LB’S NOTE: For the past few years, it has seemed to me that most of the changes in our culture have been negative ones. (Gee, where could I have gotten that idea?) But here’s a positive change that I’m sure will make the culture of storytelling the world over better than it’s been since, oh, let’s say the Renaissance.
by Radhika Seth
On 18 June, ITV made headlines when it announced it would no longer commission shows by all-male writers. Saskia Schuster, ITV’s head of comedy and founder of the gender equality initiative Comedy 50:50, hoped the move would create more opportunities for women in an industry and genre that has long been dominated by men. What she didn’t expect was a backlash: op-eds condemning box-ticking quotas, viewers applauding shows that wouldn’t exist without all-male writing teams (Peep Show, Dad’s Army, Blackadder) and critics on Twitter labelling her a militantly feminist member of the #GalQaeda.
“The focus was never on banning male teams,” Schuster tells Vogue. “The goal is inclusivity. The current number of female writers in comedy is woefully low and before I started Comedy 50:50, I was being pitched very few scripts by women.” Determined to change the culture, she rewrote her contracts, asking comedy shows to aim for equal representation and scripted commissions to demonstrate their best endeavours to include female voices. She also created a database of more than 500 women writers to help producers find new collaborators.
Some women are going further, arguing that the antidote to decades of TV shows penned by all-male writers’ rooms is the rise of all-female equivalents. Netflix’s black comedy Russian Doll, the brainchild of Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, is one such example. Written and directed by women, it centres on a whip-smart 30-something who finds herself stuck in a Groundhog Day-style loop. For Lyonne, the makeup of the room was purely coincidental. “The best people for the job just happened to be female,” she says. “It certainly wasn’t a diktat,” adds Headland. “I’ve been in male-dominated writers’ rooms before, and it’s not that I prefer one to the other, but for Russian Doll, which was so deeply emotional and personal, this felt right.”
The experience was revolutionary. “The tone of the show relied on us being vulnerable,” explains Headland. “Our room was a place where I felt comfortable discussing trauma. What was the darkest day of my life? What day would I never want to live all over again?” It was a shift from being the lone woman on a male team. “In those cases, you have to advocate for your female characters and justify their decision-making,” she says….