Ladies Abound On The Small Screen--But Not Behind It

Mindy Kaling, breakout star of the Emmy-winning TV show, The Office, garners a lot of attention for her wit and comedic timing as Kelly Kapoor, Dunder Mifflin’s token mean girl and general hot mess. Eventually, Kaling became the only female writer on the hit NBC series, writing and directing numerous episodes before ultimately being promoted to Executive Producer. This season, FOX gave Kaling a seven-figure deal to create her own pilot. The Mindy Project, which premiered on September 25th, is an ingenious blend of Kaling’s typical humor: girly naïveté mixed with feminism, a different take on the modern woman looking for love.

In an interview with New York Magazine, Kevin Reilly, an executive at FOX, said of Kaling: “She has a very contemporary voice. She’s really smart about how open she is to being a mixture of both vulnerable and strong; she’s a woman that I think other women relate to.” In the article, Kaling is dubbed “The New New Girl”—in comparison to Zooey Deschanel’s quirky portrayal of Jess in Liz Meriwether’s New Girl, Lena Dunham’s raw and self-deprecating Hannah on Girls, and even veteran comedy goddess, Tina Fey. The world of the small screen has turned into one giant race for prom queen, as female television powerhouses are pitted against each other to determine the newest “it” girl. There just doesn’t seem to be enough room for women at the top of primetime television. (You don’t see columnists quarreling over whether Aaron Sorkin would beat Matthew Weiner in a cage match.)

In the past two television seasons, women claimed headlines with the success of shows like 2 Broke Girls, New Girl, and Girls, all of which star and are written by women. These shows have garnered an unprecedented amount of press—particularly in the case of Girls—for showing women in a “new light,” one that isn’t necessarily comfortable for everyone. Lee Aronsohn, co-creator of Two and a Half Men, made comments to the Hollywood Reporter in April that women are being overrepresented, saying, “We are approaching the peak vagina on television, the point of labia saturation. Enough, ladies. I get it. You have periods.” While his crude and misogynistic comments received backlash, they also point to an interesting question that the small screen hasn’t yet been in a position to face: Can women actually be overrepresented on television?

Throughout the history of TV, for the most part, men have told the stories of women. Only one of I Love Lucy's five writers was female. Perhaps because of this, female characters have often played into stereotypes rather than challenging them, which continues to influence the way our society understands and treats women. The recent television issue of Vanity Fair, which features actresses either naked or scantily clad, emphasizes this lack of opportunity for women in the primetime world. This is still how women are represented in television: not as directors or writers—women working behind the scenes were noticeably absent from the issue—but as sexual objects. Julie Zeilinger, a sophomore at Barnard, founder and editor in chief of TheFBomb.org, and author of A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism is Not a Dirty Word, commented on the cover: “If Vanity Fair had represented writers and directors, it would have opened the eyes of so many women that that's something they could possibly do.”

While it may seem like the “boob tube” is finally living up to its name, women actually remain severely underrepresented in television, according to Dr. Martha Lauzen, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. Dr. Lauzen has been tracking the percentages of women in front of and behind the camera since 1998. According to her studies of the 2010-2011 television season, women comprised just 15 percent of writers for primetime television broadcasts, while the previous season reported nearly twice that number of women penning comedies and dramas on television.

According to her study, women comprised 25 percent of all individuals working behind-the-scenes, including producers, writers, editors, and directors. So, while female characters are represented plenty on television, only 25 percent of that content is actually written by women. Situation comedies, particularly, lack equality: Dr. Lauzen’s study reports that sitcoms employ 22 percent women and 78 percent men. And only 41 percent of characters on television are female, proving that inequality isn’t only in our lives—it’s on our screens. So no, Lee Aronsohn, the “peak vagina” has yet to happen on television. But even if it had, should that matter?

According to Zeilinger, it shouldn’t in the slightest: “What bothers me about that question is that it always seems to be, are we underrepresenting women or are we representing them too much? We can never seem to strike an equal balance, which is what feminism is about,” she says.

Enter Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Liz Meriwether, and other women who buck the status quo. For now, television remains a man’s world, but with these ladies in the ring, it might not stay that way for much longer. Kaling praises Tina Fey for proving to the world that women are, in fact, pretty damn funny. In an interview with Glamour, Kaling says: “Unfortunately, I do think there’s a weird extra scrutiny of female show runners and executive producers that isn’t applied to their male counterparts. Hopefully Tina has helped change that.”

The Mindy Project indicates a potential game change—a continued focus on the success of powerhouse women, such as Kaling, Dunham, Fey, and Meriwether. “I think it will have a huge impact, because more women are able to see that it is something that can happen on television,” Zeilinger says. “There might not be that many women behind the scenes because it doesn't seem like an option unless they have a role model.”

Originally posted on The Eye

More articles by Category: Feminism, Girls, Media
More articles by Tag: News, High school, Activism and advocacy, Social media, Women's history, Television



Carolina G
Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.