Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Men Writing Women Writing Men

bring it

On a fairly regular basis, somebody looks at a show with promise that fell on its face, a newly released set of statistics or the complaints of some frustrated artist and wonders if television would be better if more (or fewer) of a particular gender were involved in its creation.

Such was the case recently with a Globe and Mail feature by Kate Taylor entitled "You've Come A Long Way -- Maybe". Which you should read because it's very well written.

Although you do have to get past…

a) The initial statement of fact that all American TV writing rooms are "bastions of male hackdom".

b) The assertion, despite contrary interviews with several Canadians, that "there's no reason to believe the situation here is much different".

And above all…

c) That the UCLA Sociology professor supplying the "scientific data" admits he actually "has not finished compiling" all the research.

Maybe that last is just where the concept of "settled science" has brought us -- or its inclusion exemplifies what passes for journalism in Canada's purported National newspaper.

When these discussions get trotted out, they inevitably evolve into wondering whether men can really write women and vice-versa. And around that point we exit the realm of making TV shows and get into personal and societal issues that have not much to do with the reality of churning out popular entertainment.

That's because most people who are intimately involved in the production of TV shows embrace the singular truth that "A writer is a writer is a writer" and the abilities of any individual writer have less to do with what's between their legs than what's between their ears.

If somebody can write -- and more importantly write the kind of show you're desperately trying to make, you don't give a flying fuck what position they take to urinate. You just want them nailed down in front of a computer and writing.

I began my TV career at a time when a lot of women writers used initials instead of a first name so that script readers wouldn't know they were women. I always had a special soft spot for those who chose "BJ".

And while the chauvinist producers and writers that Anita Loos, Lilliane Hellman and Joan Didion first made famous certainly existed and probably still do in some places, I didn't understand exactly why this hidden identity game was still played.

Because I honestly don't remember any producer I worked for who read a submitted script and remembered the writer's name let alone thought to ask whether they were male or female. Most often, the discussions went along the line of "What about the one who wrote that thing with the thing and the dog? We all liked that one didn't we?"

True, the first couple of shows I worked on didn't have women writers on staff. But they all had female supervisors at the network level, female producers, directors and heads of various production departments. Not to mention actresses in key roles who had input into what transpired with their characters. And many of our freelance writers were women as well.

So while I often heard "This script is a piece of shit", I don't recall anybody ever suggesting that it could be made better if a woman were hired instead of a man to do the rewrite. Or a man brought in if said "turd" had been deposited by somebody of the lady persuasion.

key to writing

I have no doubt there are a ton of women writers both my age and younger with unimpeachable stories of how they were used and abused and sullied by the world of television. But I'm just as certain those tales can be matched by any man in the profession.

Television is simply an equal opportunity user and abuser where, as the man said, "Good men (and women too) die like dogs!".

Yes, I know what the stats say about the percentage of women in writing rooms and how those numbers either don't seem to improve or do for a season or two and then backslide. And I can't explain it anymore than I explain why the team with the highest paid or best players doesn't always win the World Series.

If I had to come up with a reason, I'd say it had something to do with which showrunners have shows this season -- and what kind of shows the networks felt their audiences wanted.

That's because when I'm putting together a staff or making a list of writers I want to use, my only consideration is "Who can write the kind of scripts we need?" and that list gets further shortened by "Who's available?", "Who's reliable?" and "Whose quote can I afford?" -- or more accurately of late, "Who'll work for scale?".

I might get an additional list of writers the network or production company(s) want me to use. Often those lists include writers who are right for the show. And sometimes they include writers who are owed favors or have a contractual commitment the prodco or network can burn off if I hire them.

Sometimes the corporate lists include close friends, boyfriends or girlfriends. I try to shortlist the writers I think are right for the show.

And then the network puts a checkmark next to who's right for them.

And if you work in Canada, there's somebody from the government also wanting your staff to reflect some undefined (or indefinable) gender, regional or diversity target.

What I'm trying to say is, with that many different agendas being addressed, nobody is busy painting a "No Girls Allowed" sign to nail on the clubhouse.

Perhaps more important, no matter the final make up of your writing room, some demographic will be in the minority.

I just know there's always a point where I feel like a high school student council entertainment coordinator setting out to book "The Travelling Wilburys", who's ultimately thrilled that he found a pretty tight little "Bon Jovi" cover band.

traveling wilburys 

Yes, women currently only comprise 32% of the membership of the Writers Guild of Canada. But then, only about 15% of the entire membership is working at any given time. And yes, a lot of that membership (both male and female) don't get writing jobs or even job interviews because they don't have a lot of produced credits to prove they know their craft.

So, it would seem the real problem might be the lack of work opportunities that would provide production experience for Canadian screenwriters overall.

But if someone like Kate Taylor wanted to write about that, she'd have to start questioning the resistance to producing Canadian scripted shows that comes from companies like the one which owns her own Newspaper.

How many scripted shows is CTV (like the Globe & Mail a property of Bell Media) producing this year? One.

One which has a woman co-showrunning it.

Indeed, despite Ms. Taylor's assertion that "the situation isn't much different here", virtually every flagship show on Canadian television has a woman in charge of its creative decisions.

"Flashpoint" at CTV. "Rookie Blue" at Global. "Lost Girl" at Showcase. "Call Me Fitz" at HBO Canada. "Living In Your Car" at TMN. Not to mention "Little Mosque", "Heartland" and "Being Erica" at CBC.

Hey, wait a minute… Should Ms. Taylor consider a think-piece asking if all those shows created and/or run by women is the reason ratings for Canadian TV series have gone into the tank over the last couple of years?

Of course not. Because too many series created and/or run by men, "Endgame", "Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays", "Thirteen" and "The Bridge" have all tallied much worse numbers.

A woman writer I know once stated her belief that women network execs preferred male writers because they did not like having story conferences with women writers who might be smarter than them and male writers were also more "flirt-worthy".

Either of those assertions make me shudder on a whole bunch of levels.

The truth is -- the sex of your staff has nothing to do with the quality or entertainment value of your finished product. That's determined by level of talent alone.

And then, no matter what your sex or sexual preference, every writer can only pray (or "hope" if praying offends their belief system) an adequate audience finds and then keeps coming back to the show.

And even then -- you stand a pretty good chance of being cancelled.

As to "Can men really write for women and women for men?" -- that's pure Bullshit; the kind of intellectual nonsense reserved for network executives working on a doctorate in creative obfuscation.


For proof of how false and facetious this argument is, I'd ask you to surf over to Netflix and call up Season One of "Californication" Episode 12. Go nine minutes in to a conversation between a bride to be and her best friend moments before the march to the altar.

No matter who you are, you'll be instinctively aware of the utterly female truth in that scene -- a scene written by a man ("Californication" creator Tom Kapinos) and at the same time using language no male writer in his right mind would ever drop into any moment populated by drunk Australian Rugby players.

Good writers get it. They understand people. Whatever their sex, they know what makes the other tick. And they are intimately aware that unlike government bureaucrats, network executives or perhaps newspaper journalists, that each writer comes with a particular skill set that isn't replaced simply by bringing in a "different" writer.

Whether the works of William Shakespeare were written by Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe or the Earl of Oxford; whether the real author of those plays was a gay man or noblewoman using a pseudonym, the reality is -- that sonovabitch could write. Men and women both.

Are the men in scripts by Nora Ephron, Diablo Cody or Shonda Rhimes underserved by their author? Do the women of "The West Wing" and "The Social Network" come off less than real because Aaron Sorkin is a guy?

No. What determines character depth and worthy content is talent. And talent is not a quality reserved for those of any sex, race or age.

So, could we stop all this nonsense and just make sure that the best people get the jobs? And maybe we could also ask that companies like the one Kate Taylor works for start supporting the creative endeavors of a few more of them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with your last paragraph. Well stated!

You shouldn't forget Nancy Dowd, who wrote "Slapshot."