A couple of weeks ago, the WGAW put together yet another panel. This one spotted three showrunners, Lauren Gussis of Insatiable, which will be showing on Netflix soon; Barbara Hall of Madame Secretary; and Jennie Snyder Urman of Jane the Virgin. Aided and abetted by moderator Pat Saperstein of Variety (not a TV show – yet), had a lot to say not only about TV but also about women in showbiz in general:
3 Female Showrunners Shed Light on Process, TV Today, Diversity in Hollywood
by Allison Boron
On being a woman in entertainment.
Hall’s early experiences as a TV writer were heavily focused on sitcoms before transitioning into writing for drama. “Back then, things were quite different [for women], though they’re not different enough today,” said Hall. “I took twice as long as a man would take to leave and try to do my own show, because I felt like I had to really know how to do it. I felt like, if I made a mistake, I wouldn’t get another shot.”
Hall explained that when she first started to break into entertainment, there wasn’t a female showrunner in sight, so she adopted a “you have to see it to believe it” attitude. “I just sort of pictured myself as being competitive with these guys,” she said. “You have to have a little bit of a pioneering spirit if you want to do it and maybe make that your goal. Like, ‘Well, I’m going to be the person that shows people what it looks like.’ And just believe that you have a right to play in the game.”
“I employ my feminine instinct,” said Gussis. “I actually try to be the mama bear on my set and of my writers’ room.” After struggling with issues reconciling how to be both feminine and empowered, Gussis said she started to use the “comfortably aspirational” archetype of “goddess” instead of “woman.”
“I understood finally what it meant to step into power without being hard,” she said, “to be more open and just embody that in my own way. I felt like weirdly butch otherwise in a way that didn’t feel authentic to me either.”
On incorporating diversity into shows.
Gussis explained that when “staffing up” for “Insatiable,” she heavily took diversity into consideration. “I wanted it to be balanced,” she said, “but it wasn’t just about male, female. It was about diversity in general…. Because the show is set in a suburb of Atlanta, diversity was important to me. And also because the show has a lot of queer themes, diversity was important to me. I wanted to have a balance of LGBTQ and ethnicity and background.”
For “Madam Secretary,” Hall explained that the show’s of-the-moment politically charged themes put it into a “great position” to incorporate more diversity. “We get to show not just all kinds of diversity but different cultures,” she said. “Behind the scenes, of course, you’re looking for people who have that perspective who can help you realize that.”
Sometimes, explained Urman, the need for diversity even extends to gender in unexpected ways. “I love the show, I love the cast, I love the crew,” she said of “Jane the Virgin.” “I think we’re eight or nine women and three men in the room. I did have to call and say, ‘I think I need a man in this room. I just needed a voice.
“We’ve always been 80 percent female directors since the beginning. I didn’t have the expectation that only men are interesting visually and have something to say. The people who came and interviewed for that first season, who understood the gaze…were women, and those were the people that I reacted to.”
And for “Jane the Virgin,” which is modeled after a telenovela (containing a lot of direct plot elements related to that soap opera style), adding in more diversity was a crucial way for Snyder Urman to accurately nail those themes. “I wasn’t sure at the beginning if I was going to be the person who could write [the telenovela plot points],” she said. “That was something that I struggled with, but I had such a strong vision for what the show would be and what the relationships would be.
“I figured I’d just have to hire enough people that have the specificity. I rely on other people to fill in what I don’t know, but I also do know these characters. I know them so well.”
On creating for streaming versus traditional or cable TV.
As streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon compete with over-the-air and cable TV, the shift presents both challenges and opportunities for showrunners like Gussis. “I actually think there’s more pressure because it’s Netflix,” she said. “How do you get Netflix to market your show when they’re producing so much content? How do you do the jazz hands loud enough that they pay attention? How do you get your executives to trust you, but also feel like they’re involved enough that they love you and that they want to champion you at Netflix…?