Did you know that we’re in the middle of a Golden Age for Women in TV? Nopers, we didn’t either. In fact, considering all the stats about how women in TV are underemployed and underpaid, such a term never entered our minds.
Nevertheless, the New York Times thinks differently. Why else would one of the major thinkers there write this “sort-of-a-refutation?”
What in the world would we do without straw men to fight?
by Nell Scovell
NOT long ago, I recommended a young woman for a job in late-night TV and when we met face to face to celebrate her getting hired, we made a charming discovery: She was born in 1987, the same year that I got my first job on a late night show.
Our talk turned to next Sunday’s Emmy Awards, and we shared our excitement that Amy Schumer received multiple nominations and that two of the seven shows nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series were created by women: Tina Fey’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (created with Robert Carlock) and Jill Soloway’s “Transparent.”
“We’re living in a golden age of women in comedy,” my friend gushed.
I nodded and asked whether she thought female creators would ever make up half of the comedy series nominations. Her smile froze.
“Well, I don’t know about that …”
I do. Because it happened a quarter of a century ago. In 1990, Susan Harris’s “The Golden Girls,” Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s “Designing Women” and Diane English’s “Murphy Brown” squared off for Outstanding Comedy Series. “Cheers” and “The Wonder Years” rounded out the field, and when the envelope was opened, I was sitting in the audience cheering as they announced “Murphy Brown.”
As a newly hired writer on “Late Night With David Letterman,” I was kindly invited to tag along to the Emmys even though I wasn’t a nominee. I felt a little nervous because no one told me if I was supposed to go onstage if the show won, but it turned out to be moot. The “Late Night” writing staff lost to a tie between a Billy Crystal special and “The Tracey Ullman Show,” whose staff of 11 writers included four women. (In comparison, “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” debuted last week with 19 credited writers, only two of whom are female.)
Women were on a roll that night in 1990, but it didn’t seem like I was witnessing a golden age. It just seemed obvious that women could compete at the highest levels of comedy and win. Only decades later did I realize it was a spike, not a trend.
Like leggings, comedies created by women came into vogue in the late 1980s, exploded in the early ’90s, went mainstream in the mid-90s and were shoved into the back of the closet around 1997. It took another decade before the next show solely created by a woman — Tina Fey’s “30 Rock” — made it back into the elite Emmy inner circle. Perhaps not coincidentally, leggings made a comeback around the same time.
Still, the rebound has been wobbly. A recent Variety article trumpeted an “unprecedented” number of female showrunners, while also reporting that in 2013-14, only 15.1 percent of executive producer credits went to women, “down noticeably from 18.6 percent in the 2011-12 season.” That sounds less like a march to equality and more like a moonwalk, giving the illusion of forward motion when, in fact, the dancer is sliding backward. Progress for female directors has been even more elusive, which has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to seek an industrywide investigation.
Still, whenever I mention that continuing gender imbalance in the entertainment industry, I’m met with two responses: One: Tina Fey. And two: It’s getting better, right?
To answer the first: Yes, Ms. Fey’s monumental career has matched her monumental talents. But one individual’s success does not translate to an entire class. (See Obama, Barack; re: racism.) The narrative of “woman as phenomenon” has persisted since TV started. Long before Ms. Fey’s birth, Gertrude Berg created, wrote, produced and starred in the long-running hit “The Goldbergs.” She even nabbed the first Emmy for Best Actress in 1951. Thirty years ago, Susan Harris owned NBC’s Saturday night just as Shonda Rhimes now owns Thursday on ABC. There have always been women who were successful against the odds. Now we need to change the odds so more women can be successful.
As for the claim that things are getting better, the numbers fall short….