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TV shows created by women have more speaking parts for women, study finds

Turns out that when a TV show has at least one female creator, women make up at least 51 percent of the major characters, a number that’s proportionate to their representation in the US population. This is, as they say, a “news flash.” Who would have guessed that putting women in charge of a narrative would result in a piece of entertainment that treats women as human beings and powerful players in their own stories? Surprise! By contrast, shows with only male creators gave 38 percent of their major speaking roles to women.

These numbers come from “Boxed In,” San Diego State University’s annual report on gender disparities in television, which has just been released for the 2016–2017 TV season. The report is compiled by the university’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, which has also released annual reports on the position of women in the film industry since 1998.

This year’s study looked at one randomly selected episode from each series on the five major broadcast networks, 12 basic cable channels, the premium cable channels HBO and Showtime, and major streaming services Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix.

Here are some other key findings from this year’s analysis:

  • Women made up 42 percent of all major parts on TV last year, up from 38 percent the year before and 40 percent in the 2014–2015 season.
  • Diversity within roles for women on TV is getting a little bit better, with black characters comprising 19 percent of female characters (up from 16 percent last year), Asian characters comprising 6 percent (up from 4 percent), and Latinas comprising 5 percent (up from 4 percent). However, Latinas are still drastically underrepresented across platforms, and no progress has been made on broadcast networks in the last year.
  • Women are still more likely than men to play “personal-life oriented roles,” like wives and mothers, while men are more likely to be defined by their occupations.
  • There is still a dramatic dearth of women in behind-the-scenes roles on television, and women made up only 28 percent of all “creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography working on broadcast, network, cable, and streaming programs.” That’s just a 2 percent increase from last year. Isolating broadcast television, the figure is 27 percent and hasn’t moved in a decade.
  • A full 50 percent of the programs that the report examined employed 4 or fewer women in behind-the-scenes roles, while only 6 percent employed 4 or fewer men. Meanwhile, 97 percent had no women as directors of photography, 74 percent had no women creators, 67 percent had no women writers, and 20 percent had no women executive producers.
  • On top of adding more speaking roles for women, shows with at least one woman creator employed more women behind the scenes. These shows had writing teams made up of an average of 57 percent women, contrasting male-created shows with an average of 21 percent. Eighteen percent of the directors on shows with a female creator were women, where only 8 percent of directors were women on shows created only by men.

Many of these numbers are discouraging, and fly in the face of moments of high-profile progress that women have been expected to be so grateful for. There are bright spots — like Sunday night’s critically acclaimed finale for season two of Insecure, created by Issa Rae, written by Rae and a diverse writing team, directed predominantly by Melina Matsoukas, and shot by Ava Berkofsky. And Ryan Murphy’s Half Initiative recently fulfilled its goal of hiring women to direct at least 50 percent of all episodes of his various FX programs (including Feud, American Horror Story, and American Crime Story). But you know, maybe television would be a lot better and more enjoyable if women were always included in substantial numbers?

You can read the full report here.


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