My Lez Geek Out! podcast buddy Lise MacTague and I were chatting the other day and she would totally love to get a grrl power space opera-ish TV show launched. She has no illusions that something like that would be easy-peasy and lookie there I have a TV show; representation in media for women, POC, and LGBTQ people isn’t great (though you could probably say it’s better than it has been in years past) and the industry in general is notoriously difficult to get into and stay in.
And there are many times I’ve wanted to do the exact same thing. Or become a writer on some cool-ass space opera or urban fantasy kind of show on TV. And it’s great when people in the industry are publicly encouraging, especially of women, POC, and LGBTQ people, but the reality is that the industry is notoriously hard to change and that there are forces at work against that change.
I was reminded of this by a Tweetstorm recently posted by Maureen (Mo) Ryan who covers media at Variety. Fortunately, she Storified it, which makes it easier to read. Some salient points that she makes:
So basically, they seem to pat themselves on the back, thinking, “OMG LOOK AT ALL THIS REPRESENTATION OF THE WOMENZ! And, you know…all those other people, too…
This is good. BUT…
YES, THEY ARE. Do not think that just because there are a few programs doing things right (or right-ish) that YAY everything is awesome.
Which leads her to state the following, blunt as it is.
So yes, we have anecdotal evidence that there are things going on in TV that are good for women and MOC and LGBTQ people and involve them in storylines and behind the scenes. But the fact remains that the change is slooooooowwwwww and actually sometimes isn’t happening at all OR we are actually going backward.
Ryan points out that the latest “Boxed In” study is out, conducted by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film (CSWT). And, as Ryan notes, the findings are bad. Progress for women in the industry continues to be incremental or stalled.
The Boxed In study has been released annually for 20 years, and provides a comprehensive look at women employed in TV and film, behind and in front of the camera. The latest covers the 2016-2017 season.
I’m gonna drop some of these findings on you, as quoted from the Boxed In study:
The employment of women working in key behind-the-scenes positions on broadcast network programs has stalled, with no meaningful progress over the last decade. Women comprised 27% of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography working on broadcast network programs. This represents no change from 2015-16, and an increase of only 1 percentage point since 2006-07.
TEN YEARS and it’s only changed 1 percent for the better.
How about this one:
Across platforms, startlingly high percentages of programs employed no women in the behind-the-scenes roles considered. 97% of the programs considered had no women directors of photography, 85% had no women directors, 75% had no women editors, 74% had no women creators, 67% had no women writers, 23% had no women producers, and 20% had no women executive producers.
The news isn’t all terrible. Here’s a slight increase (but notice how low the number is to start):
In 2016-17, women comprised 28% of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography working on broadcast network, cable, and streaming programs. This represents an increase of 2 percentage points from 26% in 2015-16.
So let’s have a look at representation in front of the camera:
The percentage of female characters featured on broadcast network programs was the same in 2016-17 as it was nearly a decade earlier in 2007-08. Last year, women comprised 43% of all speaking characters on broadcast network programs. While this figure represents an increase of 2 percentage points from 41% in 2015-16, it is the same percentage achieved in 2007-08.
TEN FREAKING YEARS AGO.
Some good news:
Across platforms, programs are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Black characters in speaking roles comprised 19% of all females in 2016-17, up from 16% in 2015-16. Asian characters accounted for 6% of all females in 2016-17, up from 4% in 2015-16. The percentage of Latinas increased from 4% in 2015-16 to 5% in 2016-17.
Still too low. And…
Latinas continue to be dramatically underrepresented on broadcast network programs. Latinas accounted for only 5% of all female characters with speaking roles in 2016-17. This figure is even with the number achieved in 2015-16 and 2010-11.
And then there’s this:
Regardless of platform, gender stereotypes on television programs abound. Female characters were
younger than their male counterparts, more likely than men to be identified by their marital status, and less likely than men to be seen at work and actually working.
Across platforms, female characters were more likely than males to play personal life-oriented roles, such as wife and mother. In contrast, male characters were more likely than females to play work-oriented roles, such as business executive.
You can get more of that and see the statistical analysis at the Boxed In study link.
Keep in mind this is broadcast television. The executive director of the CSWT, Martha Lauzen, told Ryan that gender diversity appears to be stronger in streaming programs, both behind and in front of the camera. She indicates that broadcast media appears to have ceded leadership in that regard to streaming programs.
The study also found (as did other research by USC’s Annanberg School for Communication and Journalism, that OMG SHOCK HORROR hiring women changes on-screen representation. That is, it seems to ensure that more women are brought on, too.
I CAN’T EVEN BELIEVE IT said no one reading this blog ever. The Boxed In study found that on programs with at least ONE woman creator, females accounted for 51 percent of major characters, which basically achieves parity with the percentage of girls and women in the country. On programs with only male creators, 38 percent of the characters were female.
And in another shocking turns of events (said no one reading this ever), regardless of the platform, programs with at least one woman creator had “substantially higher percentages” of women in other key behind-the-scenes roles.
So okay, we’ve got some teeny-tiny incremental progress maybe and some anecdotal YAY REPRESENTATION, but as Mo Ryan says, “THAT’S NOT ENOUGH.” She then goes on to point out in her most excellent Storification piece that the way shit changes is that people in the industry fight the good fight (that’s me editorializing; Mo does not say “shit” in her pieces).
Here’s a bit of elaboration on the following point: The fact that people in the industry view themselves as the hero/heroine of a journey means that they really, really don’t want to see themselves as the villain of the piece. That’s not how they see themselves, and to some extent, their view of themselves as underdogs is valid, because each and every person on any rung of the industry DID have to fight to get where they are. It’s a hard business to get into and stay in. I do get that.
But the battle is so much harder and more challenging for women of color, men of color and white women, persons with disabilities, LGBTQ people. I’ve been covering this industry for 20 years. It is just harder for some. Trust me.
And she also acknowledges that some people may not be able to help because they aren’t in positions of power and they may not even be able to speak up because they could be endangering their livelihoods. But for people who ARE in positions of power and privilege, Ryan says, “change absolutely won’t happen unless you’re on the train.” And she quotes Bishop Tutu with regard to neutrality in this situation. If you choose neutrality, you are choosing the side of the oppressors. “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Ryan didn’t lay this on us to make us curl up into fetal positions and stare at the wall. Her position is that knowing this means we won’t get all starry-eyed about rep in the industry overall. Meaning, we won’t get sucked in by anecdotal evidence of representation and we’ll look at the reality and use it to effect longer-lasting change for the better.
Also meaning, we won’t settle. And there is, I think, a possibility for that.
Listen, I know we’re in fraught times. Everything is a giant bucket of overflowing fuck. And in some cases, all we can do is hold the damn line against the onslaught of horribleness before we can move forward. TV serves as an escape valve for a lot of us during these shitstorms. And over the past few decades, those of us who aren’t white, straight, cismen have been working really hard to get OUR stories told, too, so we can see ourselves in media. We’ve come a long way. Let’s keep pushing to tell more of our stories in ways that are respectful of who we are, in all our wonderful, flawed, glorious ways.
We’re not going to get this done overnight. And we’re going to lose some battles. But keep your eyes on the prize, stick together, and united front the hell out of this.
Happy Friday, and the may the odds be ever in our favor.