Are we heading into a golden age of TV made by women? At the Primetime Emmys held on September 22, more female directors will be rehearsing their acceptance speeches than ever before: a full half of the nominees for directing episodic TV are women. Jane Campion's Top of the Lake, Lena Dunham's Girls and Tina Fey's 30 Rock are up for a grand total of 28 awards between them, with all three shows up for best in their category and all three creators nominated for an individual award for writing, directing, or (in Campion's case) both.
"Things are getting better for women behind the scenes," says Erin Hill, a media studies scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles who specialises in women in film and TV. "This is in part generational: it's becoming easier for women to move into male-dominated fields and be accepted there. That said, there are still obstacles."
A recent industry report showed that women made up only 26 per cent of prime-time creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and directors of photography in the 2011-2012 season, up a percentage point from a year before, and despite the Emmy nominations, directors are more under-represented than most. It's a field, Hill says, where mentorship is important and "unless there's an active effort on the part of those at the top of the field to bring more women up through the ranks, the numbers are very low and likely to stay that way for a while".
Talented writers, on the other hand, are more likely to break through without this type of support and, Hill says. "There has been pressure to hire more women; people have then seen the value of having both male and female writers on a staff."
This is particularly true of comedy, a field that women have been allowed to participate in since the days of I Love Lucy and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The success of the movie Bridesmaids in 2011 was credited for a surge in female comedy writing in the past couple of years, with writer-creators such as Whitney Cummings (Whitney, 2 Broke Girls), Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project) and Nahnatchka Khan (Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23) breaking through with prime-time sitcoms of varying -success (Whitney and Don't Trust have since been cancelled).
At the top of this field are Elizabeth Meriwether, the creator and head writer on New Girl, which has transformed in its second season into an emotionally complex show with writing The New York Times called "deeply impressive"; and Tina Fey, who's been credited with a TV comedy revolution and is currently developing two new projects: a comedy about a women's college accepting men for the first time, for Fox; and a Cheers-style sitcom about young women living on New York's Fire Island for NBC. "This current season they picked up a lot of shows with female creators," Meriwether said in December, "and the same thing is happening next pilot season. Which is great. I'm also really happy that all the different shows have such different female protagonists. There are such different, flawed, interesting characters right now."
Two series stuffed with this type of character are the witty Bunheads, by the former Gilmore Girls showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino, and the Netflix-only series Orange Is the New Black, by the Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, which combines quips with moments of genuine bleakness. Both take place in worlds populated entirely by women - the first focusing on a former Vegas showgirl who becomes a ballet teacher, the second on a middle-class thirtysomething who gets sent to prison for smuggling drugs - and both take time exploring the diverse characters that make up these worlds. While Orange Is the New Black will be back in 2014, Bunheads has been cancelled, despite critical acclaim. Its first and only season premieres on OSN First on September 13. Sherman-Palladino and Kohan each have a coterie of devoted fans, but if there's one female showrunner at the very top of the game, it's Shonda Rhimes. As her first hit show, Grey's Anatomy, is about to start its 10th season, her latest, Scandal, about the uncompromising political fixer Olivia Pope - who just happens to be having an affair with the US president - has become a phenomenon. Full of shocking plot twists and juicy drama, it's more discussed on Twitter than American Idol, gets twice as many viewers as Game of Thrones, and counts Bill Clinton and Oprah among its devoted fans.
Rhimes's production company, Shondaland, is currently working on at least four more shows for ABC, including a legal thriller called How to Get Away with Murder, and a drama about a sexual abuse victim and trucker who becomes a lawyer, called Lawless.
"It's important that women, and people from other historically excluded groups, take on these top roles," Hill says, "because they have stories to tell that many of us want and need to hear. And by 'us', I mean people, not just other women or minorities. As society moves towards equality, our culture needs to reflect that change." When the runaway success of a showrunner such as Rhimes is taken into account, she adds, "not hiring women is beginning to seem like bad business".
Female pioneers in western TV
Women have worked behind the scenes in TV since the mid-1930s, when the BBC appointed the former science researcher Mary Adams as a producer, but the first creator-star to blaze a trail for the likes of Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling was Lucille Ball, who came up with the sitcom I Love Lucy in 1951. She and her husband, Desi Arnaz, performed the lead roles, and formed the successful production company Desilu, which made Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. Unlike Arnaz, however - and like Carol Burnett, who had a variety show created for her that ran from 1967-1978 and Mary Tyler Moore, who starred in an eponymous sitcom throughout the 1970s - Ball never had a writing, directing or producing credit on her hit show.
By the end of the 70s, when the Mary Tyler Moore Show went off the air women producers and writers were becoming less of a rarity, and Susan Harris won acclaim for the satirical comedy Soap, which ran from 1977 to 1981. She went on to create and write Golden Girls, which became one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, with a tally of 68 Emmy nominations by the end of its seven-year run.
It took a few more years for a showrunner to combine the stardom of Lucille Ball and the creative control of Susan Harris, although it wasn't without a struggle. Roseanne Barr wrote, executive-produced and starred in the sitcom Roseanne from 1988 to 1997, although she had to fight hard to be credited as the show's creator. She paved the way for Lena Dunham, who not only took on the roles of creator, writer, executive producer and star in the HBO drama Girls, but also directed almost half the episodes herself.
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