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16% is Not a Win: Parsing the DGA’s Latest Stats on Women and Minority Directors in TV

16% is Not a Win: Parsing the DGA's Latest Stats on Women and Minority Directors in TV

“Female TV directors make gains,” proclaimed mainstream headlines following the DGA’s release yesterday of a report on female and minority directors in TV.

If this is progress for women, color me unimpressed.

Here’s the big number: Female directors made a 2% gain from the previous year… all the way up to 16% of all episodes. 16%. That is an insultingly low number, and I’m fairly surprised at the way it’s being touted as a laudable gain.

First, the positive: I’d like to give a slow clap to BET, which garnered the only 100% ratings for female and minority directors for “Being Mary Jane,” “The Game” and “Single Ladies.” It’s probably not a coincidence that all three of these shows are created and run by black women: Mara Brock Akil for “Mary Jane” and “The Game” and Stacy A. Littlejohn for “Single Ladies.” (Caveat- All these show are 100% for minority and/or women, but they are not 100% women. “Being Mary Jane” in it’s last season was 40% women, “The Game”, 30%, and “Single Ladies” is the highest at 66% women directors.) 

Meanwhile, let’s single out some particularly disappointing names on the DGA’s “Worst” list, which has the percentage of women and minority directors broken down by show. A whopping 27 on the list had 0% of either, which was often a decline from seasons past.

Frequently, I found, these shows feature female creators and/or showrunners, which makes the lack of women in the director’s chair especially galling. And some of the titles guilty of these things were genuinely surprising to me.

The most egregious on the list, I think, is “Masters of Sex,” Showtime’s drama about William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s groundbreaking research, which, according to the show’s own tagline, “touched off the sexual revolution.” Despite having a female showrunner, Michelle Ashford, it employed zero women directors this year — and has only used them, in the past, for three episodes in the first season (it’s now in its third).

Another head-scratcher is “The Comeback,” on HBO (one of the worst repeat offenders among the networks surveyed), about a middle-aged actress (Lisa Kudrow) trying to get back in the game. The show was co-created by Kudrow and Michael Patrick King (“Sex and the City”), but King only directed 8 of the show’s 21 episodes, which aired first in 2005 and then made a, well, comeback for a second season in 2014. For a show about specifically female indignities in show business, you’d think it would have occurred to the creators that having a woman at the helm might add something to the proceedings. (To add insult to injury, a fairly prominent women-director character in one episode was portrayed as juvenile and more concerned with looking cool than making her actors feel comfortable.)

In other HBO news, I was less surprised that “Boardwalk Empire” was one of the zero-percenters. The Martin Scorsese-created period drama about mobsters has only employed women for two episodes over its five seasons — one in 2011 and one in 2012. That’s three years of a total boys club.

Not included in this study, but thrown in here by me anyway, is HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” which has only employed one female director out of the 18 on its list over five seasons. Michelle MacLaren directed four episodes in the 2013-2014 season, and I guess she soured showrunners Benioff and Weiss on women altogether, because she was their first and last female director. (If her name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s also the director who left the “Wonder Woman” movie over purported “creative differences,” to be replaced by director Patty Jenkins).

Sitcom-wise, “The Exes,” the Donald Faison comedy now in its fourth season on TV Land, has NEVER employed a female director.

“Mom,” the CBS comedy starring Allison Janney and Anna Faris, gets a zero for its second season, down from the first when it employed two female directors, who have directed two out of the show’s 46 episodes. It’s a Chuck Lorre (“Two and a Half Men”) show, so… yeah.

“Two Broke Girls,” also on CBS and co-created by comedian Whitney Cummings, gets a zero for this year. In its four seasons on the air, it has had female directors for three episodes. Hey, wait a minute — this one was co-created by Michael Patrick King, too. Am I sensing a pattern here?

“Mystery Girls,” an ABC Family comedy co-created by Tori Spelling and starring her former “90210” colleague Jennie Garth, did not employ any women to direct its sole season. So much for girl power, eh, Tori?

But the sitcom that really shocked and pissed me off the most is “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the pitch-black comedy which, in its 10 seasons, has not hired a SINGLE female director. Edgy as this show is, I would have thought it was smarter (i.e. less blatantly sexist) than that.

Not only did some of these shows hire less women this year than in years past, but the DGA study also highlighted the extreme difficulty faced by first-time female directors. 84% of first-timers were men in the 2014-2015 season, a 4% increase from last year. This number called to mind the stats about women directors in film, and the way in which you need to have done a big movie to get a big movie. It seems the mainstream TV industry is no less sexist in its assumption that it’s easier to take a chance on a man than a woman.

Finally, I’d just like to point to two other popular shows not included in the DGA study, but that I was curious about. “Orphan Black,” on BBC America, has only hired female directors for two episodes of its three seasons — both in the most recent season, so I guess this is a step in the right direction. Still, startling to find that such a female-centric show is so female-phobic when it comes to hiring directors.

“Inside Amy Schumer,” which has also run for three seasons so far, has only had female directors for three of its episodes – also in the most recent season, when Schumer herself directed one and Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”) directed the other two.

Honestly, it’s hard to look at this report (and my own ensuing findings) and not be depressed. Yeah, you can regard 2% as a success, technically. But if feminist-minded shows like “Orphan Black” can’t even be bothered to reflect their onscreen philosophy in their hiring practices, what hope is there for the big chunk of middling entertainment that makes up most of hiring opportunities for women directors out there? There are no easy answers here — only the conviction that we have a long way to go, and our work cut out for us in highlighting sexism wherever we find it.

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