It’s no secret that women are funny and creative, just as it’s no secret that they have long been shut out of important positions behind the scenes in film and television. This is slowly changing, but as more and more women create the entertainment we consume they face ever more criticism than their male counterparts.
Two new shows from just this year provide perfect examples of this trend: Fox’s New Girl, starring Zooey Deschanel and created by 30-year-old Elizabeth Merriweather, and HBO’s highly praised and heavily criticized Girls, which is written, produced and directed by 25-year-old Lena Dunham, who also stars in the show.
Merriweather’s first foray into television is a fairly standard sitcom about a woman who leaves her boyfriend of six years and moves into a swanky loft apartment with three dudes she has never met before. Hijinx ensue and neuroses clash. All told, it is more intelligent and far less grating than many sitcoms, and it rarely traffics in ugly stereotypes for cheap laughs as some network shows do (see: 2 and a Half Men, 2 Broke Girls).
But Merriweather and Deschanel faced trouble from day one, largely because women watching the show did not think Deschanel’s Jess, a quirky, “adorkable” elementary school teacher, was an appropriate representative of women. This is not only an impossible task — no one character could accurately represent half of the seven billion people on Earth — it is also something no male characters are tasked with.
For example, the character Charlie Sheen made famous on 2 and a Half Men was never supposed to represent all men, and if men who watched the show had expected him to represent them, there would have been an uproar. Even men who like that show would be disgusted if they were expected to see themselves in all of Sheen’s philandering and careless misogyny. Because there are so many male TV characters and, more importantly, men creating TV and film, the people watching know that Sheen is not standing in for all men.
Scrutinizing women’s work more closely than men’s and being less forgiving of its errors makes sense to an extent: Merriweather is among a select few women given the opportunity to represent women in the media. Most of the people doing this are still men. So when a woman creates a female character and it is not perfect, it can be disappointing.
Of course, it would be impossible to create a character that every woman can relate to. This is why, despite the understandable urge to do so, it is ineffective and inappropriate to blame Merriweather for doing something that does not satisfy all of us.
Similarly, Lena Dunham’s Girls has faced harsh criticism for being yet another show about affluent white people in New York. The fact that Girls is more ambitious and aims at a more realistic portrayal of life than many shows now means that where it fails, people are especially upset. This is most apparent when it comes to the show’s lack of non-white characters.
As has been pointed out time and again, New York is a vibrantly multicultural city where people of all ethnicities and backgrounds are making it or striving to make it. The fact that all of the main characters in the show are white is upsetting and alienating to the many non-white people who would love to see themselves represented.
That criticism is valid, but I have to wonder why it hasn’t been aimed at any other shows. Girls follows in a long tradition of shows about well-to-do white people in New York, from Mad About You to Friends to Sex and the City. Most of those shows were created by men, and none of them received much criticism for neglecting people of colour.
New York’s most realistic sitcom, Seinfeld, was also judged harshly for not having many black characters. But this criticism began after several seasons of the show had aired and it was a demonstrable, long-standing problem. Meanwhile, I read three essays on the paucity of people of colour on Girls before the series premiere aired.
Bored to Death is another recent HBO show about upper-class people in New York. The only real difference between the two is that Girls is about and created by women while Bored to Death was created by a man and stars men. And while Bored to Death had the same dearth of non-white characters, there was nowhere near the same level of criticism.
In a time when women are finally beginning to make real advances in controlling how they are represented in the media, they are also facing significantly more criticism for doing the same things men are doing. Some of this is deserved and some of it isn’t, but the fact that it is directed at only the shows women are putting together is both telling and counterproductive.