This year, AOL TV critic Maureen Ryan, writing on her blog “Stay Tuned,” published a 2,600-word story on the gender breakdown of the fall TV lineup. In the 2006-07 season, she explained, 35 percent of the writers of prime-time programs on network television were women. For 2010-11, it had dropped to 15 percent, in no small part because of “a professional environment that’s as stubbornly resistant to change as any in America.”
Men might still dominate the creation and production of television, but women such as Ryan are increasingly controlling the conversation about it. Riffle through the pages of the New Yorker or Los Angeles Times or navigate to the Web sites of NPR, AOL, the Vulture, ThinkProgress, the Daily Beast or Grantland, and you’ll find that some of the best, most incisive, provocative and engaging writing being done today is television criticism by women. Many of them are writing from a specific and particularly powerful point of view, one that L.A. Times deputy TV editor Joy Press, a television critic for the Village Voice from 2002 to 2006, describes as “women writing as women.”
Anna Holmes is a contributing columnist for the Style section. She is the founder of Jezebel.com.
(Neilson Barnard/GETTY IMAGES FOR THE NEW YORKER) - “There are so many women [TV critics] to admire now,” said Nancy Franklin, the New Yorker’s longtime critic — and arguably the country’s most prominent writer about the medium.
Press doesn’t mean to say that female television critics are writing about what it’s like to be a woman, or that their work is punctuated with overt or unnecessary references to their gender. Nor are they writing for a female audience, despite the fact that, according to Nielsen, a slight majority of television viewers are female. And they’re not necessarily writing about other women, as seen in recent essays on representations of masculinity by New York Times Magazine contributor Heather Havrilesky and NPR’s Linda Holmes (no relation). They are simply, perhaps as a result of their gender, passionately and politically engaged by topics that their male counterparts might overlook.
“I sort of gravitate to women writers, perhaps because a lot of them are able to connect emotionally with the material,” said Havrilesky, who wrote about TV for Salon from 2003 until last year. “A lot of male critics tend to take an almost scientific approach to television, but I’m seeing women who are able to branch out in a way that they’re creating their own works of art. People are really setting the bar high for themselves in writing this amazing stuff. It’s addictive to read.”
Ryan, one of the best writers on the gender politics of the small screen and the people who produce it, said that although she doesn’t want to cast aspersions on her male colleagues, “I do think that, for the most part, they are not bringing up issues that I care deeply about.
“I really view my job as, if I’m going to do something valuable, I’d like to open the doors to a discussion as to why the industry is so male-dominated and why that leads to stories that resonate with middle- to upper-middle-class white heterosexual males,” she said. “Slightly more than 50 percent of the TV audience is female, so I’ve never understood the math by which people will sit there and say, ‘If this comes off as dumb and untrue to a large segment of our audience, that’s okay.’ ”