What Happened to the Female Comedy Boom?
Six months ago, it seemed like we were at the verge of a promising new age in female comedy (at least, if you’re a white lady). Bridesmaids was a big, and unexpected, hit. And it was the beginning of a television season in which the hottest trend was sitcoms created by women. As much as I would have wished for a string of hits, the results have been more predictable. The shows have ranged from the toxic Are You There, Chelsea? and 2 Broke Girls, to the increasingly-tolerable New Girl, to the outright winning Up All Night. And despite the boom in shows created by women, the episodes of these programs have been overwhelmingly directed by men. And men have written slightly more than half the episodes in six shows I examined. If a revolution for women in entertainment is under way, this fall may have been the vanguard, but in both employment of women and depictions of them on television, we’re a long way from victory.
Of Whitney‘s 20 episodes, just 7 were written by women, and of those seven, only three were written by women other than show creator Whitney Cummings. The other show Cummings created, 2 Broke Girls, has been influenced much more by showrunner Michael Patrick King than by Cummings (she wrote just one episode of the show), though it’s actually doing better than Whitney at getting episodes written by women on the air: women have written 9 of the show’s 20 episodes, while men have written 11. On New Girl, almost twice as many episodes were written by men (11) as by women (6). Liz Merriweather, the show’s creator, wrote two out of those 17 episodes. It might be hard to imagine, given how much the show seems like a Female Chauvinist Pig archetype, but a majority of Are You There, Chelsea? episodes are written by women—6 out of 10. And it’s the only show on this list where every episode is directed by a woman, Gail Mancuso, who’s also directed an episode of Suburgatory, and is reteaming with Roseanne Barr on her new NBC sitcom Downwardly Mobile. Suburgatory also has a narrow majority of its episodes scripted by women, including series creator Emily Kapnek, 10 out of 19. And Up All Night is the undisputed champion—in a world where having 13 of a show’s 20 episodes written by women counts as an overwhelming victory.
These numbers are a striking reminder that we can’t count on female showrunners and show creators to do all the work of getting more women working on television programs. And we shouldn’t ask them to. Being a woman doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy working with men, or that you can’t learn from men’s perspectives. And we shouldn’t ask women to deny themselves those pleasures and those insights just to make up the gaps created by men who aren’t curious enough to want to work with women, and as a result are missing out on fresh and exciting perspectives, as well as potential friendships and working partnerships. If women creators or showrunners are solely responsible for getting more women writing for television, then the cancellation of a single show or a mass decision by studios that lady-run or lady-created shows are no longer a trend they want to ride could create a massive dropoff in the number of women writers. Until men and women are equally invested in getting more women’s voices in writers’ rooms, those numbers won’t improve in a permanent way.
And these fall comedies are a reminder that we can’t—and again, probably shouldn’t—count on female creators and showrunners to give us positive or nuanced depictions of women. After all, if your success in comedy is predicated on the idea that you don’t act like a girl—Cummings infamously suggested that Brooke Hogan and Pamela Anderson should drink “vat of Magic Johnson’s blood,” a line that’s pretty far beyond the pale no matter your gender—or like a lady—the entire premise for Chelsea Handler’s career—where are the incentives for you to tell thoughtful, self-reflective stories about women? Being the women hangs with the guys can be a precarious position, one that’s in need of constant reinforcement, and which doesn’t always yield to a situation like the one described in New Girl, where the boys in question become sympathetic to and champions of said girl’s particularly female perspective and needs. It’s one thing for networks to value women for what demographics they can bring in during primetime, or for a certain kind of performance of femininity. It’s another to value women for the full array of perspectives and experiences they can bring to the table, and the stories they want to tell once they’re sitting at it.
This is not to say that everything is terrible. Up All Night‘s developed into a moderate success for NBC by telling stories about women’s experiences as professionals, as mothers, and as romantic partners in a way that doesn’t require them to ingratiate themselves to male viewers—and it’s been rewardingly sensitive and smart in portraying the challenges of stay-at-home fathers. New Girl has evolved from an irritating and irrational celebration of a character who seemed beamed in from Mars to a more realistic, and more genuinely engaging portrait of a group of friends, though it’s largely done so by figuring out how to flesh out its male characters, rather than by making Zooey Deschanel’s Jess much more realistic. Suburgatory remains warmly, winningly weird.
And we’re not done for the season yet. On April 11, ABC is premiering Don’t Trust the B—- In Apartment 23, a roommates comedy starring Krysten Ritter and Dreama Walker from the very funny Nahnatchka Khan. HBO follows on April 15 with Girls, Lena Dunham’s miraculous new series about a group of long-standing friends who move to New York after they graduate from college and struggle to find their places at a time when the economy is unforgiving but the expectations for success are high. If we’re lucky and the networks are patient, this first round of female-created and female-centered comedies could be just that, a foundation for the employment of more women, for telling many more kinds of our stories.