The best TV criticism’s ink is pink, but powerful
By Anna Holmes,
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.”
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.’ ”
A cyberspace start
Are television execs and content creators getting the message? I don’t know, but I believe it would be hard for them not to. There’s the issue of basic numbers: Ryan, who joined the Television Critics Association in 2004, says the gender makeup of the organization has changed considerably in the seven years she’s been a member. TCA President Candace Havens echoes this assertion, saying that since 1997, female membership in TCA has risen from 30 to 50 percent. But numbers are only part of the story: Much of the vibrancy of contemporary television commentary has less to do with association membership and everything to do with style and substance, namely, with the opportunities for analysis that the medium offers.
A primer: Recent years have seen TV-specific critiques, debates and explications on everything including female comedians, hiring practices on late-night talk shows, depictions of pregnancy and abortion, and the use of women’s bodies as props. And that’s just for starters. Earlier this year, NBC aired an episode of “30 Rock” that was directly inspired by conversations among female television critics about gender politics and women in comedy.
“I would guess that there are probably more female critics writing TV criticism at higher profile than there were a decade ago,” says Time magazine senior writer and TV critic James Poniewozik. “Women who might have chosen to write about something else in previous years are now finding TV very fertile to write about. TV has just gotten better — much more ambitious and rewarding — and, of course, the Internet has a lot to do with it.”
Indeed. Some of the best-known writers about television — including Havrilesky and Virginia Heffernan, who wrote for Slate from 2001 to 2003 before moving on to join critic Alessandra Stanley at the New York Times — cut their critical teeth on the Web, where they were able to write often, and long. In 1999, two young women named Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting started a site on which to document their growing obsession with female-targeted programs such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Felicity.” Called Television Without Pity, the site attracted a thriving female readership, both because of its content — critics, many of them women, taking TV seriously — and its positioning (it belonged to an online ad network serving female-oriented sites). Ariano, Bunting and the other TWoP writers — including Holmes, who now writes NPR’s pop culture blog, Monkey See — were not hesitant to call it as they saw it, particularly when what they saw was sexism.
“It might have been a function of Sarah and I being feminists, but it was a feminist site with a feminist sensibility,” Ariano said. “It’s impossible to recap, say, how the writers of ‘Dawson’s Creek’ treated the character of Jen [played by Michelle Williams] and not respond critically to it and say, ‘This is not okay.’ ”
The next chapter?
On Sept. 13, New Yorker veteran Nancy Franklin announced that she was stepping down from her position as the magazine’s longtime television critic.
It was surprising, in no small part because Franklin had been enjoying a successful 13-year run thinking and writing seriously about television during what was a particularly vibrant time for the medium. But it didn’t feel so much like an end as an evolution, because Franklin — who, along with Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal, was arguably the country’s highest-profile female TV critic when she began her stint with a 1998 review of “Sex and the City” — was succeeded by Emily Nussbaum of New York magazine. Like Franklin, Nussbaum is a talented prose stylist with a keen eye for gender politics. But, thanks to her immersion in the scrappy, high-velocity world of online commentary — Nussbaum credits Television Without Pity with helping to inspire her to take up television criticism — her work feels uniquely participatory.
Late last week, Franklin was on the phone, packing up three-plus decades’ worth of files, magazines and tchotchkes in her soon-to-be vacant space at the Times Square offices of the New Yorker. She explains that it’s an exciting time for women who are writing about, and reading writing about, television.
“It’s definitely a phenomenon. I’m not sure it can be explained, but it certainly can be celebrated,” she says. “There are so many women to admire now — in their 20s, 30s, 40s and, in a few cases, their 50s — and a sense that an important conversation is going on among them. Everyone feels really excited and lifted up by it.”