Tuesday, March 06, 2012

A Response to Jane Espenson’s “On Sex and Writing (Not That Kind of Sex)”

Jane, I respect the frak outta you. Your Buffy episodes were some of my favorites, and actually might be what made me start paying attention to television writers in the first place. I then thrilled to see your name pop up on others of my beloved shows (Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Game of Thrones), and I even added Once Upon a Time to my viewing solely because of your involvement.

I hear what you're saying in your Huffington Post essay, that women shouldn't be hired just to write female characters. That such a practice limits women’s opportunities and potential. That women (and men) are talented enough to write across the gender divide, and in fact that good writers can write anything. Ok, sure. And a big thumbs up to your encouragement to women and girls to write, write, write. (I'm an academic, and love your Twitter writing sprints!)

But I think that your piece ignores the systemic piece of the puzzle. Or rather, you do acknowledge it near the end of the article, saying that the problem remains “HOW to get people to take gender off their list of reasons someone isn't getting the job.”


That Hollywood is still a (old, white) boys club was made all the more stark with the recent revelation in the Los Angeles Times of the make up of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: 94% white, 77% male, 2% African American, less than 2% Latino, only 14% under 50. Granted, this is movies, not television, but it still reveals where the power lies in Hollywood, and it's not with women, nor with people of color.

Feminist Frequency’s recent vlog post on the 2012 Oscars and the Bechdel test offers another measure of the appalling lack of representation of women as full (named! speaking about things other than men!) subjects in Hollywood.

Facts (women writers are just as talented as men) and figures (women are 50.8% of the American population) clearly haven’t been enough to cause a radical shift in who writes, directs, produces, and greenlights projects in Hollywood. That shift is not going to happen without a hell of a lot of concerted pressure from outside and from within.

If the powers that be, in their limited wisdom, think that they might need to diversify their staff so that their female and people of color characters are better written, at least they’re acknowledging that they need to make some room at the table, even if for specious reasons. Did the addition of 6 new writers to the third season Glee writing staff, including two women (yay Marti Noxon!) and a Latino man give me hope that the female and people of color characters on the show might receive the same rich development that the male—and especially white, gay, male—characters previously did? You bet. Is it possible that an all male writing staff could have done a good job with all those characters? Sure. But the fact is that they weren’t, and they somehow recognized that, and made a decision to expand the roster of who was in the writer’s room. (I’m not saying women and Latino writers automatically = a better Glee; the jury’s still out on that one.)

All this to say: Jane, I love you but I think your argument is too utopian. Changes are not going to happen just because more women write well. Change will happen because the powers that be see a financial and critical incentive (thank you, Kristen Wiig and Bridesmaids) to greenlighting women writers’ projects. Change will happen through concerted pressure that demands shifts in hiring policies. And change will happen through transformations in societal expectations and opinions. Of course, kick-ass women writers are integral to each of these steps, and to keeping the pressure up, and to raising the issues in the first place.

While I disagree with some of your points, Jane, I think that you raising the issue is part of the pressure I’m talking about here. So thanks for your writing. This piece, and all of it.

p.s. I promise I will watch Husbands. Soon.


mathilde said...

Allow me to comment in French, much easier...j'ai longtemps pensé que les lois obligeant la présence de femmes et/ou minorités dans les entreprises et instances nationales étaient une bêtise, parce que le principe selon lequel une femme serait choisie pour son sexe est choquant. Mais je dois admettre que ma position a évolué(maybe because I know experiment what it means to be a women working)et maintenant je pense effectivement que s'il faut passer par des règles imposant une certaines égalité pour atteindre l'objectif d'une société équilibrée, alors let's do it's worth it! So I totally agree with your point (except for Glee: to me the best character is Brittany, I think she rocks!). Love. Mat.

Anonymous said...

Comparatively, the entire writing staff of Real Time with Bill Maher is male. It would be nice if writers were hired based on their ability to produce content and not the content of their pants, but sexism is still widely considered a socially acceptable practice. Women, like all people, regardless of race, must be allowed to succeed or fail based on their individual skills. Ryan Murphy, like Mark Cherry, have received acclaim for their ability to write diverse characters even when that diversity is a paperthin pretense. It is part and parcel of the privilege of the white, male hierarchy. Men are praised for writing female characters, usually regardless of the quality of those characters. Meanwhile, women are frequently hired as 'token' additions to a writing team - PR hires meant to placate critics.

Simply note the current political discussion of contraception. There are laws in all 50 states that specifically apply to the governance of the physical bodies of their female constituencies.

Eve's Apple said...

An interesting companion to this issue: Greg Rucka on "Why I write strong female characters." He gets at some of the reasons many male writers don't cut it. http://io9.com/5912366/why-i-write-strong-female-characters


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