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Geek Speaks: The Women Who Make Television

Angie Fiedler Sutton |
April 5, 2014 | 3:44 p.m. PDT

Contributing Writer

Courtesy The CW
Courtesy The CW
Back in January, Dr. Martha Lauzen released her latest Celluloid Ceiling Report, an analysis of women employed behind the camera in the world of Hollywood. The news wasn't good: women accounted for only 16 percent of all directors, executive producers, writers, cinematographers and editors. The news got even worse when pointed out that this was a decrease of only 1 percent since 1998.

In addition, only 30 percent of the major characters and 30 percent of all speaking characters in the 100 highest grossing films of 2013 were female, with only 15 percent of "all clearly identifiable protagonists" being female characters.

It was this news that led Henry Jenkins, transmedia specialist and USC professor, to focus his second "Geek Speaks" talk at the University of Southern California on the women who make television.

"We thought it was a key moment of transition, seeing shows like 'Scandal' and 'Orange is the New Black' and countless other shows which have sort of put female authorship on the horizon," said Jenkins. "On the one hand, there's still an uphill battle to be fought. Still, the statistics are showing women face more challenges to break into the industry, that they're not anywhere near 50 percent of the creative talent behind the camera. On the other hand, there's a critical mass of women now in creative roles that weren't there five years ago, ten years ago. And so it's a moment to celebrate and a moment to define the battlefield for the next round of the struggle."

The evening was divided into two sessions. The first, moderated by Erin Reilly of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, focused more on the creative process and the career paths of the women. Panelists were Julie Plec (co-creator and executive producer of "The Vampire Diaries"), Melanie Chilek (executive vice president of Hoff Productions, which focuses on reality television), Felicia Henderson (creator of "Soul Food"), Alexa Junge (writer on "Friends" and show-runner on "The United States of Tara") and Stacy L. Smith (associate professor at USC).

The discussion ranged from the changing way media is consumed to how audiences today are smarter than ever before, which means the stories and characters have to have an authenticity to them that makes them believable. It also dealt with what, if any, kinds of experiences they had to deal with that were directly related to being women, especially the ones who were mothers.

Francesca Marie Smith, Jenny Bicks, Meg DeLoatch, Robin Schiff, Winnie Holzman and Alison Trope talk about the creative product. Photo by Angie Fiedler Sutton
Francesca Marie Smith, Jenny Bicks, Meg DeLoatch, Robin Schiff, Winnie Holzman and Alison Trope talk about the creative product. Photo by Angie Fiedler Sutton

"There is this sense that there's somehow something wrong with us if we have to leave at 3 o'clock because our kid is having a ballet performance," said Melanie Chilek during the panel. "The truth of the matter is that those are the kinds of things that we absolutely have to do and not be apologetic about it because we all work very hard, and I think that women who don't apologize for what they have to do and are who are they are and know that they get the work done, that's the way that the culture has to shift."

The second session was moderated by Francesca Marie Smith, also with the Annenberg Innovation Lab, and focused more on the creative product: the content of the program, interacting with the audiences and representation issues. The panelists included Jenny Bicks (writer for "Sex and the City"), Meg DeLoatch (executive producer of "Austin & Ally"), Robin Schiff (screenwriter for "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion"), Winnie Holzman (co-writer on "Wicked") and Alison Trope (clinical professor at USC).

This discussion started with whether the women ever interacted with the fans, and if so how, and then delved into the frustrations and benefits of being a woman in the industry.

"I do think that women, not to be too gender specific, but I do think, in general, women are taught to be more collaborative," said Jenny Blicks during this panel. "We've all been in these rooms with men who just shut everybody down, and that's their way of taking control, but that's the worst thing that you can do to the creative process is to actually say no. And I actually worked with a show-runner who would yell during pitches, 'No, NO!' and you would watch people just kind of shrink and shrivel up. If you took one thing from improv, it's 'yes, and ....' Everybody has a different idea and in there is the answer. So I think that women being collaborative and wanting to please in that way is actually a great way to run a room."

Jenkins plans to continue the Geek Speaks series next school year, in partnership with the Annenberg Innovation Lab. The plan of having one a semester, but he doesn't have any concrete ideas as to what he wants to do next. "I want to bring a more geeky dimension to the culture at USC," Jenkins says of his goals. "The Lab wants to use this to reach out to students who might want to participate in the activities of the Lab, let them know that we're here, let them know that we're seeking creative talent, technical talent, people who want to change the future of entertainment."

If you're a geek and are interested in geeky things, check out the Annenberg Innovation Lab, where a video of the first Geek Speaks (The Uses and Abuses of Science Fiction) can be found, and a video of this second panel will be uploaded soon.

Contact Contributing Writer Angie here, follow her on Twitter, or check out her Tumblr.




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