Mad Women

Finding the cracks in the celluloid ceiling.


An article in the Wall Street Journal profiled the women writers behind the hit AMC drama Mad Men, where they make up the majority of the staff. Such a writers’ room is a rarity; more often seen is a writers’ room composed entirely of men. But the world of television is a utopia of diversity in comparison to the feature world. Try this little test: think of all the contemporary Hollywood directors you can name. Now think of all the women on that list. I like to think I’m well versed in these things, and I barely need more than one hand to count the number in the second category.

There are two questions that revolve around this issue: Why is there such a lack of representation of women in Hollywood, and why is television slightly more diverse than features? It’s especially interesting in this historical moment where the Sotomayor nomination revealed quite a bit of rhetoric with the unspoken assumption that the white male was the standard of unbiased neutrality. There has been a mountain of writing on this very topic, but let’s try to sketch some points out.

It goes without question that the majority of what comes out of Hollywood is saddled with some sort of inequality of representation. My favorite of these tests: think of the last dozen films you’ve seen, and think of the most prominent woman in each one. Now how many of those women are more than a wife/girlfriend/sex object/love interest? (The only genre in which women are strongly represented is romance, for obvious reasons. Pursue that line of inquiry and you just get into wheels within wheels, so I’m just going to recommend that you watch The Celluloid Closet for that.)

Some of this lack of representation in front of the camera stems from a lack of representation behind the camera, and both shortcomings come from an inherent bias somewhere in the chain of production. This bias is largely inadvertent, because most filmmakers aren’t going around saying, “We can’t put a black/Latino/Asian/female person in this role.” But I have to say “largely” because in some cases, that’s exactly what they’re saying:

“There’s sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, that people around the world don’t want to see it,” [Will] Smith told the British paper, the Birmingham Post while promoting the flick [Hitch] overseas. “We spend $50-something million making this movie and the studio would think that was tough on their investment. So the idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up—that’ll work around the world, but it’s a problem in the U.S.”

So in Hollywood logic, a black woman won’t do well overseas and a white woman won’t do well in America. So let’s split the difference and cast a Latina! Not exactly cinema’s finest hour, but it shows that most of the skewed representation isn’t because of some malicious atmosphere but because of a drive to chase the bottom line—movies are a business after all, and so the studios pander to the biases of their audiences. Another way this is seen is in the conventional wisdom that women will watch films centered around men and male themes but it doesn’t work the other way around.  So in Hollywood’s Barnumesque logic, catering to the shallowest and most narrow-minded among us will lead to maximum profit.

That explains part of it. But shouldn’t women be able to direct all kinds of films? Kathryn Bigelow tells us yes, but look at the rest of the films out there and the evidence is scant.  Just as how a number of U.S. Senators thought that white males are free of the racial and gender bias that Latina women apparently carry with them, the Hollywood assumption is that men can do your standard chick flick rom com as well as women can, plus everything else to boot.

Again, this is (largely) absent of any active malice. Few people would say that men are inherently better scientists than women (except for Lawrence Summers and look where that got him) and few people would say that men are inherently better musicians than women (except for the Vienna Philharmonic). And yet when orchestras started hiring via blind audition in which the performer was hidden behind a screen, there was a corresponding increase in the number of women hired.  Some biases are just too subtle, too ingrained, and too subconscious; and the smallest things can tip the balance in hiring.

Few people would say that men are inherently better writers and directors than women. But you can’t hire directors and writers behind a blind screen. There are no objective criteria in this industry; it’s all about personality and reputation. Once again, the focus is the bottom line: on a feature, one director and one script hold everything together. The studios want proven performers to fill those roles, known quantities from a select list that can turn out a good product.  Right now, most of the names on that very short list are men; those demographics may shift in the future, but it looks to be a long and slow process.

What about television? The Journal article notes that 23% of television writers last year were women, a clear minority. However it’s far better than the 12% of feature writers that were women. What makes the difference?

A theory I heard once was that feature directing and scriptwriting was about self-aggrandizement, competition, and dominance. Television directing and writing, on the other hand, was about consensus-building, collaboration, and long-term planning. Features were full of “daddies” and television shows were full of “mommies.” While this was quite possibly one of the stupidest things I had ever heard, it sounds like the type of conventional wisdom that some executive somewhere would believe.

A more plausible take on the situation is that features are generally larger in scope, more visual, and more action-oriented. Television on the other hand tends to be more intimate, more dialogue-driven, and more focused on character and relationships. Along with this, feature audiences are male-driven and television audiences are female-driven. Combine those two bits of wisdom and view them through the lens of subtle gender bias, and it seems like those in charge might think that women are better-equipped to handle television (but not enough to bring them toward any sort of equality).

But to me the strongest element seems to be one of risk. Hollywood is a business, and everyone wants to maximize profit while minimizing risk. The sad fact is that the conventional wisdom says that hiring a woman anytime and anywhere is a risk compared to hiring a man. The difference is that in a feature, hiring that woman as the sole director or the sole writer puts everything at risk. The episodic nature of television means that you only put a small part of the larger whole at risk when you hire a woman. And that makes the risk acceptable enough to do it.

Of course, the fact that one of the best shows on television is written mostly by women means that all your conventional wisdom is bullshit.

(Mad Men begins its third season this Sunday, August 16 at 10 PM on AMC.)