Like hundreds of lesbians across the world, I had my sexual awakening (mostly) courtesy of Dana Scully and Gillian Anderson, the actress who portrays Scully on “The X-Files.” This began an obsession with the show, extending beyond my huge gay crush. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the news in 2015 that the series was revived for a tenth season after 13 years. After a disappointing run of episodes, I maintained a Scully-esque skepticism about the show when Fox ordered another ten episodes to air in 2018. My hesitance was strengthened by the announcement that the show’s creator Chris Carter had not hired any female writers or directors to work on the new season. Since that news, which broke in late June of 2017, Carter hired three female writers to handle two episodes (Karen Nielson, Kristen Cloke, and Shannon Hamblin) and two female directors (Holly Dale and Carol Banker). One could argue that this lack of behind-the-scenes diversity was the most nostalgic part of the revival series; during its original run, “The X-Files” had only seven women receive a writing credit (including star Gillian Anderson who wrote and directed one episode). This lack of diversity doesn’t even touch on the overwhelming whiteness of the show, both on and off camera. “The X-Files” doesn’t seem to have moved from its original decade in terms of progressive hiring and subject matter.
Don’t get me wrong. “The X-Files” is far from the only show with such dismal statistics concerning its behind-the-scenes demographics. In 2016, the Writers Guild of America released a report detailing the status of women and minority writers on television shows, appropriately if dishearteningly titled “Renaissance in Reverse?” The report states that women make up a little less than 29 percent of television writing staffers. The statistics on people of color working on television writing staffs are even more upsetting, with non-white writers making up a little over 13 percent of those staffs. To break that down even further: two percent Black men, two percent Black women, two percent Latinx men, less than two percent Latinx women, less than one percent Native American men and women, and one percent for multiracial men and women. There is no data on the prevalence of LGBT or disabled writers, though the study notes that “anecdotes suggest that television and film projects featuring depictions of LGBT persons and those with disabilities all too often fail to employ writers from these groups.” Women are underrepresented in television employment by a factor of two to one, and for people of color, the ratio is three to one.
When we watch stories crafted on television, the experiences of the writers is extremely relevant. Writers’ rooms that are solely composed of white men can’t portray non-white, non-male experiences with the same authenticity. To continue using The X-Files as an example, episodes written by men that explored Dana Scully’s inner life had less depth than Gillian Anderson’s own episode. Liz Shannon Miller wrote for IndieWire, “Much is projected onto Scully, without ever really showing genuine interest in understanding who she actually is; compare it to the Anderson-written/directed installment ‘All Things,’ which made a real effort to give Scully a history and an internal life of her own.” Take, for example, “I Love Dick,” a show by “Transparent” showrunner Jill Soloway that employs only women and gender-nonconforming people. The writers use their own experiences to craft the story of a woman exploring female sexuality. These people were the best to portray experiences with which they were familiar.
Matthew Weiner ’87, creator of Mad Men (a show with a famously gender-diverse writer’s room) said in an interview with Elle Magazine, “I don’t want to attribute our success to our gender blindness, but it’s definitely a better place to work…. All of it helps the show. Everybody does their different thing. And if you’re a writer, it’s your job to look at everybody.”
Perhaps stories trading in tired racial stereotypes would be avoided if writers of those identities were employed and included in television production. “Empire” showrunner Lee Daniels succinctly addressed this in a roundtable discussion for The Hollywood Reporter: “I hate white people writing for black people; it’s so offensive. So we go out and look specifically for African-American voices.”
In order for women and people of color to get better representation on television, these changes have to start in the writer’s room where the stories originate.
Still, a common misconception remains that television shows with diverse casts and writing rooms tend to be unsuccessful. A study from UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies found that viewers are actually drawn to television shows with diverse casts and staffs. From a value-driven standpoint, the study found that “median household ratings peaked among broadcast television shows that were 41 to 50 percent minority, while ratings took a dive for shows with casts that were 10 percent minority or less.”
Indeed, if viewers are drawn to shows with diverse representation, then the only way to guarantee the quality of that representation is to make sure the people behind the scenes are the best writers to deliver authentic characters and stories.
Meg Cummings can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org