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Women Find Themselves on the Web

| April 23, 2014

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As women continue to be shut out of key positions in television and film—and great, authentic leading female roles are still few and far between—a growing number of women are taking matters into their own hands by writing, directing, producing, and starring in their own web-based series.

Women are finding that creating fictional series for the web is the ideal place to be seen and heard, especially women who are queer, of color, or otherwise marginalized. Desiree Akhavan, who is Persian-American and identifies as bisexual, created the web series The Slope; its success helped secure her financial support for her feature film, Appropriate Behavior, which premiered at Sundance in January.

“My short films weren't getting into any film festivals, even the tiny, special-interest ones in the middle of nowhere,” Akhavan said. “I got about thirty rejections in three months. It was through [The Slope] that I was selected as one of the 25 New Faces of Film in Filmmaker magazine, which was a real turning point for me.”

The Slope followed Akhavan and her girlfriend in their daily life as an on-again, off-again couple in Brooklyn. A dramedy with strong lesbian themes, the show was subversive and well-made, much like Amy York Rubin’s Little Horribles. Rubin, an out lesbian, said she also found the web the only place she could really share the ideas she had. “They were really just moments, individual beats of comedy and sadness, and I didn't want to pitch them or try to convince anyone to make them, so I just made them myself,” Rubin said.

Playwright Susan Miller took a different trajectory, as she had written for several television shows, including The L Word, before penning the queer female-led teen drama Anyone But Me with co-writer Tina Cesa Ward. The series, which lasted three seasons, was one of the first to develop a fan base that rivaled those of some television shows.

“We were interested in telling stories that depicted young people’s struggles with identity and relationships,” Miller said, “reaching a population whose lives weren’t represented in traditional television or film, and, at the same time, hoping the series would have relevance and resonate with people of all ages.”

Although scripted video for the web has been around since the early 2000s, it experienced a big boost with the creation of YouTube in 2005; in the last seven years these series have seen steady growth in viewers, subscribers, and even awards, such as the Streamys and the Webbys. Some are finding huge audiences: Issa Rae (The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl) boasts more than 20 million views on her YouTube channel and has been named twice to Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30.

Web series are quickly becoming a go-to source for networks and filmmakers to find the Next Big Thing. Lisa Kudrow first created Web Therapy for the internet but sold the series to Showtime. Comedy Central picked up Broad City from Upright Citizens Brigade Theater alums Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson after the web series sparked the interest of Amy Poehler, who became an executive producer of the show in its TV incarnation.

Posting episodes on the web allows for immediate engagement, making it easier to connect with fans and to create a community that television or movies don’t always allow for. But perhaps the most valuable aspect of the medium for the artists is the amount of creative control it offers. Being able to write, shoot, cast, edit, and distribute their own work without network or studio interference is a freedom that many women do not find elsewhere. That means that feminist, queer, and female-led scripts can not only exist, but thrive.

“I think it would depend on who was involved in the project and what network the show was on,” Rubin said. “If it were a prime-time network show, then yes, I probably couldn't get away with masturbating in my car.” In one Little Horribles episode, Amy is so bored in Los Angles traffic that she decides to pleasure herself. Unfortunately, she locks eyes with someone in a nearby car, and later is introduced to that same person at a party.

“On regular networks, I doubt we would have gotten on the air with two female characters in love with each other as the leads,” Miller said, though if they were on a premium cable network, “they might have asked for more sex.”

Anne Flournoy, creator of the irreverent comedy series The Louise Log, said that she feels her sarcastic mother/wife lead would likely not go over well for any head of production outside of the web atmosphere.

“My fear is that in the hands of a network or a studio, the inner voice of a 40-something woman who is neither a serial killer, a drug dealer, nor a television executive would not get past the pitch unless the story line were skewed to include soft porn or violence,” Flournoy said. “I don’t know if I’m a typical woman, but I don’t like to watch shows or movies with gratuitous soft porn and violence and where women play second fiddle, are cartoon-cutout love interests, or worse.”

The biggest challenge these artists face is financial, as making a high-quality series takes more than just a great script and a camera. The Slope, Anyone But Me, and The Louise Log were all partially crowd-funded in latter seasons, but their first seasons and the entirety of Little Horribles were paid for out of pocket. Outside of fund-raising, there’s still no way to monetize web series without charging viewers outright, something that hasn’t proven successful just yet. Luckily for viewers, the women behind the inspired content of the web seem most interested in creating first and figuring out the financial gains second.

“The best advice I have is to work as inexpensively as possible so you can hang in there for the long haul, just in case you’re not an overnight success,” Flournoy said.

Miller agreed. “I gotta say, making a web series is a sexy thing,” she said. “It’s so ripe, such fertile ground, so thrilling to make something no one’s made before. And the constraints of the medium—limited budgets and time, less than ideal locations, strict page count—translate into opportunities, creative hurdles that inspire you to find a way to make something happen with the resources at hand.”

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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