Opinion: Is it really a wonderful time for women on TV, as Julianna Margulies says?

Guest blogger

Julianna Margulies, in her Emmys speech Monday night, noted, “What a wonderful time for women on television.”

Margulies plays a smart, successful lawyer on “The Good Wife” (even if she didn’t have the sense to leave her rotten, cheating husband). The characters played by the rest of the Emmy-nominated drama series actresses hold dream jobs we want for our daughters: CIA agent, Beltway power-broker, academic researcher, heir to a gorgeous English estate.

And that is good news. As Gail Mancuso, “Modern Family” director and Emmy winner, says, “Seeing is believing.” Seeing women having success in ways women haven’t traditionally done so opens the way for girls to think they might grow up to be such successes too.


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But, really, why does Alicia stay with Peter, in a circumscribed, compromised marriage? Can you imagine a male protagonist lawyer sublimating and hanging on like that? Or, why is a woman as talented as Carrie Mathison doing time in the loony bin in “Homeland”? Try putting, say, Sean Connery in that script.

Try imagining someone who doesn’t look fabulous in a gown on the Emmys stage in those roles. The truth is, female characters appear almost 50% less frequently than males as a lead or protagonist in prime-time television; they’re four times more likely to be scantily clothed and three times as likely to be physically attractive; and they hold only a third of onscreen jobs of any type — much less jobs in science and technology.

Is it telling that actors like Jodie Foster and Angelina Jolie look at scripts written for male leads to “gender-flip”?

There are some fabulous exceptions. “Orange Is the New Black” brings more diversity of women to the television screen than the rest of the industry combined. (OK, we don’t want our daughters to grow up to be prison inmates, but still.) “Girls” allows even slightly chubby girls to imagine that they too might someday have sex.

Those exceptions differ from most of what television offers these days in one very distinctive way: They are created by women — Jenji Kohan and Leah Dunham, respectively.


They employ more women writers too. And they welcome women into the director’s chair.

The fact is that women behind the scenes in television have a positive effect on the portrayal of women onscreen. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, has found that shows with female writers feature female characters more often. Even more so if women have created a show. She’s found “some interesting relationships between the employment of women in powerful behind-the-scenes roles and on-screen gender stereotyping” too.

Steven Colbert said Monday night in his speech: “I’m so proud of those guys and one woman…. Sorry for that, for some reason.” It’s not exactly clear what that “sorry” meant — whether he was poking fun at the lack of diversity in his writer ranks, at the folks who point to that lack, or at something else entirely. (To be fair, the 10 producers who took home Emmys as a result of “The Colbert Report” best variety show win included three women, closer to the industry average of 38%.)

But there is another reason Colbert might want to be sorry for not employing more women writers: the success of female writers at the Emmys. In Colbert’s variety series writers category, of the 71 nominees — so many that it would be utterly embarrassing for any show to exclude women entirely — only 12 were women, with only a single female “head writer.” In the other categories where women writers were nominated, though, Moira Walley-Beckett and Sarah Silverman took home two of the three Emmys up for grabs.

Only four women were nominated for directing Emmys, but women won in every category in which they had a shot. The only female director who lost was Jodie Foster; the comedy directing Emmy she was nominated for went home for the second time with Mancuso, who became the first female director to repeat.

For women who made it to the Emmys, it was, indeed, a wonderful time. Now if only there were more of them behind the scenes.

Meg Waite Clayton is the author of four novels, including the forthcoming “The Wednesday Daughters.”


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