If Dan Harmon Can Do it, So Can You: Women in Genre TV Writers Rooms

While it may be true that there are a lot more women getting writing jobs in television these days and even becoming showrunners, like Once Upon Time’s  Jane Espenson and New Girl’s  Liz Meriwether, there still remains the issue of why aren’t there more women on staff. I’m not saying you have to hire women to reach a society imposed quota, which would be equally awful but there are plenty of female writers out there who have the same amount of talent that the men getting the jobs have. The question is, why aren’t they getting it?

There have always been issues with women in positions that were originally occupied by men. However, lately the issue has been brought to light with the successes of women in Hollywood  like Kathryn Bigelow ( “The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark Thirty”), Tina Fey (“30 Rock”, “Saturday Night Live”) and Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy”, “Scandal”). This has led many people to question “where are the women writers?” This was a question I’ve had for a long time, especially in the comedy and science fiction spectrum of television. As a fan of both genres, it seems ridiculous that it has taken so long for women to start getting recognized in that realm. It was only until recently that there was a woman in the showrunner position, former Buffy and Dollhouse staff writer, Jane Espenson heading up fantasy based drama, Once Upon A Time.

But, with these giant steps advancing the visibility of women in writing, also comes the sad reality that there is a stunning lack of female writers in genre writing rooms like on the long running British sci-fi program, Doctor Who. According to an article in the Guardian written by Mathilda Gregory shortly before the premiere of the second part of its seventh season, “Doctor Who hasn’t aired an episode written by a woman since 2008, 60 episodes ago.”

The realization made more startling when grouped with the fact that this was when a new showrunner, Steven Moffat, stepped in for Russell T. Davies and as the article highlights “in all the time since the show was rebooted in 2005 only one, Helen Raynor, has ever written for the show.”

A surprising and sad idea, considering the strides to break barriers especially in science fiction, sending the wrong signal to female sci-fi fans that are aspiring show scribes. Not only does it serve as a deterrent to aspiring writers, but also a disservice to the female characters in the mythology. While there have been amazingly strong female companions on the show like Martha Jones and Donna Noble in the Russell T. Davies era, io9 co-editor Charlie Jane Anders brought up the point of the lack of strength in the Moffat era female characters like beloved companion, Amy Pond.

“So in Moffat’s own view, the Doctor is an archetypically male character — but the show rests on an ever-changing series of female characters, who actually carry the bulk of the emotion and character development. You can see why it might be advantageous to have some female writers in the mix, right?” Anders brings up the point of importance each female companion plays in every incarnation of Doctor Who and the answer to her question is yes, absolutely yes. I also agree that this is not negating the idea that men can’t write women well, but it certainly can help with adding that strength we have been so used to seeing in previous seasons.

But, sitcom writers’ rooms are also facing a similar fate and bringing up the question in a much more pronounced way because of the infamous view of comedy as a “boys club.” In perhaps one of the most noted cases in the media, Dan Harmon creator and former showrunner of NBC comedy Community, was challenged by a former female NBC executive to create a gender balanced writers room at the start of the series.

What happened proved to be an enlightening experience for Harmon as quoted in a Vulture article from 2011. According to him, He had a preconceived notion of what the process of  hiring women writers was like. He found he was wrong and went on to describe his experience hiring these talented writers, “So you dig a little extra-hard, and you end up with a staff that took a few extra meetings and a few extra shitty scripts to read. Now you have a staff that is just as good as the staff you would have had, but happens to be half women… And the male writers across the board, from top to bottom, in their most private moments drinking with me, when they’re fully licensed to be as misogynist, reactive, old-boy-network as they want, all they can say is, ‘This turned out to be a great thing.’”

He goes on to describe the experience of the women in the room, “They do more dick jokes than anybody, because they’ve had to survive, they have to prove, coming in the door, that they’re not dainty. That’s not fair, but women writers, they acquire the muscle of going blue fast because they have to counter the stigma… I think women are different, and I think having them in the room is crucial to a family comedy, ensemble comedy, television comedy, where half the eyeballs on your show are women.” Unfortunately it took Harmon an executive prescribed challenge to let him see this, which is a shame.

What’s hopeful about the situation is that it’s not only women doing the asking but, the men as well. With showrunners like Joss Whedon leading the way with his ongoing defense of the female characters he writes as well as having the female writers on his staff write most of the episodes. Although that’s not to say there was a large amount of women on staff, with the exception of his staff on short lived sci-fi action series Dollhouse.

Even though, according to a Grindstone article by Meredith Lepore states there are more women creating shows, she brings in this statistic “women make up 26% of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography, which is up one point from the previous year and five points from the 1997-98 season. But 68% of all shows don’t even have a female writer on staff.”

What it boils down to is that it’s not a matter of fear by women wanting to get into writing or a shortage, we certainly see proof of talent in writers in the sci-fi and comedy realm like Megan Ganz, Jane Espenson and Liz Meriwether. It’s a matter of both networks and the showrunners in charge of these shows, not willing to take a second look at these talented candidates regardless of gender.  It would be amazing if one day, we wouldn’t have to impose rules to employ women in these specific genre writers rooms, like NBC did to Dan Harmon or BBC hasn’t tried to do with Steven Moffat and Doctor Who.