The Decline of Female Writers in Television

by Kayla Rosenberg

As a society, we are heavily influenced by what we see, and what we hear. Our role models and heroes are based on our earliest understandings of stories. The people who write those stories are powerful because they guide the direction of the media being produced. Television has been affecting our world since 1939. Since that time, television’s impact has continued to grow and has even become what is arguably the most influential media of all. It impacts the public as a mass, in the sense that we share common and universal experiences and memories. Television as both a creative outlet and big business has altered the individual experience. However, “the percentage of women working as writers on broadcast programs plummeted this season, declining from 29% in 2009-2010 to 15% in 2010-2011” (Lauzen 1). When the voice of fifty one percent of the population is diminished, our experiences as viewers change. The amount of women in the television industry as a whole is starting to become scarce as well. As a result of the genre of the media being produced, the number of female television writers has been steadily decreasing, which affects the target demographic and the television writing industry as a whole.

When addressing the issue of the decline of women writers in television, one must look at production theory analysis. Production focuses on the balance or imbalance of power and control. There are two types of analysis in production theory, actional and structural. Actional analysis looks at how people get others to agree with them, and identifies successful ways to do just that. Structural analysis focuses on how the superstructure influences media makers. Depending on who holds power over who, results in how the content is affected and altered. This is because of the hierarchy of production theory. The hierarchy includes macro, micro, and mid-range criticism. Macro is concerned with the concentration of ownership by big corporations and its affect on programming. Mid-range criticism looks at the way that networks influence affects content in the sense of the brand identity, hiring strategies, and intra- and inter-networking. Micro, which is the lowest on the hierarchy, deals with the specific workers in the television industry and the pressures that they face (Ott). The decline of female television writer is primarily categorized as an issue of micro level criticism as it deals specifically with the writers. This is important because it begs the question: how much power does each of the three hierarchies really have, and how is it affecting not only the content being produced, but the number of people being hired and who those people are.

Women writers in television have been decreasing for many reasons. Not only are there economic issues to factor in, but also the style of popular shows currently being produced is affecting the employment of women writers. Marc Guggenheim stated, “that the size of writing staffs and the number of job opportunities for TV writers have been shrinking since the [2007-2008] writers’ strike and the start of the recession. . .While that wouldn’t explain the disproportionate decrease percentage-wise, my instinct is that when jobs are harder to come by, it’s minorities — including women — who are disproportionately impacted” (Ryan). Also, television networks separate their programming into three sections: daytime, prime time, and late night. These time slots reflect the network’s belief about who is at home watching television, and thus the programming is geared toward that demographic. Because of this, female television writers are often restricted to divisions that would be considered more feminine, such as dramatic soap operas, television movies, and children’s programming (Ryle 426). In the last ten years, dramatic shows that are perpetuated by an ensemble,  such as soap operas, have become less popular and are instead being replaced by television shows that are more episodic and big event shows. Because women are often associated with writing these styles of television shows that are dying in popularity, male writers are being employed alternatively, due to the predominantly male governed nature of episodic television writing and big event shows. The current vogue genres are also creating an obstacle for female television writers. Because of the surge of popularity in the genres action and comedy, women are less likely to be hired to write for shows that presently have a heavy mastery over television. A good example of this is the new Fox show, “Terra Nova.” Terra Nova is a large budget, action-adventure series that includes some of the biggest names in film and television including Steven Spielberg, and former Fox executive Peter Chernin. The show has twelve executive producers, which is a large number for one show. Out of the twelve executive producers, only two of them are female. This is interesting because “Terra Nova” is being pitched and previewed partially as a family show, however, neither of the two women involved are getting to creatively guide or give input to the project (Ryan). This is due to the fact that men dominate the genres action and comedy. According to Martha M. Lauzen’s report of Employment of Behind-the-Scenes and On-Screen Women in the 2010-11 Prime-time Television Season, reality programs employed twenty eight percent women and seventy two percent men.  Dramas employed twenty five percent women and seventy five percent men. Situation comedies employed twenty two percent women and seventy eight percent men (1). Because of the current genre trends, female writers are becoming less relevant especially in comedy. The 2009 Hollywood Writers Report stated, “women staff employment in comedy [had] declined 17.7 percentage points over the period, from 43.3 percent during the 2005-06 season to 25.6 percent in the 2007-08 season” (Hunt 34). Because of their lack of relevance to modern television programming, female writers are not only less likely to be hired, but also less likely to be trained and mentored. Because they are not being mentored, female television writers cannot gain the experience they would need to start their own television show. This cycle of barring women writers is creating a thicker glass ceiling, which could spiral into a depletion of women writers as a whole. According to production theory, with less of a need for female television writers, they eventually won’t fit anywhere in the format for the hierarchy of production, making them obsolete in the world of writing.

Confining women to working in a very narrow range of television shows has had an obvious effect on the content being produced. Sons of Anarchy is television drama created by Kurt Sutter about an outlaw motorcycle gang located in the fictional town of Charming, CA. This show is a prime example of misogyny and sexism taking reign over television due to a lack of female writers. Because Sons of Anarchy has a writing staff of mostly men that write for both the male and female characters, often the female characters are misrepresented. Katey Sagal, one of the show’s lead actresses, was asked by Hollywood interviewer, Charles Mihelich, about the inorganic feeling, inherent sexism and misogyny in the biker culture, but the woman’s ability to maintain influence and power. Her response to “the research [she] did about the world” of Sons of Anarchy, revealed that “[she] can not really find much about the women, because it is a very misogynistic world, but just like in any group, you would think that there would be some sort of hierarchy that forms between the women that have been around for a long time,” but there was none. Because of the unperceptive acceptance of sexism on television, the restrictive gender roles not only reign over television content, but also the restrictions in the employment of female television writers. Based on the statistics of Martha M. Lauzen, “on screen, females accounted for 41% of all characters [which] represents a decline of 2 percentage points from 2007-08. However, programs with at least one woman creator, or writer, featured more female characters than programs with no women creators or writers” (1). Sexist content, that was once defining our culture, can be considered the most realistic visual and narrative depiction of our past, when producing a period piece,  but it is instead reaffirming the sexist nature of our present in that the audience willingly accepts the treatment of women on new popular television shows.

With such a diminishing number of female television writers there is a serious imbalance of power. This imbalance of power creates an uneven and gender biased control over how content is shaped through limited influence of the female participants. With an observed rapid dwindling of female involvement or need for female television writers, the television writing industry is creating a noticeable gap in wages for female writer and male writers. This is partially due to television’s “revolving door” employment which “creates not only risk and uncertainty in careers, fostering a kind of environment at every turn in which the sources of gender bias that enter into executives’ decisions about whom to hire are likely to be subtle, and indirect, and subject to the stereotypes and preconceptions of decision makers who place a premium on social similarity” (Bielby 246). According to Denise Bielby in 2009, “women’s sizeable overall gender difference in earnings – about seventy cents for each dollar earned by males— remained consistent at about 25% when compared to men of similar age and industry experience. Thus, the effects of employer bias that appeared early in female writers’ careers persisted as continuous disadvantage in the form of an enduring salary differential that affected them equally throughout their careers” (246). Because of the glass ceiling created by the industry that is based on sexist assumptions and inequality of power within production of television content, women writers cannot break in to the business expecting to become something more or even equal to their male constituents. “If women aren’t hired to write on staff they can’t be mentored. They can’t gain experience and they can’t move up and then ultimately create their own show. They can’t have overall deals” with studios and, “they are essentially shut out of the process. We are seeing the effects now of women being shut out of the process” (Ryan).

This directly affects the content being produced and is directly influencing the targeted audience and their understanding and interpretations of the content. What is most unfortunate about this cycle of exclusion is, even if there was a writers room full of men, and a few women were added to it, it would still not only be heavily male dominated, but also it would still be very heavily influenced by the “boy’s club” that has become the television writing industry.

Audience “connectedness” is defined as an intense relationship between audience and television program, that extends beyond the television watching experience, into individuals’ personal and social lives. . . connectedness is mediated by high involvement while watching the show, as manifested by identification to the characters, as well as commitment to the television show (Russell 397).

The audience is readily trying to connect directly to all the programming being projected on television. The writers of the show control the audience’s perceptions of all aspects of the content. This includes characters, subject matter, arguments, and messages. This sways the opinions of the people watching. Although some may say that the decline of female television writers has had no affect on television as a whole or the content being produced, audience connects heavily with the television content they consume in that they can relate. If they relate so much to the characters being created, they are only being influenced in one main way because there aren’t as many female television writers as there are male controlling the content they consume. It reaffirms the gender inequality in the content.  A lack of female television writers holding power in the creation of content changed the targeted demographic drastically. Because of the writer’s understood control of the audience’s perceptions, “it is widely accepted that prime time television conveys social and political messages and values” of the current age (Russell).  Kurt Sutter, the creator of the television show Sons of Anarchy, commented on the lack of female television writers saying, “look at the primary measuring statistic for a viewing audience, the only statistic that matters financially — males 18-49. Networks demand that shows be aimed at that target audience. They have to. That’s what advertisers demand of them. No ads, no TV. So by default, for the most part, we are creating television for white guys.” Although his statement was curt, it is very telling about the time in which we live because “the influence exerted by the consumption of images present on television. . . can cultivate viewers’ perceptions of their social environment” (Russell 401,402). If the content is being created for one very specified social group, gender, and race, there is absolutely no chance of women having any sort of influence on the programming. Shawn Ryan, a writer for The Chicago Code, Terriers, and The Shield commented on this saying, “With women comprising a majority of the television viewing audience, this doesn’t make much sense. You would think it would be an advantage to have greater numbers of women on staff” (Ryan).

Based on this understanding of televisions’ connectedness to its audience, it is reasonable to assume that the images being projected by shows that sexualize the objectification of women are being widely consumed and thus influencing society to accept sexism as normalcy, especially because the most popular television shows are being written by men, for men. Because of television’s derogatory content being projected across the board of networks, the number of female television writers has decreased. This whole system of imbalances could lead to an even steeper decline of women writers. It would be due to women hearing that the television industry is not only unwelcoming to women, but also statistically pays women less. Thusly, it would make them less likely to even try to enter the business. The number of women applicants begins at the talent agency where they are picked based on their experience and mentoring, but if they have no chance of getting that mentoring because they have no training in the appropriate genres, or they have no past experience because they could not get hired based on their experience, the cycle of depletion continues. In my opinion, if the issues stated above aren’t addressed and changed, there will be no room and hope for women writers in the industry. The disparity of numbers of female writers pay versus the pay and employment increase of male writers have affected the television writing industry as a whole, as well as the catered to demographic. In conclusion, due to the current popular genres, and the demographic that is being targeted for the majority of the content being produced, the number of female television writers is slowly dwindling in to a very sad and very small percentage.

Works Cited

Bielby, Denise D. “Gender Inequality in Culture Industries: Women and Men Writers in Film and Television.” ScienceDirect. Elsevier Masson SAS, 2009.

Hunt, Darnell M. Whose Stories Are We Telling? 2007. Print.

Lauzen, Martha M. Ph.D. Boxed In: Employment of Behind-the-Scenes and On- Screen Women in the 2010-11 Prime-time Television Season.  <http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/files/2010-2011_Boxed_In_Exec_Summ.pdf>

Mihelich, Charles. “Collider Exclusive Interview – SONS OF ANARCHY Stars Katey Sagal and Maggie Siff.” Collider. 9 Sept. 2009. Web. 05 Nov. 2011. <http://collider.com/collider-exclusive-interview-sons-of-anarchy-stars-katey-sagal-and-maggie-siff/7254/>.

Ott, Brian L., and Robert L. Mack. Critical Media Studies: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

Russell, Cristel A. “Rethinking Television Audience Measures: An Exploration into Concept of Audience Connectedness.” Marketing Letters (1999): 393- 405.

Ryan, Maureen. “Why Is Television Losing Women Writers? Veteran Producers Weigh In.” AOL TV. 8 Sept. 2011. Web. 05 Nov. 2011. <http://www.aoltv.com/2011/09/08/women-television-producers-decline/>.

Russell, C.A., A. Norman and S. Heckler. The Consumption of Television Programming: Development and Validation of the Connectedness Scale. <http://escholarshare.drake.edu/bitstream/handle/2092/496/normanjcr.pdf?sequence=1>

Ryle, Robyn. Questioning Gender: a Sociological Exploration. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE/Pine Forge, 2012.