How more inclusive writers’ rooms are redefining TV
6th Aug 2019
On June 18, British broadcaster ITV made headlines after announcing it would no longer commission shows by all-male writers. Saskia Schuster, ITV’s head of comedy and founder of the gender equality initiative Comedy 50:50, hoped the move would create more opportunities for women in an industry and genre that has long been dominated by men. What she didn’t expect was a backlash: op-eds condemning box-ticking quotas, viewers applauding shows that wouldn’t exist without all-male writing teams (, ) and critics on Twitter labelling her a militantly feminist member of the #GalQaeda.
“The focus was never on banning male teams,” Schuster tells “The goal is inclusivity. The current number of female writers in comedy is woefully low and before I started Comedy 50:50, I was being pitched very few scripts by women.” Determined to change the culture, she rewrote her contracts, asking comedy shows to aim for equal representation and scripted commissions to demonstrate their best endeavours to include female voices. She also created a database of more than 500 women writers to help producers find new collaborators.
Some women are going further, arguing that the antidote to decades of TV shows penned by all-male writers’ rooms is the rise of all-female equivalents. Netflix’s black comedy , the brainchild of Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, is one such example. Written and directed by women, it centres on a whip-smart 30-something who finds herself stuck in a -style loop. For Lyonne, the makeup of the room was purely coincidental. “The best people for the job just happened to be female,” she says. “It certainly wasn’t a diktat,” adds Headland. “I’ve been in male-dominated writers’ rooms before, and it’s not that I prefer one to the other, but for , which was so deeply emotional and personal, this felt right.”
Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland – the women behind Russian Doll. Image credit: Getty Images
The experience was revolutionary. “The tone of the show relied on us being vulnerable,” explains Headland. “Our room was a place where I felt comfortable discussing trauma. What was the darkest day of my life? What day would I never want to live all over again?” It was a shift from being the lone woman on a male team. “In those cases, you have to advocate for your female characters and justify their decision-making,” she says. Removing that burden of representation created more room for nuance. “We dismantled preconceived notions about women and how they should behave, and created people who were complicated, curious, even self-hating.”
A sense of sisterhood remained during production thanks to a predominantly female crew and Jamie Babbit, who directed alongside Lyonne and Headland. “Sometimes male directors can hold back when it comes to giving compliments, mainly because it’s a competitive field, but Jamie was so generous,” says Headland. “She gave us a real confidence boost.” If their short-term aim was to create a utopian environment conducive to creativity, their long-term one was to change perceptions. “When people think of directors, they think of white men,” she continues. “But when you’re telling stories about women or marginalised people, you need to make sure they’re in the room.”
It was the same impulse that motivated Lauren Morelli. When the writer and producer signed on as showrunner for , a revival of the 1993 miniseries adapted from Armistead Maupin’s novels about LGBTQ+ communities in San Francisco, she assembled an all-queer writers’ room. “I liked what it symbolised,” she says “But on a practical level, when you’re making a show about so many queer characters with different identities and backgrounds, you want as much diversity as possible.”
Finding writers was harder than Morelli anticipated. “Typically agencies will send over scripts, but most of the submissions were white and male. So I found half the room outside of agencies from those who’d never worked in writers’ rooms before.” Their fresh perspectives inspired exciting discussions, including many which couldn’t have taken place in cis-dominated rooms. “A lot of the stories on the show were products of us talking about where our pain comes from within the community,” says Morelli. “We had a writer who identified as queer but was dating a cis man. People assumed they were straight and she spoke about having her identity questioned.”
But if equality is the goal, are specialised writers’ rooms really the solution? “If we did all over again, maybe we should have a guy in the room,” concedes Headland. Morelli disagrees. “Armistead asked if there should be one straight person in our room, but then he realised that he wrote the books and he’s gay. It’s funny how that uncertainty is ingrained in us.” After all, if straight white male writers can create a wide range of characters, why can’t female or queer rooms?
A still from HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show. Image credit: Courtesy of HBO
Bolstered by these recent successes, other projects have followed suit. Awkwafina’s upcoming Comedy Central show is set to have an all-women room, Netflix’s sitcom has an all-black writing team and HBO’s has an all-black female writers’ room, director and cast. “I went to a screening for it recently,” Morelli says of the latter. “The show is so different but their experience was similar. The writers said that everyone sat around and cried on the last day, which is exactly what we did.”
The pace of change has been accelerated by the Time’s Up movement. “Even Hollywood royalty has had to hit the brakes and consider how they approach certain storylines,” says Headland. “People are finally listening to those outside their own echo chamber.” As a result, there’s never been a better time to showcase marginalised voices, especially considering Hollywood’s voracious appetite for original content. “There’s only one way to guarantee that you find stories that haven’t been told before,” says Lyonne. “And that’s by putting them in the hands of people who haven’t yet had the opportunity to tell them.”
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