This is a fascinating article on the changing nature of the TV industry (thanks to my lovely sis for sending me the link).
I myself have been binge-watching a few TV shows this week (about women and by women yay!), which I hope to review in my next couple of posts, but I have a few reactions to this article that I’d like to address first.
A Question About Content:
Firstly, it’s interesting to me that Kevin Spacey’s list of revolutionary shows (Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Madmen), while ‘revolutionary’ in the sense that they used cinematographic camera techniques and long-form character development, weren’t actually that revolutionary in terms of their subject matter. That is they are all still shows where the majority of the main characters are white, middle class males, with the exception of Homeland where the main character is a white, middle class, woman. There are also very few shows with openly gay characters in that list (I haven’t seen Homeland so I’m not too sure of the orientation of their characters but other than that I think it is just Six Feet Under).
That ‘try-anything freedom’ that Kevin Spacey seems so excited about still seems to be fairly restricted in the kinds of stories that are deemed to be successful in this medium.
Even the list of the ’20 Series To Feast On’ while doing a little better in the female/male ratio, (that is, 6 out of the 20 shows have female lead characters) for the most part is also a list of shows about white middle class heterosexual people.
BUT WHAT ABOUT ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK? you cry? IT’S ALL ABOUT LESBIANS!
Yeees… and maybe I should give that show another chance…. because I only watched the pilot and I felt like… it was still a story told from a place of privilege. It’s a true story yes so I guess you have to give the character room to be human. And I KNOW that partly the theme of the show was about examining her naivety around her own privilege- but it still really irked me that the main character was white, and thin, and pretty. I mean did she have to be that thin? Have that perfect hair? Maybe I’m just being too picky.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FEMALE SUPPORTING CHARACTERS you cry?! THEY DON’T HAVE TO BE LEADS TO BE WELL WRITTEN.
And again I would say yeeesss… except that…. well yes many of those shows do have beautifully complex female characters as supporting cast, like Elizabeth Moss, January Jones and Christina Hendrix’s roles in Mad Men and the excellent ensemble cast from Six Feet Under which includes several strong female characters.
BUT for the most part these shows are still from the male characters point of view, which means that we as viewers, get to observe these women from outside, but don’t really get to get inside their heads in the same that we do with the male characters.
I know the shows have to be from someone’s point of view. But wouldn’t it be amazing if the female point of view was the starting point occasionally? Instead of a departure from the norm for a few episodes each season? And wouldn’t it be amazing if occasionally these stories were not only told from the women’s point of view for the whole series, but also WRITTEN and DIRECTED by women as well? Not that I’m saying that really talented male writers can’t write the opposite sex, they can and do, often with grace and delicacy (Alan Ball I’m especially looking at you here), but still, wouldn’t it be great if female writers got to tell those stories too? Wouldn’t it be great if that was something that was ubiquitous instead of something worth commenting on?
So, what does this all mean in terms of the ‘TV revolution’?. Well…. I think it means that society isn’t perfect and even when we’re trying our hardest to be different we end up following the same old patterns. And that in western society at least, the pattern is that we are drawn to stories about people in power, and that the people in power at the moment are mostly white, and mostly heterosexual. And I think it means that the kinds of people who finance TV shows are still mainly financing shows about themselves. And I think that the kinds of shows that ‘make it’ in terms of ratings or downloads or whatever still have to have mass appeal in order to be successful and for some reason mass appeal translates to white, middle class, male.
A second reaction which has very little to do with content but a lot to do with form:
My other reaction to this article comes out of my own experiences as a crew member over the last decade.
There is a culture of extremely long days and intense working hours on Film and TV sets. For a feature film, you might work 16 hours and shoot, if you were lucky, 3 minutes of screentime that day.
Now that we are also making TV shows in the style of cinema, that creates an even more unique challenge for the crew on the ground. For a TV schedule to fit into the tight TV budgets allocated to us, you shoot around 10-15 minutes of screen time a day. Yet you are expected to produce cinematic quality product in that same time frame. This places immense pressure on a crew already working in a high pressure environment.
What it often means in terms of reality is that you end up working overtime on an already long day. Crews in the US in particular work 18 hour days on a regular basis. When you’re working with heavy machinery like cranes and dollies this can actually create a physically unsafe environment as well as a psychologically unsafe one. This article is a great introduction to the issues of long hours on film sets and how they can sometimes even be fatal if you want to read more about it.
Now I know that the film and TV industry does not have the monopoly on long hours and high pressure. Every industry has its own version of this and the pressures that come with it.
But all of this means that, for women in particular, the hours required are a massive deterrent. Especially if you have children or a family you want to go home to. Or most especially if are pregnant or breast feeding, the hours actually might be physically impossible for you to participate in.
And it also makes me wonder if it these working conditions have an effect on the kind of stories we tell? It’s hard to be revolutionary when you haven’t slept properly in weeks, or when you’re worried about making your schedule at the end of the day. You just shoot what you know, which is the male point of view. Every scene is constructed from a point of view right? So if the default is the male point of view, and you’re tired and worried and can’t think straight, you just go to your default.
So how do we change this? I don’t know. It’s systemic and also societal. We need to convince studios to give productions more money and more time, and directors and writers and creators to experiment more with points of view other than the default. But we also need to convince audiences to get behind these experiments and embrace them. Because if financial success doesn’t come out of it, then the money won’t come to make more. Or we need to convince ourselves and the rest of the world that financial success isn’t the be all and end of all of measuring creative success. And how do we do that? I have no idea.
Alright, I’ve ranted enough now. Go watch your shows. It’s just TV after all.