A dozen of the foremost voices and masterminds of modern television gathered April 3 for the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab's “Geek Speaks: The Women Who Make Television" discussion April 3.
Writers, producers and showrunners from the likes of The Vampire Diaries, Friends and Gossip Girl convened at the USC School of Cinematic Arts for two panels to discuss the creative process, creative products and the current state of women in television. Among the shows run or contributed to by the panelists were many well-known for their female protagonists: Fringe, The United States of Tara, The Big C and My So-Called Life.
The event, the second in USC Annenberg Professor Henry Jenkins’ “Geek Speaks” series, was designed to draw attention to the “creative mass” of women entering the television industry as writers, producers and showrunners.
“The theme this year was to showcase the dramatic change in the medium of television,” said Jenkins. “I believe when historians write about today, this last 12 months -- from the Veronica Mars movie being funded on Kickstarter to Orange is the New Black -- we’ll have to say that this has changed what television is. And I also believe that women have been a critical part of that process.”
The first 90-minute panel featured Melanie Chilek (Hoff Productions), Felicia Henderson (Fringe, Gossip Girl), Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries), Alexa Junge (Friends, The United States of Tara) and USC Annenberg Professor Stacy Smith. It was moderated by Annenberg Innovation Lab’s Creative Director Erin Reilly.
The panelists touched upon the so-called “Second Shift” problem, particularly prevalent in the entertainment industry, in which women who work full time jobs and are also mothers often have to make tough decisions.
“There is an element of choice, and it’s unfortunate,” said Plec, who added that her own decision not to have a family allows her to work as much as she does. However, she said she tries to be as accommodating as possible of her employee’s family lives. “You have to figure out ways to assign tasks and set boundaries in your life."
“It’s tough because to delegate means that you have to not be a control freak, and often being a control freak is what makes you so good at that particular job. You have to undergo a massive psychological shift.”
The panelists were also presented with the question of whether gender should be left out of the equation entirely in studios, writers' rooms and other creative spaces, something many, specifically Frozen’s Jennifer Lee, have recently suggested.
“I have never seen this sort of utopian state of where your gender doesn’t matter in any writers' room I’ve ever been in,” said Henderson. “I take [my gender] everywhere I go. [I] don’t do it apologetically. It’s okay, it’s not sad in any way that I am a woman. You just say, ‘There are these issues against me, and what am I going to do to overcome them?’”
Another topic discussed was the way technology -- particularly streaming and multi-platform viewing -- is changing the way many in the world experience television.
“You recognize that you have absolutely no control over what your show looks like when other people watch it, and that can drive you completely mad if you’re a perfectionist,” said Plec. “So you kind of have to tell the best story you can and let go of your expectations of what other people see.”
The second panel, centered around the topic of creative products, featured Winnie Holzman (My So-Called Life), Robin Schiff (Are You There, Chelsea?), Jenny Bicks (Sex and the City), Meg DeLoatch (Austin & Ally) and USC Annenberg Professor Alison Trope. It was moderated by Annenberg Innovation Lab research associate Francesca Marie Smith.
The discussion focused on the way technology, particularly social media, has transformed the culture of television-watching.
“I felt very grateful that when we created My So-Called Life, the Internet had literally been invented right that second,” said Holzman.
Though social media has the power to create communities, it also has presents the danger of creating more vocal critics than ever before, the panelists agreed.
“It’s cool sometimes to see people react to what you’ve done,” said Bicks. “But you can’t try and please everyone.”
Both panels concluded on the topic of women in the entertainment industry. Ultimately, the consensus among the panelists was that there was a great need for further diversity not just in front of the camera, but also behind it.
“I always get defensive about the ‘women aren’t funny’ thing,” said Junge, who recalled several instances in which she faced sexism and misogyny throughout her career, particularly in comedic television. “If you’re reading 50 scripts, and 47 are by men, what are the odds?”
Many of the panelists agreed that their female mentors have been instrumental in shaping their careers, and that in order to further diversify the industry, women should in a sense “pay it forward” by mentoring others.
“It’s really neat to see that in TV ... and in the studio world, women are really reaching out and doing what they can to populate the ranks,” said Stacy Smith. “Because whether you’re in tech, or in the business side, we’re talking about 50-50. So until we get there, I think we really need a lot more mentorship and women bringing women up.”
About the "Geek Speaks" series
“The goal of the Geek Speaks series has been to bring popular artists to campus to engage in thoughtful conversations that we think might be relevant to geeks her at USC,” said Jenkins. “[Geek Speaks] is intended to be kind of a homeland for geeks at USC.”