Jane Espenson on Getting More Women in the Writers’ Room

Alyssa RosenbergJane Espenson, in a provocative and I think important essay for the Huffington Post, argues that the key to getting more women in the writers’ rooms of television shows is actually to walk away from the idea that women have something particular to add to the conversation:

Good writers can write across the gender line. We just can. And even those who can’t have undoubtedly convinced themselves that they can. So a male showrunner, confident in his abilities and those of his male writers, is probably not wringing his hands over how he’s going to get his female characters onto the page. By advertising ourselves as female character generators, we’re trying to provide a service that no one is clamoring for. Showrunner-dude is happy creating his own female characters. Making the case that there is a deficiency he’s unaware of is probably not going to resonate with him.

Even if you get such a showrunner to hire a woman, if you suggest that female writers have a specific (and limited) purpose, you are inviting those showrunners to feel they don’t need to hire additional women writers once they have one woman in the room; they have their female character generator, their lens onto the female point of view.

And beyond that, the argument leaves us with no basis to promote the value of women on a show with few or no female characters. In fact, it provides a frighteningly sound argument for not hiring us on such a show.

I actually think, if asked, that most male showrunners would say that they’re in agreement with Jane’s initial argument, that gender is not a legitimate factor in deciding not to ask someone to join their writing staff. But I do think there’s a gap between that theoretical agreement and actually seeking out women to work on a show. Dan Harmon’s said that it took an order from NBC programming head Angela Bromstead to get him to hire more women, an experience that ultimately convinced him that he wants to work with more women in the future. And I know he’s not alone in enjoying working with women.

I believe that Jane is correct that the best, most thoughtful male and female writers can create marvelous male and female characters interchangeably, that argument can as easily bolster the status quo as it can govern a more progressive future. But no one person, male or female, has the full range of experience with their own gender, or with people of the other gender—the more kinds of experience you have in a writer’s room, the more access you’ll have to the range of human life. And I think there are a lot of men who write female characters who are best flat and at worst are ugly distortions—and that there are more men who have the opportunity to write these sorts of depictions of women than there are women who have the chance to write stereotypes of men. Those men shouldn’t get a pass, and they shouldn’t get feedback that suggests that they’re doing just fine on their own. Because they’re not.

And if there’s absolutely no reason why white males need insights from women and people of color, why should they ever bother to hire them, especially if it means giving up job slots that otherwise would go to people who look like them? I wish I trusted more male showrunners to reach out from curiosity and a commitment to pure meritocracy, but the evidence just don’t particularly support that. Every major survey of women writers in television suggests that gains in that space are not durable: a single-year spike in the number of women in writers’ rooms tends to disappear, or even go backwards, in the next.

It might not pay to offend male show-runners sense of their capacity, but abandoning the argument that women and people of color have a definitive value add due to their experiences and perspective also means giving up a positive, substantive case for getting women and people of color—not to mention people of different class backgrounds—on writing staffs. I’d love it if we could peacefully talk our way into substantive gains in employment for women in television writing. But I don’t see the path to doing that without some difficult conversations.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on March 7, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for ThinkProgress.org. She is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a B.A. in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of Washingtonian.com and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in Esquire.com, The Daily, The American ProspectThe New RepublicNational Journal, and The Daily Beast.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.