Women Are Running Strong

Tina Fey fans have been enthusiastically tweeting about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt since the show premiered earlier this month.

Many are expressing their love for Netflix’s binge-worthy 13-episode series with the now-trending tagline from the show’s opening theme: Females are strong as hell.

Fey’s role on the creative team is a huge boon to women viewers, who make up the largest demographic of television watchers — and are more than 51% of the U.S. population. When women create the shows, they tend to have female protagonists in the lead and women writing behind the scenes.

Women, unlike men, don’t have to think about what other women want, feel or need — it’s instinctive. And the women who watch connect to their shows because they feel relatable. (Just ask any fan of Shonda Rhimes.)

And the benefit is even more widespread — when women are behind the scenes, both men and women viewers get a broader scope as to who women are. (And “strong as hell” is only a fraction of the story.)

Despite the popularity of series from showrunners like Fey, Rhimes, Jill Soloway and Michelle Ashford, white men still create and run the majority of shows on television. And while there is a perception that cable programming is more welcoming to women in key behind-the-scenes roles than shows on the big broadcast networks, the numbers don’t bear that out.

Twenty percent of creators of broadcast-network programs are women, versus 15% for cable (A&E, AMC, FX, History, TNT, USA Network, HBO and Showtime) and Netflix programs, according to a study done in the 2013-14 season.

Among executive producers, women account for 23% of showrunners on broadcast network programs and 17% of the executive producers on cable and Netflix shows, as per Boxed In, the annual study of women on screen and behind the scenes, by Martha M. Lauzen, executive director for the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

The number of women characters on screen and working behind the scenes has grown slowly but incrementally. That progress, small as it was, now appears to be stalled.

One reason why this should matter, especially to women viewers (and actors): When a program had at least one woman creator, women comprised 47% of all speaking characters, compared to 39% of all characters when women weren’t involved in the creation of a show.

“People tend to create what they know,” Lauzen said. “Having lived their lives as females, women tend to create female characters. Having lived their lives as males, men tend to create male characters.

“There are exceptions, of course, but when you consider hundreds or even thousands of cases, as my research on television and film has, patterns emerge,” Lauzen said. Michelle Ashford, creator of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, got her start in TV writing with a gig on the 1980s female buddy-cop drama Cagney & Lacey. The 1980s Golden Globe-award winning series, created by Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday, was a welcome training ground for burgeoning women screenwriters.

“It was just a given that they were looking for strong, complicated, interesting stories for women — and women of a certain age, also, because they weren’t 20-year-olds,” Ashford said in an interview at her Sony Studios office. “I had worked on other shows that where much more male-oriented, and there was a marked difference. It was just a way of looking for stories where women weren’t afterthoughts, they were the first thought.”

Ashford’s writing team on Masters is predominately female.

“But that is simply a function of finding the writers that I think can do the best job on the show,” Ashford said. “We have made an effort with directing, because there are a lot of women writing in television, but directing less so.”

Ashford is one of a generous handful of women creating and/or executive producing shows for Showtime. Among them are The Affair’s Sarah Treem, cocreator and showrunner; Ray Donovan creator and executive producer Ann Biderman; and women executive producers heading up Nurse Jackie, Shameless and House of Lies.

“These are shows where you have women writing to an audience in terms of what is real through their perspective versus the male gaze,” Melanie McFarland, the Seattle-based TV editor of website IMDb.com. “If you go back and look at what J.J. Abrams did with Alias, there was an idea that if you have a strong female protagonist she has to be kick-ass, and there’s something very cool and hip and untouchable about her.

“When you look at shows with female showrunners, they’re not afraid to write their characters more real,” McFarland added. “I find them to be much more nuanced and relatable as a woman.”

There remains a disparity in opportunities for women to go beyond what would be traditionally considered “a woman’s story.”

“I’m completely open to women, and I don’t know if that’s a function of being a female showrunner or not,” Ashford said.

“I would never not look at a woman’s script because I think a guy’s would be more interesting, so as a result, it turns out women are just as good as writers as any guy, and on our show what has happened, women’s writing samples are more appropriate for our show,” she added. “So I have just naturally gravitated toward women anyway.”

That said, “there are a lot of television shows that network executives wouldn’t naturally think of hiring a woman for — things with a darker sensibility, with more violence,” Rizzoli & Isles showrunner Jan Nash said from her office on the Paramount lot, walls lined with the artwork of her 7½-year-old son and her daughter, who just turned 5. “Something like Transparent, which Jill [Soloway] is very close to, those kinds of stories people can look at and say, ‘Oh yeah, a woman can do that, or a man can do that.’ But a lot of the network shows, I just think they look at and go, ‘Is that a female sensibility? I don’t know.’”

Inside her air-conditioned office on an unseasonably summer-like Friday afternoon in March, Nash, a former investment banker, said she has had great experiences working with male showrunners on such shows as Without a Trace, Family Law and Fairly Legal; they were men who “had world views very consistent with my own world view,” she said.

“I’ve never been a male showrunner, and so I don’t know what that experience is like,” she continued with a laugh. “But I know for me, that as I think about how to do my job, there’s nothing more important to me than my family.

“I have two young children, a partner that I love, and I would never want this job — no matter how great this job is, and it’s really great — to get in the way of our life together,” Nash said. “And I feel that for everybody here. I want them to go … experience their lives, and come here and do their work with gladness.”

To accommodate such an environment on-set, showrunner Mara Brock Akil said it’s all about mastering the off-set juggle.

“I compartmentalize my entire life,” Akil said. “I compartmentalize as a mother, as a wife, as the business side of who I am and the artist side of who I am, in order to sort of get it done.”

On the phone from her driveway — compartmentalizing her focus before meeting her two young sons — the creator/executive producer talked about doing double duty for BET’s Being Mary Jane, which shoots in Atlanta, and The Game, which she handed over a couple of years ago to her husband, director Salim Akil, and writer Kenny Smith, Jr.

“From a physical standpoint, I could not be on the stage all the time, and comedy requires you to be on top of it all the time,” she said. “That’s why I hire really, really, really well, because sometimes you need to make a change to save the show — even if you’re the change, and you need to get out of the way.”

This article was updated on March 24. An earlier version said The Game, which is produced in Atlanta, was produced in Los Angeles.