Roseanne, Louis C.K., and Women’s Power in Hollywood

Tad Friend’s profile of Anna Faris in the New Yorker got justifiable attention for its explication of the contempt Hollywood has for female actresses, particularly ones who want to be something other than bland romantic comedy heroines. But it is nothing compared to reading New York’s features on Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr back-to-back. The contrast between the two comedians’ experiences, particularly on the question of artistic control and credit, is stunning. As Emily Nussbaum writes about Louis C.K.:

Louis is the director. He’s also the only writer, the sole editor (he no longer shares duties with the co-editor he had last season), not to mention the person who oversees music (when the music guy’s budget ran out, he decided to do it himself). He also hired his own casting team: Last season, he turned down FX’s offer to help out and doesn’t inform them about casting in advance. But perhaps the most unusual aspect of the show is that Louis C.K. gets no notes from the network during filming, no script approval — an ­unheard-of “Louis C.K. deal” that has made him the envy of comics and TV writers alike…John Landgraf, the president of FX, offered him $250,000 to make a series about his life, a number that included Louis’s salary. “I thought, I’m too fucking old to stand in the cold with a young crew — and I’m just gonna go through the same shit for less money.” But Landgraf impressed Louis, pitching a model designed to keep shows “pure.” “I said, ‘Okay, the only way I’m doing this is if you literally wire the $200K to me and I go to New York and just make it. I don’t gotta tell you what it’s about. I don’t know what it’s about.’ “

On the other hand, this is what Roseanne says happened to her:

It didn’t take long for me to get a taste of the staggering sexism and class bigotry that would make the first season of Roseanne god-awful. It was at the premiere party when I learned that my stories and ideas — and the ideas of my sister and my first husband, Bill — had been stolen. The pilot was screened, and I saw the opening credits for the first time, which included this: CREATED BY MATT WILLIAMS. I was devastated and felt so betrayed that I stood up and left the party. Not one person noticed…My breakdown deepened around the fourth episode, when I confronted the wardrobe master about the Sears, Roebuck outfits that made me look like a show pony rather than a working-class mom. I wanted vintage plaid shirts, T-shirts, and jeans, not purple stretch pants with green-and-blue smocks. She bought everything but what I requested, so I wore my own clothes to work, thinking she was just absent-minded. I was still clueless about the extent of the subterfuge. Eventually she told me that she had been told by one of Matt’s producers — his chief mouthpiece — “not to listen to what Roseanne wants to wear.”

Obviously, there are different imperatives for network and cable shows: Louis has a lot of material that would never fly on a network because advertisers and the FCC would both lose it. And the environment for women in 1988 is certainly different than it is today. But in the Writers Guild of America, West report on industry employment released this week, women still are just 28 percent of television writers, and the number of women writers in film is down from 19 percent in 2005, to 18 percent in 2007, to 17 percent in 2009. 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 numbers for minority writers are much worse.)


Maybe Louis C.K. is the only comic, man or woman, who would have gotten the deal he has with FX. And this fall’s crop of television shows is in many ways a high-water mark for women as writers, creators, and stars. Maybe one of them will be the fantastically uninhibited creator and star of her own series. But we’re not there yet. Whitney doesn’t exactly look like it’s going to be Louis: