Sporting stilettos and a black miniskirt covered in little white hearts, Whitney is hanging around the lobby of her own building, hoping to bump into last night’s first date. He lives there too because, the thing is, he’s actually her live-in boyfriend of three years. She’s forced him into this piece of role-playing because they never had a first date, having fallen into the sack immediately after meeting at a drunken party.
Yes, Whitney is a stereotype-mocking go-getter, as is her creator, comedian Whitney Cummings, who not only stars in the eponymous new NBC comedy, but has also created the brassy Two Broke Girls for CBS. Cummings is one of many provocative women on television this fall, generating much debate among industry insiders and critics about whether the medium is any less sexist than ever. After all, some of this season’s female characters are mere vessels of nostalgic sexism – the retro air hostesses on Pan Am, the scantily clad bunnies on the already-cancelled Playboy Club. But others are large, unapologetic figures, from the sexually assertive Whitney, to Julianna Margulies’s happily divorced litigator on The Good Wife, to Zooey Deschanel’s in-your-face nerd on New Girl.
If there’s lots of discussion about female roles onscreen, there’s much less noise about the stark reality behind the scenes. Most writers’ rooms are stuck in the age of those cottontail outfits: In both Canada and the United States, they are a bastion of male hackdom.
On the heels of Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants – in which the TV powerhouse describes the writers’ rooms of NBC’s Saturday Night Live as places so male that the staff would sometimes pee into cups because they were too lazy to visit the toilet – two new U.S. studies have revealed that there is a lot of truth to Fey’s testosterone-crazy characterization.
The most recent employment numbers from the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) found that women made up only 28 per cent of TV writers between 2005 and 2009. And the numbers appear to be getting worse: A survey by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University estimates that the number of women writers dropped to 15 per cent in 2010-11 from 29 per cent the previous year. Meanwhile, the nominees for writing at this year’s Emmys were almost all men (as were the winners in both the drama and comedy categories).
Although many Canadian TV writers say they operate in a more egalitarian setting, there is no reason to believe the situation here is much different: Currently only 32 per cent of the active members of the Writers Guild of Canada are women.
“You have an industry that is incredibly intense in terms of pressure to produce,” says Darnell Hunt, the UCLA sociology professor who crunches the WGAW numbers. “You make a TV show, you don’t have many opportunities to get it right. Show runners [head writers, who oversee the rooms] hire teams they feel extremely comfortable with, people who look like them. Nine times out of 10 that means white men are hiring white men. You may have a token woman or a token minority, but women and people of colour are having a hard time being welcomed into the club.”
Although Hunt has not finished compiling the guild’s 2010 numbers, he speculates that the drop shown in the San Diego study is a reflection of the recession taking its toll on the people who are likely to be the most recent hires.
Reflecting on those low numbers, female TV writers complain of a “We’ve got one of those” tokenism in many writers’ rooms. “There is definitely still a culture of competition among women for the perceived spots for women,” observes Alexandra Zarowny, who has written for numerous Canadian shows, including Degrassi: The Next Generation, Murdoch Mysteries and The Listener. “It is not that they set out to achieve that in the room, but that is the way it works out. It would not be surprising if you had a room that was all male. It would be surprising if you had a story room composed only of women unless it was, excuse my language, a vagina show.”