Zarowny, like Hunt, argues that it’s all about comfort: “There is a big cone of silence that drops over a story room. People can say anything to each other. Guys have said to me they feel constricted if there is a woman in the room: How honest can they be about their thought process?”
The trick women learn – especially in the notoriously competitive field of comedy, where women are stereotyped as being less funny than men – is to go straight for the dirty jokes and erotic content. “There is a tendency to go blue right away,” says Rebecca Addelman, a Canadian comedy writer working in Los Angeles, “to prove right away that you are not some wallflower who can’t handle a joke about a hand job, to prove you are there to be funny, to do what they are all doing.”
But aside from telling dirty jokes, do women behind the scenes deliver less-stereotypical female characters on the screen? Some of the most talked-about new and returning shows suggest that might be the case. In the U.S., alongside Cummings’s unusual double-hitter, Elizabeth Merriwether is writing New Girl, the Deschanel sitcom; Michelle King is the co-creator, with her husband, Robert, of The Good Wife. That drama has three men and three women in the writing room.
“There seems to be a demand for female characters, and strongly written female characters are doing well on television,” notes Adrienne Mitchell, the executive producer and director of Bomb Girls, an upcoming Canadian show about female munitions workers in the Second World War, that has two men and three women on its writing staff.
Like many Canadian observers, she points to the success of Tassie Cameron, who has created the Global hit cop series Rookie Blue with two other women, Ellen Vanstone and Morwyn Brebner. The show about neophyte police officers in Toronto follows as many female as male characters.
“The cop shows, the lawyer shows, they want to make sure they have a woman in the room for character development, for story development,” Cameron says, adding about her own show, “Whether we are addressing big issues of discrimination or not, a traditional male world like policing is interesting to explore from a female perspective, the rookie female cop. There is even more tension.”
The San Diego study does show some slim evidence to support the view that more women in the writing room will produce more women onscreen. On programs with no female writers, women made up 39 per cent of the characters; that number rose to 43 per cent when there was at least one woman in the room.
Still, female TV writers know there is no rule of good writing that says you have to have the same gender as your characters. “It’s up to the individual. I know women who create women who are only appendages and victims,” says Hollywood writer Nancy Miller, the creator of the title character on Saving Grace – a tough-talking, alcoholic cop played by Holly Hunter as the very opposite of an appendage.
Conversely, women can create very powerful fictional men. It was three women, Mitchell, Janis Lundman and writer Laurie Finstad Knizhnik, who created the violent Canadian series Durham County, starring Hugh Dillon as deeply flawed cop Mike Sweeney. The fact that women had created such a dark show caused much comment when Durham County first appeared in 2007.
“For centuries male writers have been able to show women themselves. Now when you have women create strong male characters, it is a bit of a shock,” observes Lundman, producer on that series and on Bomb Girls.
The reality is that most TV shows, written by groups of writers rather than single authors, are formulaic: TV writers are often working with characters they did not create themselves, and have to be ready to write whatever they are handed. “I think men and women can create both men and women. All men have mothers; all women have fathers,” says Zarowny. “I am not writing about myself.”