Women are still going backwards and in high heels, but not in a good way. According to recent stats–women TV writers are losing ground. I just perused the Emmy website and counted only fourteen women’s names among the writing nominees. Most were on comedy-variety shows where there are like eighteen guy staffers names versus one or two girl names.
Am I crazy for asking: Why aren’t half or more of all TV writers women? We’ve been waiting forty years.
The year I won my Emmy in 1974 for writing the Lily Tomlin Special, more women won writing Emmys than in the history of the TV Academy. Almost half the writers on Lily were women. I was also a Mary Tyler Moore and a Maude writer, both were shows that hired many women writers. It was the height of the women’s movement.
There were around a dozen of us women writing sitcoms. Our unique status drew us together. We bonded. We held consciousness-raising parties and got enlightened. We founded the Women’s Committee of the Writers Guild. We were the first members of Women in Film. Our mantra was “Sisterhood is Power!”
When scientists discovered women were 51% of the population, I assumed TV writing staffs would be half female within two years at the most. We were drunk with empowerment; that’s how almost-equal we felt.
In the mid-seventies women writers were Hollywood’s newest novelty. Every show wanted one – but only one – as it turned out. After Mary and Lily, I was the only woman in the writers’ room AKA the Frat House for the next ten years of my comedy writing career. I was also a feminist in the frat house. Luckily, I had an older brother who threw a Lionel train at me and taught me everything there was to know about armpit farts, or I never would have survived.
Even though we were to quote Helen Reddy “Strong, Invincible, Wo-maaan,” gaining our rightful equality is taking longer than anticipated. I don’t know why. All women had to do was convince men to give us half of all their jobs, pay us equally, and wash their own goddamn socks.
One main reason women TV writers struggled for our equality after our auspicious beginning was that in 1978 TV shows went from being largely freelance written to staff written. The (male) powers that be liked our writing, but sitting shoulder-to-shoulder for twelve hours a day apparently was just too much estrogen, even on shows starring women.
Flash Forward: Two years ago I received a desperate email from a lone-woman writer on a new sitcom. She asked my opinion about whether she should file a harassment lawsuit with the EEOC. (P.S. There was no word for harassment when I entered the workplace.) Her complaints? Too much “unnecessary swearing.” The clincher: one of her co-writers shoved her head towards his crotch in a mock blow-me joke. Although I never experienced this particular rudeness, politeness and decorum definitely diminish in a room where comedy is being created and people become punch-drunk from exhaustion. That’s why they call it a Frat House.
When she complained about the swearing, it meant she clearly wasn’t one of the boys, was too soft for the job and wanted them to play by her rules even though she was in the minority. That said, touching her in any way–especially pushing her head down–was WAY over the line. I suspect she lost the guys’ respect long before that.
In 1984, I was on the writing staff of The Cosby Show. We were a writing staff of four–two women and two men. But we still weren’t 50% because my writing partner and I were sharing a salary and technically each only counted as half a woman.
So where women are today? The Center for the Study of Women in Television stated,
The percentage of women working as writers on broadcast programs plummeted this season, declining from 29% in 2009-2010 to 15% in 2010-2011.
So, television is still a man’s world. I blame the 18-to-34 dude demographic and the advertisers who love them. It’s always safer to develop a male TV show because women will watch Tosh.O but guys aren’t going to watch The Mindy Project.
Sisters, don’t take sexual discrimination lying down! Here’s some advice for women writers to get more TV staffing jobs:
1. Grow a penis
2. Partner with a male writer
3. Show you’re a good sport
4. Write for female/family shows
5. Create your own fabulous show
Back in the day a woman had to be twice as good as a man to succeed in her job. That’s still true. I hope the success of the Lena Dunham generation will send a message to our industry of dunces and dude worshippers that says—if you want good writing, hire a woman. I hope the pool of excellent women writers grows and eventually those women move up and recruit their most talented writer girlfriends and on and on until the Hollywood Old Girls’ Club topples the Old Boys’ Club once and for all.
Karyl Miller is an Emmy-winning writer, author of Having it All in Hollywood and editorial cartoonist. You can find her at her website, MillerReport.com.