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On Sex and Writing (Not That Kind of Sex)

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WHAT DO WE WANT? WHEN DO WE WANT IT? Well, we want there to be more women TV writers. In fact, a good number of you probably want to BE women TV writers. And, now. We would like that now.

Here is my argument for why hiring women writers is a sensible thing to do. There are a lot of reasons why a particular writer might not get hired to work on a staff: lack of talent, inability to write to specifications, combativeness, slowness, and offensive hygiene. In no rational world does the sex of the writer deserve to be on that list. (Note that even the most outrageously large breasts are unlikely to interfere with typing.)

To me, that's the argument. Simply that. Done. Anyone opposing it has to make the claim that gender is in inherent block to getting the job done -- a difficult task in our modern era and given so many counterexamples.

But even I, on occasion, find myself arguing for more women writers using very different reasoning. This reasoning: you need female writers to write realistic/compelling/strong female characters, or to supply a "female point of view." And that argument, Gentle Readers, has the potential to do more harm than good.

What's wrong with it? First off, it's demonstrably false. Ronald D. Moore's Starbuck and Joss Whedon's Buffy Summers are stunningly realistic, compelling and strong female characters. And they're not the only great females created by males. Yes, we tend to do our best work when writing characters that allow us to draw on our experiences, but life experience is an assist to one's talent, not a ceiling on it. Besides, male and female life experiences are no longer so different that we are deep mysteries to one another. We share humanity, and we are capable of empathy. The Moores and Whedons of this world have gotten pretty far with that.

Secondly, this argument carries with it a nasty corollary: that male writers must then have special skills in writing male characters. This is also demonstrably false. Here are a tiny handful of the many great male characters created by female writers: Hercule Poirot, Rhett Butler, Heathcliff, Atticus Finch, Dr. Frankenstein, 30 Rock's Tracy Jordan, and let's just throw in Harry frakkin' Potter. That's off the top of my head -- I'm sure you can come up with many more. (Try it! It's a fun game.)

Good writers can write across the gender line. We just can. And even those who can't have undoubtedly convinced themselves that they can. So a male showrunner, confident in his abilities and those of his male writers, is probably not wringing his hands over how he's going to get his female characters onto the page. By advertising ourselves as female character generators, we're trying to provide a service that no one is clamoring for. Showrunner-dude is happy creating his own female characters. Making the case that there is a deficiency he's unaware of is probably not going to resonate with him.

Even if you get such a showrunner to hire a woman, if you suggest that female writers have a specific (and limited) purpose, you are inviting those showrunners to feel they don't need to hire additional women writers once they have one woman in the room; they have their female character generator, their lens onto the female point of view.

And beyond that, the argument leaves us with no basis to promote the value of women on a show with few or no female characters. In fact, it provides a frighteningly sound argument for not hiring us on such a show.

Is this, then, why the progress women writers made in employment has diminished in recent years? That might well have had more to do with the economy, but it's possible that this gendered-purpose argument didn't help.

So then, let's look again at the argument I provided at the start, that gender simply is an invalid reason not to hire someone. If you take gender off the list of reasons to exclude a writer, the number of women writers should theoretically rise until the gender breakdown of employed writers matches that of aspiring writers. Which means that a crucial part of our task is to raise the number of aspiring female writers. I will attempt to do so now:

Write, women! Write, girls! It's a great job and you will love it. Get in there and flood the studio writing programs with your applications. Enter the contests. Participate in one of my writing sprints on Twitter. Film a web series as I have done, or go to film school, or get a job as a Hollywood assistant, or do all of those things. Just get into the pool. Writing yet? Good.

I love the idea of a showrunner purposefully creating a staff that looks like the world: a balance of men and women, an emphasis in diversity of cultural background, racial makeup, and orientation, based on the idea that talent is evenly distributed among humanity. But if it's done with some notion of splitting up the tasks of writing this or that type of character, I think we're in danger of disparaging our own ability to look out of the eyes of someone else. If we stop trying to see the world through ALL of our characters, then we're no longer in the empathy business.

So, after all of this, I posit that the problem reduces to a previously unsolved problem -- HOW to get people to take gender off their list of reasons someone isn't getting the job. That's still a problem, but at least it's a problem we can address without using a counter-productive argument.

Am I right about all this? I'm willing to entertain the notion that I'm dead wrong. Comment! Argue! And I'd love nothing more than to have another writer step forward to provide a counter-argument that blows me off the screen.

If we're going to engage in a battle for representation for women writers, let's start pitching on the battle cry.