Behind every great television show, recently, is a woman.
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Sentient human beings and several species of highly functioning mammals received some very exciting news late last week. On Thursday, NBC announced its decision to order thirteen episodes of a forthcoming comedy from Tina Fey and her producing partner Robert Carlock. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “the single-camera effort, which is set to debut in the fall of 2014, will center on a woman who escapes from a doomsday cult and starts life over in New York City.” But wait! Like a good ’90s infomercial . . . there’s more. The Office’s Ellie Kemper is set to star.
Having trouble breathing? So is everyone else. Since the revelation, the World Wide Web has spent the past few days collectively hyperventilating. Articulating our near-universal anticipation, New York Magazine’s entertainment editors pronounced this appeal: “Please, television gods, let this be even half as good as it sounds.”
Refreshingly absent from the extensive coverage, however, is what once might have been considered the reveal’s most salient detail. The as-yet-untitled series will not only be anchored by a woman (Kemper), but also has been imagined, executed, and written by one (Fey). The fact that Deadline and Entertainment Weekly and dozens of other platforms have made relatively little of this remarkable reality only demonstrates what we all implicitly know: that it’s not so remarkable after all. Lady-led shows are having a moment!
Between New Girl, The Mindy Project, Girls, and most recently, Orange is the New Black, women are not just starring in sitcoms. They’re also creating them, driving them, and — if my own fandom is any indication — devotedly, obsessively watching them. This weekend, I spent three hours of my day gripped by an impromptu Girls marathon! Should I be embarrassed that I’d sooner have qualified the spontaneous session as “catching up with old friends” than “a waste of time”?
Don’t answer that.
As Willa Paskin observed in her own ode to the phenomenon on Slate.com, “this may be the first time in my memory that TV has offered me, a woman, so many high-quality shows about other women.”
Of course, these fictional females — like their very real counterparts — are far from perfect. Girl’s Hannah Horvath has OCD. New Girl’s Jess Day owns a suspicious number of matching pajamas sets. And, oh, that’s right! Orange is the New Black’s Piper Chapman is currently incarcerated. While we all can surely support the growing presence of strong female leads, the question now becomes what we want from their complicated and weird and wonderful portrayals.
In her profile of New Girl creator Liz Meriwether, The New Republic’s Noreen Malone writes, “Meriwether bristles at interviewers who put too much focus on her gender or on whatever it is that [Zooey] Deschanel’s character means for modern womanhood.” Demonstrating as much, Meriwether offered her two cents on the issue in an interview with Forbes:
There are a lot of stories about female showrunners and what that means, and a lot of questions about what kind of role model Jess is. I was asked if Jess was a good representation of where we are as women these days. My response to that odd line of questioning is that she’s a character in a comedy, she’s not some symbol of a political movement. The funniest things just come from honesty. We have a tendency to see female characters as representative of something larger than what they are, when male characters are just characters.
Is she right? Does it subject professionals like Meriwether and Dunham and, most pressingly, Fey to inequitable scrutiny to ask that their characters be anything more than flatly and fabulously entertaining? On the other hand, don’t they have a responsibility — whether they like it or not — to do justice to at least a version of “modern womanhood”? Finally, are The Mindy Project’s Peter Prentice and I the only ones who have utterly lost patience with Dr. Mindy Lahiri?
Let’s talk about it.