This passage right here?
A group of Luck‘s writers, interns, and various others, predominantly young and female, were waiting for [showrunner David] Milch outside a darkened room. They resembled vestal virgins. Milch entered, arranged some cushions, and lowered himself to the floor. He assumed a position to accommodate his bad back: head propped up on one arm, one leg bent awkwardly to the knee so that the foot faced upward. It was not unlike an especially awkward male pimp pose.
In front of Milch, at eye level, was a computer screen. At a desk to his right sat a typist/transcriber and the assigned writer of that episode’s script, taking notes. The vestal virgins filed in and silently occupied the couch and chairs behind Milch. He called for the writer’s first draft of a scene to be put up on the screen and began to dictate.
[Dominic] West, predictably, attracted his share of female attention, professional and otherwise. “A man could live off his leftovers,” Pierce would say.
“I thought, ‘I can’t believe this is going to be my life. I’m going to get to [write for] TV,'” [writer Jill] Soloway said. Then she marched over to the house of a boyfriend who had been treating her badly and broke up with him. “I was like, I write for Six Feet Under now,” she said.
“You’re going to say no to 99.9 percent of the people who knock on your door, and that’s it. That’s the job. So [HBO exec Carolyn Strauss] had been here a long time, saying no a long time. And people were so tired of sitting through the Emmys watching HBO win everything, so tired of hearing how great The Sopranos and The Wire were. When they had a chance to watch the prom queen lose her crown, they couldn’t wait.”
I’m not mad at Brett Martin for focusing his narrative on shows generally created and helmed by men. That’s the television landscape (read this for some depressing infographics). But I would like to shake him for the way he characterizes women. Under Carolyn Strauss, HBO is “the prom queen.” Jill Soloway’s symbolic act of independence — incidentally one of about five times in the book that we hear about a female writer doing anything — is predicated on an offer of employment from a male showrunner. With a stunning lack of critical awareness, Martin portrays women as peons, perks, or cliches; more often, he leaves them out of the conversation altogether.
Men alternately setting loose and struggling to cage their wildest natures has always been the great American story, the one found in whatever happens to be the ascendant medium at the time. Our favorite genres — the western; the gangster saga; the lonesome but dogged private eye operating outside the comforts of normal, domestic life; the superhero with his double identities — have all been literalizations of that inner struggle, just as Huckleberry Finn striking out for the territories was, or Ishmael taking to the sea.
Where have women been, exactly, in “our” favorite genres over the years? At absolute best in “the great American story”, we’re the superhero’s helpmeet. We’re the heart-of-gold hooker or the dubiously moral femme fatale whose brutal murder at the hands of the bad guys motivates the cowboy/private eye to keep on fighting the good fight (“die, woman, and look as if you liked it!”). Or maybe we’re not there at all, categorically excluded from those settings that are “outside the comforts of normal, domestic life”.
Martin isn’t writing criticism, and he doesn’t claim to be. Difficult Men is a book of stories, and they’re interesting stories well told: the stories of how these shows were conceived and created, how this group of weird, temperamental, driven men ran their shows and changed television. I never expected it to be a conversation about shortfalls in representation. What infuriates me is that although Brett Martin isn’t trying to be exclusionary (he mentions female showrunners as an “unfortunate rarity” at one point, for instance), I could quote another half-dozen passages like the ones above. The only reason I couldn’t quote more than that is that women aren’t mentioned enough.
I’m fed up with seeing women and people of color relegated to the sidelines. I’m fed up with critics redistricting prestige television to exclude any shows that give substantial screen time to the interiority of female characters. I’m fed up with people who assume and don’t question straight white male cisgendered as the default state of being. I’m so fed up with it I could fucking scream.