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TV: The “Golden Age of Television” is Really White and Really Male

TV: The "Golden Age of Television" is Really White and Really Male

“‘Crazy’ mistresses, nameless strippers, randy hookups, disgruntled daughters, dismayed wives.”

That’s how TV critic Maureen Ryan sums up most of the female characters we see on True Detective and other “quality” shows comprising our so-called Golden Age of Television

Ryan’s explanation for why we see so many white-male anti-heroes and, correspondingly, so few interesting female and/or nonwhite characters on HBO, FX, AMC, and their ilk is simple, straightforward, and incontrovertible: we’re living in a Golden Age of Discrimination. 

Here’s Ryan’s breakdown of the creators behind the one-hour dramas and the miniseries on the most prestige-associated networks, from 2002 to April 2014: 

HBO: Women 6.5% (2 of 31); People of Color 0%

Showtime: Women 26% (6 of 23), People of Color 0%

FX: Women 4.5% (1 of 22), People of Color 0%

AMC (2006-2014): Women Women 9% (1 of 11), People of Color 9% (1 of 11)*

Netflix (curent): Women 33% (1 of 3), People of Color 0%*

Total: Women 12.3% (12 of 97); People of Color 2% (2 of 97)

* AMC did not pursue original programming until 2006; Netflix in 2012. 

Ryan explains that she focused on one-hour dramas and miniseries because “dramatic fare from these five entities represents the major pillars of popular culture: Their programs not only capture the public imagination, but often cement or increase the power of the people who make them.”

She goes on to note: 

With one exception over the course of four decades, HBO has not aired an original one-hour drama series created by a woman. 

With one exception over the course of four decades, HBO has not aired an original one-hour drama or dramatic miniseries creatively led at its debut by a person of color. That exception is more than 21 years old….

Guess how many women or people of color have been a creator or narrative architect on a one-hour HBO drama or miniseries since 2008 (the year after The Sopranos ended)?

None. Not one.

That means that, as its reputation has grown (and presumably more profitable), HBO became more and more pernicious in its discrimination against female and nonwhite writers and in its myopic focus on white men. Overall, television writing as a field still has a lot of progress to make, with women making up 30.5% and people of color 15.6% of writers’ rooms according to the WGA. But compared to those stats, the numbers at the prestige networks are truly embarrassing, like something you’d expect to find in the Eisenhower era. 

Meanwhile, viewers who care about about good storytelling about the 64% of Americans who aren’t white men are then left with lot of questions: 
We wonder why women are too often depicted as nags, flunkies or side salads. We wonder why women often get less to do, have less to say and so often feel the impulse to take off their shirts. We wonder why people of color aren’t often depicted with compelling emotional lives or as complicated characters. We wonder why non-white men and women are hardly ever the protagonists.

But, of course, there’s nothing to wonder about at all. Writers tend to write what they know, just as execs tend to hire people who look like them. 

If HBO ever wants to take any real risks, it could try a lot harder than wantonly showing off unknown and/or struggling actress’ breasts.

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