Women are gaining prominence in roles behind and in front of the camera, especially in the world of television.
Women are calling the shots in American television studios, now more than ever.
In 2016-17, they comprised 42 percent of the speaking characters on television, and 28 percent of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and directors of photography, according to the San Diego State University Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film’s “Boxed In 2016-17: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television” report.
The Directors Guild of America’s 2016-17 Episodic TV Director Diversity Report found that 21 percent, or 955, of all television episodes were directed by women, another all-time high. The total number of individual women directors increased 45 percent, to 262, in the 2016-17 season.
“Television culture is vast and varied—from journalism and sports to reality-based shows, fictional shows and commercials—and TV now appears on a variety of platforms, including broadcast, cable and streaming,” says Mary Celeste Kearney, associate professor of film, television and theatre, and director of the gender studies program at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. “Women have always been involved both behind and in front of the camera, yet not to the degree they are today and certainly not to the degree that men always have been.”
Kearney cites Lucille Ball as a rare example of a female success story from the television industry’s earliest times.
“She was a phenomenal comedic performer as well as a successful producer in TV; although her husband, Desi Arnaz, got a lot of credit for her work,” says Kearney. “Moreover, she’s probably the one female TV actor known globally, since ‘I Love Lucy’ has been broadcast in nearly every country, and continues to be rerun in a variety of places.”
Ball worked as a model and Broadway actor before moving to Hollywood. She also starred in several radio programs, including CBS Radio’s “My Favorite Husband.” Based on the success of the show, CBS asked Ball to develop it for television. In 1950, Ball and Arnaz formed Desilu Productions to work on this project, eventually known as “I Love Lucy.” Ball later became the first woman to head a television production company, Desilu, which was responsible for hits like “Star Trek,” “The Untouchables” and “Mission: Impossible,” and was one of the largest independent production companies until being sold in 1967.
More recently, Kearney says, Edie Falco’s and Viola Davis’ careers stand out in her mind.
Falco is “an amazing performer who has appeared in a variety of roles, both dramatic and comedic. And, despite being a woman over 40, she’s also been able to perform as sexual, which is difficult, since older women in Hollywood are rarely given that chance. Same for Viola Davis, although she’s appeared mostly in dramas,” says Kearney.
Falco is best known for her television roles in “Nurse Jackie,” “The Sopranos” and “Oz.” Davis, also known for her role in the film “The Help,” is the first African American woman to win the lead actress in a drama series Emmy for “How to Get Away With Murder.” The show has been executive produced by yet another trailblazing television personality—Shonda Lynn Rhimes. She is a producer, screenwriter and author, and has superhit series like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” to her credit.
Another example is an actor of Indian descent, Mindy Kaling, the first woman of color to create, executive produce and star in her own network show, “The Mindy Project.” “When I made the show, there were no women of colour who were stars of their own show. There was not even a man of colour…since like, I don’t even remember when. Now, my favorite shows [have women in the lead]...,” she says in an ELLE article.
“Creators and executive producers act as our cultural architects. Constructing a more inclusive televisual world on screen begins with employing a more inclusive behind-the-scenes community,” says Martha M. Lauzen, author of the “Boxed In” study, in an article in Variety magazine.
“Women are more involved today in behind-the-scenes or production roles, especially producing. But that varies by role, the type of shows and the type of platform. [Online] streaming offers a better entry point for younger or less experienced people in general. So, we’re seeing a lot more women working there than in traditional broadcast roles,” says Kearney.
She mentions several showrunners like Tina Fey, Issa Rae and Jill Soloway who are able to blend acting, producing and writing in this new landscape.
“They’re all incredibly smart as well as funny and, I think, humor is a fantastic way to get people to think about serious issues,” she says.
Fey is best known for her television work on “Saturday Night Live,” “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” She joined “Saturday Night Live” as a writer. Later, she became its first female head writer.
Rae is the creator of the “Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” YouTube web series, which became a mega-hit because of its non-stereotypical portrayal of African American characters. Rae parlayed this success with the show into a platform on YouTube where she features shows and other content by people of color.
Soloway, who identifies as nonbinary, created, writes, executive produces and directs the Amazon original series “Transparent,” for which they have won two Emmy awards. They won the best director award at the Sundance Film Festival for directing and writing the film “Afternoon Delight.” Soloway is also part of the TIME’S UP initiative, which brings together about 300 women actors, talent agents, writers, directors, producers and entertainment executives to address the systemic inequality and injustice in the workplace that have kept underrepresented groups from reaching their full potential.
“It’s important to note that not all women are the same, so we all don’t have the same opportunities. Women are multiply deprivileged when they are not white, not straight, not rich, not Western, not able-bodied,” says Kearney. “So, it’s important to always pay attention to which women are getting ahead as well as which women are not.”
In this scenario, even as studies report increases in the number of women involved in television, both behind and in front of the camera, several challenges remain. These include gender stereotypes like showing female characters as more likely to have personal goals, like being in a relationship, whereas male characters are more likely to have work-oriented goals. “It is so important when the symbolic world does not reflect the real world. This is certainly an employment issue for women working as directors, writers, editors, as well as actresses...” says Lauzen in a thinkprogress.org interview. “As long as women are underrepresented and misrepresented in our symbolic world, that is problematic for women living in the real world.”
Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.