As a woman and a feminist, I’d like to offer this observation: There is nothing that can make you hate the word “female” like sitting in the audience of a panel devoted to women who make film or television.
The Winter 2019 Television Critics Association press tour is comprised of dozens of press conferences and panels, some of which took the forms of cooking demonstrations, musical performances, and live table reads. These gimmicks are fine; the TCAs are nothing if not a marathon, and the effort to do something different is appreciated.
However, too often the TCAs treated “women make TV” as its own gimmick, as if assembling a collection of TV producers who share a gender was enough to create a satisfying or insightful presentation.
Consider these four panels over the last 16 days:
- NBC’s “Women of Drama” panel, featuring Jennifer Carpenter of “The Enemy Within,” Retta of “Good Girls,” Lorraine Toussaint, of “The Village,” and Susan Kelechi Watson of “This Is Us.”
- Lifetime’s “Female Directors” panel, featuring Kim Raver (EP, Director, “Jane Green’s Tempting Fate”), Alyssa Milano (EP, Actress, “Jane Green’s Tempting Fate”), Monika Mitchell (Director, Jane Green’s “To Have and To Hold”), Erika Christensen (Actress, “Jane Green’s To Have and To Hold”), Janice Cooke (Director, “I Am Somebody’s Child”), Ginnfier Goodwin (EP, Actress, “I Am Somebody’s Child”), Angela Fairley (Actress, “I Am Somebody’s Child”), Rhonda Baraka (Director, “Pride & Prejudice in Atlanta”), Tiffany Hines (Actress, “Pride & Prejudice in Atlanta”), Claire Scanlon (Director, “American Princess”).
- Starz’s “Fiercely Female” panel, moderated by Starz executive vice president of communications Lauren Townsend, featuring Tanya Saracho (Creator, Showrunner and Executive Producer, “Vida”), Stephanie Danler (Creator, Executive Producer and Writer, “Sweetbitter”), Maril Davis (Executive Producer, “Outlander”), Caitriona Balfe (Talent, “Outlander”), La La Anthony (Talent, “Power”), Ella Purnell (Talent, “Sweetbitter”), Melissa Barrera (Talent, “Vida”), Mishel Prada (Talent, “Vida”), Yetide Badaki (Talent, “American Gods”), Emily Browning (Talent, “American Gods”)
- Amazon Prime Video’s “Visionary Voices,” moderated by Head of Amazon Studios Jennifer Salke, and featuring Mindy Kaling (“Late Night”), Reed Morano (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Power”), Jill Soloway (“Transparent”), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”)
Those 32 women represent more than a dozen shows, reflecting a tremendous range of genres and formats. That kind of diversity is awesome; they deserve the recognition. However, the panels’ conceptions also made insightful discussion of their work nearly impossible because the only thing that most of the participants had in common was their gender.
Curating any panel means selecting guests whose work or background suggest that they can create a lively conversation around a compelling topic. However, lumping together a large number of women who work on a wide range of shows greatly reduces the options. Often, the only applicable topic is: “So, what’s it like to be a lady who makes things?”
Shows represented by the Starz panel ranged from dramedy to period drama to fantasy. It’s no wonder that the journalists’ questions included a direct question to Balfe about her shyness, to the female producers being asked how they dress for meetings. One writer asked for “nightmare stories” about their experiences working in the industry — as if that was a presumed shared experience (and that asking women to tell those stories wouldn’t demand an emotional cost).
Of these four TCA panels, Amazon’s had the most interesting discussion, though it had the advantage of including a non-binary creator. Soloway, who uses they/them pronouns, also had the courage to speak truth to power; they said to Salke that the Amazon panel, entitled “Visionary Voices,” “was probably gonna be called ‘Visionary Women’ until a couple days ago, right?”
“Exactly,” Salke said. Salke used the wrong pronouns for Soloway a few times during her executive session earlier in the day, though Soloway noted that Salke did better during the Visionary Voices panel, and “we’re all working on that. Even me, I get ’em wrong all the time.”
Salke moderated a portion of the Amazon panel, and her questions focused on what her panelists look for in projects, and what they would tell their high school selves. It was good to have inquiries that weren’t inspired by the panelists’ gender, but it didn’t necessarily offer unique insight into the creative process.
If things truly are opening up for women in the industry, the best way to prove that is to normalize the idea of more than one gender having a creative voice. In the six panels presented by Turner Networks, only one of the shows profiled, “At Home with Amy Sedaris,” was created by a woman, and no panel had more than one woman on it. The need for representation, especially behind the scenes, is acute.
Every woman director or showrunner experiences some level of exhaustion about being “the token” (an exhaustion, to be clear, echoed doubly by people of color). But at this stage in the game, the “Wow, Look at All These Women Who Make Things!” panel is an overcorrection that at times makes the problem worse, not better. It is no longer breaking news that women are working behind the camera. Put them in situations that let them talk about what they’re making.