Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Rise of Female-Led Sitcoms: A Dialogue Between Jenn and Jaime

Jaime Poland and I have been friends for a long time. Because we've been friends for a long time, we often have in-depth conversations about our favorite television shows. Jaime was a Creative Writing major in college with a minor in film so I think that her opinion is always valid whenever criticisms or discussions of pop culture are on the table. She's smart and she has a lot of great opinions. And she's also one of my favorite people in the entire world. So when I asked if she would sit down with me via Google Hangout (which took both of us -- grown, adult women with college degrees -- an absurd amount of time to figure out) and discuss the rise of female-led sitcoms and female-led television series in the past few years, she was more than happy to oblige. (As if she had a choice in the matter, let's be honest.)

So below, we discuss some of the most recent television developments in terms of feminism and comedy. We talk about why, exactly, the female-led sitcom is on the rise and what makes these series so appealing and intriguing to the masses. We also discuss what can be gleaned from a female-led series that is missing from a male-driven show. Enjoy!

"The Rise of Female-Led Sitcoms"

Jenn S.: When you asked me about the topics for your EW Community piece, I was thinking about the rise of female-led sitcoms over the past couple of years. And I was just like: "I really need someone to talk about this with. So I thought: feminist friend who knows about really good sitcoms and what makes good writing... well, Jaime, obviously." I thought we could talk about that because I like when we can bounce ideas and thoughts off of each other.

It is really interesting, though. if you think about all of the comedies that have emerged and become popular over the last couple of years. And not even just comedies because I wrote a piece about this, about The CW and how the trend is shifting to more female-led shows where a woman is the top-billed in the cast. But like, with Parks that just ended... and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt --

Jaime P.: [sings] Unbreakable...

JS: [laughs] We're just gonna sing the theme song.

JP: Literally, just for the post, just write the theme song. [Note: I'll do one better and post the opening credits below so now the song is stuck in your head, too!]

JS: [continued] ... Jane the Virgin and New Girl and Mindy. I feel like the trend is headed toward that direction. So. Why do we think that it is?

JP: What I think is interesting and I'd have to look at what shows are out there to kind of be sure of this, I feel like a lot of that is on network [television] where you have these female-fronted comedies. Because you have Veep and Broad City and Playing House, things like that on cable. But NBC, for example, had their Thursday night comedy night and FOX has their Tuesday comedy as well... so even if networks are not necessarily having more of these female-fronted shows, it seems like they're at least pairing them together more to make them appear to be and feel like a unit.

And... I don't know. I think it's interesting that last season Brooklyn 99 was on Tuesdays, now it's on Sundays. And I know that's not because it wasn't the same as Mindy and New Girl but it's interesting that with that gone, you JUST get that [female comedy block] and I think the focus is on those two shows in a different way [than last year].

JS: I was thinking about this on my way to the gym today. Because that's what I do in the car: think about television and feminism. As you do.But I was trying to think and maybe it has -- I don't want to place TOO much emphasis on social media -- had something to do with the Tumblr/Twitter/Facebook generation. Because when you think about it, maybe it's just that the generation that's coming into TV writing and writing and people graduating from college who are getting jobs are very much of the social justice generation and that the notion of feminism and having more strong females on television and in comedy is just becoming more prevalent. 

Maybe I'm just thinking WAY too much about this -- 

JP: No, no.

JS: -- but I was really intrigued by it.

JP: Everything about television [and how it's measured] has kind of changed. It used to solely be based on ratings. Like, if you don't have... eight million viewers, your show's gonna get cancelled. Now there's more emphasis on social media, where people can see that a show has a passionate social media fanbase. So I think with social media, these producers and writers can see exactly what people like about it [their show] or exactly what people don't like about it. I don't want to say that all of the sudden people wanted more female characters, but just lately, we've hit the baseline of: "Okay, there are GOOD female characters, now give us GREAT ones constantly."

So I think having that access, people having the ability to say that. And I think too, you have 30 Rock and you have The Mindy Project -- and even Parks to some degree with Leslie and Amy -- where you have the lead actress also being the head writer or the creator of the show where they're making very much of what they want to make. There's a lot of Tina Fey in Liz Lemon, there's a lot of Mindy Kaling in Mindy Lahiri, you know... Broad City, same thing; Playing House, same thing. And THAT'S a huge thing I think we can talk about that a lot -- just how women are writing these roles for themselves.

[...] lately, we've hit the baseline of: "Okay, there are GOOD female characters, now give us GREAT ones constantly."

You have these roles and because of social media, you have the ability to go back and watch every Amy Poehler sketch from SNL or you can watch the shorts that the Broad City girls did before it became a show. So social media allowed us view them as people. This is something Maggie and I talked about when we were talking about The Mindy Project: reading Mindy Kaling's book helped us love Mindy Kaling and then in turn, helped us love aspects of her show. It all kind of bleeds into each other. Even if Mindy Kaling isn't writing Mindy Lahiri to be just another version of herself, you can still see a connection.

JS: I don't remember who said this, maybe it was Mindy Kaling... or maybe I'm just making this up and I'll attribute something to Mindy that she never actually said... But I feel like a lot of the reason why, too, women are showrunners is obviously a) because women can do pretty much anything they want to, but also b) because I think a lot of women grew up seeing roles on TV that they couldn't relate to, and so they wanted to create roles that other women like them could relate to.

Like, they wanted to create a woman who you don't really SEE a lot on TV or a character who has a personality trait that isn't very common. And I feel like that happens a lot in comedy. You look at people like Mindy. I mean, Mindy Lahiri is the kind of character who isn't a stock character. You don't see "Mindy Lahiris" on television. And not that there aren't great women comedies or there aren't great female leads in comedies past --

JP: Like I Love Lucy is.

JS: Yeah. Exactly. I feel like people are just trying to break the mold more because they want to see themselves when they watch TV. They want to see bits of themselves. And I feel like everybody wants to see that. We want to be able to see a character [like us] because that's how we relate to them. And that's how we care about them.

We want to be able to see a character [like us] because that's how we relate to them. And that's how we care about them.

JP: Right.

JS: We don't want to see a woman who we can't connect with. Or, you know, just the same version of the same character on a different show.

JP: I think because of that, there's a desire to, like I said before, get great characters even though we have good ones. Especially with female characters, it seems like people want characters they can connect with and characters they can see themselves in. And I think women, particularly, want to see a character they can relate on more specific levels than men do.

Women say: "I want to see a woman of color lead a show" or "I want to see a trans woman lead a show" or things like that. And I don't know... maybe it's because in the past, women in shows were put in a certain box and now that box is opening up a lot more but I don't really see the same demands with men and male-driven shows. You don't hear: "I want to see a show where the lead is a black man" or "I want to see a show where the lead is a trans man" as often. I feel like you see that and hear that more from women.

JS: Yeah. Well I feel like women are just such an underrepresented and underappreciated group on TV. It was always... you are right. You had certain boxes for women. Yes, Lucille Ball was iconic. She was revolutionary. And so, she kind of broke the mold because she wasn't the stereotypical housewife/mother character you were going to see on shows like Leave It To Beaver. And shows just started to gradually build [on women]... but they [women] were still not the focus, right? I Love Lucy is a very weird example from that time period. Even shows that I'm thinking about that I grew up on were primarily male-driven. Like, I loved Home Improvement --

JP: Such a good show.

JS: SUCH a good show. But it was focused primarily on Tim Allen's character. And even, you know, growing up as a kid with Boy Meets World and Full House, yeah, there were some great female characters but they were... I don't want to say "the same," because that seems like I'm devaluing the importance of the women on those shows, but those women weren't the focal point.

And we grew up in that generation. We grew up on Boy Meets World. And we know, from having seen what we grew up with on TV, what we liked and what we didn't like and so when people get to be our age and older who are like Mindy Kalings, who are like Tina Feys... they know what they saw when they were growing up that they liked and what they didn't like and what inspired them. And I feel like even more so than just creating women we can relate to, I feel like the goal now, especially in female-led comedies, is just creating women you can admire, who are role models. Who don't have their lives together but are still women you can look up to and be inspired by. Like Mindy Lahiri who is kind of a mess, but she's also admirable in a lot of ways. And like Leslie Knope who's a freaking hero, let's be real. She should be everybody's hero.

I feel like the goal now, especially in female-led comedies, is just creating women you can admire, who are role models. Who don't have their lives together but are still women you can look up to and be inspired by.

JP: Uh, she is. I checked.

I think what's interesting too is when you look at the history of women on television, you have I Love Lucy and The Mary Tyler Moore Show and you have a lot of great shows in that tradition, but it seems like to me, they'll all be in the same branch. Here's what I mean: So you have I Love Lucy, right? But then you have Elaine on Seinfeld who is a great character and a great female character but there are a lot of comparisons to Lucy. Or, you know, Liz Lemon: there are a lot of comparisons to Mary Tyler Moore. And not that those are carbon copies or anything, but they're still connected to those shows -- they're still derivatives of those shows and those characters in those shows.

I'm constantly talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I was talking about it specifically earlier today and was talking about how basically any female-led show, especially drama, that's on TV now -- in some way -- is because of Buffy. And I think that's a huge thing too. Like Veronica Mars is kind of like Buffy, but without vampires. Television shows and characters are different and they grow and they evolve, but they still kind of come back to a certain origin point.

Where I think that shows like The Mindy Project or even New Girl are kind of breaking out of that origin point. And, as another example: Broad City is not a derivative or a version of I Love Lucy. And I guess you could say the same thing with male-led comedies but not really in the same way because there are more roles for them. You can't really say: "Oh, this character is Ricky Ricardo" or "Oh, this character is derived from Jack Tripper." It just doesn't work the same way. And I don't know if it's just because there's a smaller amount of roles or if it's a hindsight thing, where it's easy to categorize certain characters together.

JS: I think that's really true, though, what you were saying. I mean, as an example with Ricky Ricardo: I don't know that you can trace certain characters and certain shows all the way back [with male-led shows/male characters] like you can with female characters. Probably because with female characters there's a definitive starting point and you kind of had to build from there.

JP: You can, to some degree, do it with men. You can kind of group them together and say that Don Draper and Walter White have similarities but they're nothing alike. But even characters like that -- male characters who have similarities -- don't have similarities in the same way that Liz Lemon and Mary Tyler Moore do. And I don't know, again, if it's a hindsight thing or if the number of female characters is just small enough that you can look at it that way.

JS: Well -- and I keep going back to this, probably because the finale just aired recently -- then you look at Mindy Lahiri. Mindy Lahiri is not the direct descendant of any one female character. The thing about this is that I feel like female-led sitcoms are more likely to break molds in ways that ensemble sitcoms or male-led sitcoms don't. You think about Mindy: it's a rom-com trope, but it's also not. She [Mindy Kaling] took that trope and kind of turned it on its head. Same thing with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Parks

You take characters that you would expect one thing out of and then they get flipped around and you give them different quirks and different personality traits and put them into all different kinds of boxes. And I feel like that's what's making female-led sitcoms so prevalent and that's what's causing more people to say: "Hey, we want more inventive sitcoms and we should make them female-led because females can do a lot." 

JP: I think it's also worth looking at too with those examples [Kimmy Schmidt or Mindy] where you have female characters who influence or lead the people around them, these are all shows created by WOMEN. Not to say that a man couldn't write a good female character, but these and shows like Jane the Virgin all have female showrunners. You look at a show like... take, for example The Big Bang Theory. Penny is a main female role but she doesn't have the same function on that show as Kimmy [Schmidt] does or that Jess [on New Girl] does or that Mindy does.

JS: Well, you even think about my go-to example for everything: Community. You've got three female leads on that show and it's not the same, obviously [as if they were on a female-run show]. And I don't want to say that men can't write females well. Because you look at Mike Schur. But that's Mike Schur, who is amazing. 

JP: But what I love about Mike Schur too is that the first thing he says when he talks about Parks -- especially about Leslie -- is "Amy [Poehler] and I made her." She had a lot of input and she wrote a lot of the show's biggest episodes. And so she very much had a voice in that show and character. I love that Mike isn't like: "Yeah, I made this character." Amy was a huge part in making Leslie who she was.

There's a different between having a really strong, really great female character and an influential female character in the same way that male characters are. You have Community where you have... wait, had seven lead roles (now we're down to like, negative four) but Jeff is still the one interacting with other characters and he's the one changing other characters and other characters change him.

There's a difference between having a really strong, really great female character and an influential female character in the way that male characters are.

And that's, I think, the big difference in a woman writing a female character versus a man writing a female character. And I'm sure there are examples that completely contradict what I'm saying but it just seems like the shows that have female characters are the shows like Mindy and New Girl and 30 Rock, etc. that are -- more often than not -- led by women who are writing these strong characters and making sure that this female character is still at the center of everything.

JS: Sidenote, shortly before my computer froze, Leah [my roommate] said: "I don't think men know how to write women very well and that's why I think there are a lot more women who are stepping up and writing." And it's true: so many women look at female characters on television and think: "I don't like the way that they're written. So I'm going to change that. I'm going to write better characters." I think the important thing and why female-led shows have started to rise is because up until recently, a lot of female characters  have been written as passive. Things happen TO them rather than them actually DOING things. And I think in all of the examples we've given of female characters in female-led sitcoms, it's obviously the women who are doing the action.

And yes, things happen to them but their whole life doesn't just HAPPEN to them. They're the ones dictating what happens to them. They're the ones making their choices. Prime example is Kimmy Schmidt and prime example is Jess in New Girl and prime example is Mindy Lahiri and prime example is Leslie Knope... and all of these amazing characters who don't let things happen to them. They make changes and they make decisions.

I don't know if there was one particular female character who inspired this change. I'm sure if you sat down and interviewed Mindy and Tina and Amy and asked them who their comedy influences were, they would all name different people. But these women have kind of snowballed -- they've taken characters and people who inspire them and have created characters who inspire us and people our age will go on to write shows and female characters who inspire other people. And I think it's starting to spiral in the best way possible into... now there's just an explosion of really well-written female characters because women are starting to say: "I don't like the way that this is written. I'm going to change it."

I think the important thing and why female-led shows have started to rise is because up until recently, a lot of female characters  have been written as passive. Things happen TO them rather than them actually DOING things.

JP: I know for Mindy Kaling, SNL was huge. And Amy and Tina were on SNL. I think it's interesting because even if that's not what all of them would say is the thing that inspired them, there is still a connection back to that show. And not that there weren't stand-out women on SNL but it's something that I just don't think of as being known for its strong female performers or female writers.

Going along with your point though, it doesn't seem like any of the women are necessarily intentionally being like: "Let's make a strong female role model." It's more of: "Well, let's make a good character" but there's just something innately about them that has to be feminine.

JS: And that's the other branch of this that I was thinking about: what makes a female-led sitcom different in the way that people connect to it, versus a male-led sitcom or an ensemble sitcom?

JP: Right, yeah. And I think it's really interesting too because you have 30 Rock and The Mindy Project, where 30 Rock had romance but it was not at all the focal point and The Mindy Project is all about romance but both are female-led sitcoms with female showrunners. So it's not that people are watching for the sense of romance, clearly. Well... what then are they watching for?

JS: I feel like female-led shows... they approach topics differently. And this has to do too, obviously, with the showrunner. Prime example again that I was thinking about is Community. Community doesn't handle romance. It just doesn't. And it's something that has hindered the show over the years. Because I've said this before, but when you remove romance or love from a show, it can be the funniest show in the world, but you remove something fundamentally human from it. That's part of the human experience. You can pretend that it's not important or that your characters don't think about it, but they do.

And I was thinking about Kimmy Schmidt and the way that the show approached love. And it was about a different kind of love. And it was about self-love. That's the whole point of the first season: Kimmy figuring out who she is because she's never been given the opportunity to. And learning to love herself. Yes, there were some romantic elements to it, but the whole point of the show wasn't THAT. But I feel like Community and things that are run by men and who have male protagonists... you just approach certain topics differently (like love) and on a different level than you do with women and female-run shows.

You think about New Girl. And I compare New Girl and Community a lot because I like to think about what Community would look like if Liz Meriwether wrote at least a season of it. It would be different. It would be the same show in a lot of ways, but there would be elements that you don't have on Community now because you can't. Because you don't have that interjected female influence. And I don't think you have to say that one is better than the other -- that male-run shows are better than female-led or vice versa, but I think that you just get something different out of them that you can't get out of male sitcoms.

JP: No, definitely. Relationships are part of the human condition. And even if you don't want your show to be all about romance, to remove it entirely is kind of like saying: "Well, there are going to be no friendships on our show. It's only about this couple." I think there is some sort of expectation though about female characters and if you have a female character, what her story is going to include. I was thinking about this. It's really interesting to me that a lot of female-led comedies at some point will involve marriage and babies. Even 30 Rock -- which wasn't about that -- she ended up married and adopting kids. And for Mindy, that's been a huge thing since the beginning that she's [Mindy Lahiri] wanted to settle down. And I think that since these expectations are there and built-in, showrunners are like: "Okay, that desire is there. That need is there. We can embrace it." Whereas I think male showrunners might shy away from that because it's expected or they fear it'll change the direction of the show.

I think there is some sort of expectation though about female characters and if you have a female character, what her story is going to include.

I think female showrunners know that those traits are there. Even in a show like New Girl where Jess isn't married and she doesn't have kids, those things still weigh over Jess sometimes and that's still a factor.

JS: I don't want to stereotype and I don't want to put women into a traditional box. Like "women are more emotional." But I feel like there definitely is a different emotional component to shows that are focused on women. And it's not a BAD thing. And I feel like a lot of times, people make it out to be a bad thing and they argue that women are more than just emotions and that they're rational and logical and well yeah, OBVIOUSLY. You have women like Leslie Knope who's freaking President of the United States and she's married and she has kids and she has friends. And I think that's just the perfect example of... not like the "women can have it all" thing, but just a woman being written as a real person. She messed up, she didn't always get what she wanted. But she worked hard for what she desired and she loved and she lost and she's real.

That's all that I think, at the end of the day, that anyone really wants to see. These days, people in general and women want more complex roles for females in comedies. Again, I'll use Kimmy Schmidt as an example: I don't know if ten years ago someone would have said, "you know what would make a GREAT sitcom?" and pitch that idea that it could have existed. You have something different when you have female-led shows and female-led comedies. I feel like having a female lead character... you have different opportunities and different things to say that connect on another level with your audience than if you would have a male character saying them.

JP: Going back to what we said earlier, yeah: female-led shows have the ability to explore topics like marriage and pregnancy. Even in shows like New Girl that aren't focused on them, these female showrunners are able to approach these topics because they can say: "She wants this, she's still a woman" or "She doesn't want this, she's still a woman" or "She wants this, but not right now. She's still a woman." Even if these characters do get married and do have children, they're still able to hold onto the complexity of those characters (i.e. Leslie Knope).

Again: I don't want to say that a man couldn't write that. But I think it goes back to the the fact that even if they don't share everything... women are still a shared group with some shared identity. It's a part of who they are and who we are. Maybe for women, that's a more complex identity than for men.

JS: I think that there's more of a shared identity for women and maybe that's why it feels... more like a club. [laughs] But what you were saying was true: you can take good characters and make them great characters. I think what maybe has distinguished the great female leads and why there are so many female-led sitcoms and shows in general now is that people think: "Okay, how can I make this character great? And oh, she just so happens to be a woman."

I talk about this a lot, especially with our Strong Women Series, but what a strong woman truly is? She's a character who is well-rounded, has a lot of layers, has a lot of depth, and just so happens to be a woman.

You know what? Maybe nowadays, people are writing the best women because they're writing them as great characters first and then women second.

Maybe nowadays, people are writing the best women because they're writing them as great characters first and then women second.

There you have it, folks! We took an in-depth look at what makes female-led sitcoms so appealing and why they seem to be on the rise. Do you agree with us? Disagree? Have something witty or insightful to add? Hit up the comments below and let us know your thoughts. Until then! :)


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