and somewhat unexpected box office success of the female-led ensemble comedy Bridesmaids this summer. In shows premiering this fall, women are saving to start small businesses on 2 Broke Girls; running hit television shows while their husband stays home with their new baby in Up All Night; solving murders while pushing back against police department sexism in NBC’s remake of the British detective show Prime Suspect; and fleeing the ’60s suburbs to fly around the world in Pan Am. These shows are still in their early days, so it’s too early to tell if these shows will upset old stereotypes of women on television or rely on them to tell the same comforting stories to audiences.
The Women Behind the Women: This fall, an analysis by the Directors Guild of America found that white women directed just 11 percent of television episodes in the 2010-2011 television season, and women of color directed just 1 percent of episodes. Non-white men directed 11 percent of episodes of television shows.
The numbers are a little better for writers (and in television, writers normally have more influence over the overall content of an episode than directors). According to the Writers Guild of America, West, in 2009, 28 percent of television writers were women, a number that’s stayed the same since 2006. But even as the number of women who are writing for television has stayed the same, the pay gap between women and men who write for television has increased. In 2007, the median salary for a woman television writer was $5,109 less than the median man’s salary. By 2009, that gap was up to $9,400.
The question, therefore, isn’t just whether the depictions of women on television are sexist or feminist. It’s whether this increase in shows portraying women actually help more women get writing and directing jobs in the notoriously male-dominated television industry. While this fall has been good for individual creators like Whitney Cummings, who sold two shows, Whitney, based on her life, and 2 Broke Girls, about waitresses in a Brooklyn diner, her success doesn’t mean that other women will necessarily get in the door in television — or stay there.
What the Numbers Mean: So why does it matter? In some respects, women in television are doing better than their counterparts in other industries. Women television writers make a median salary of $98,600 in comparison to a median salary of $108,000 for their white male counterparts. In America as a whole, women make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. And African-American women only earn 68 cents per that dollar while Latino women are paid just 58 cents per dollar earned by men of all races and ethnicities.
Maybe women in the television industry don’t need as much help as women who work other jobs. But the average American watches more than 35 hours of television per week, and the average American child between 2 and 11 watches more than 25 hours of TV programming each week. If we care about what representations of women — and people of color, and of different classes — it’s time to think about who’s in the writer’s room creating our television shows, and who’s approving the final cuts of each episode before they land on our screens.
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