'Girls' shine on TV, but not behind the scenes
LOS ANGELES (AP) — At first glance, the television industry is in the grip of female empowerment so strong that men seem relegated to an afterthought.
"Girls" and "New Girl" are scoring ratings, buzz and Emmy Awards respect. Actor-writers Tina Fey ("30 Rock"), Amy Poehler ("Parks and Recreation") and Lena Dunham ("Girls") are case studies in hyphenate success.
But appearances are deceiving, especially within the Hollywood fantasy factory: Making TV overwhelmingly remains men's work even with the television business in its seventh decade.
Women are consistently underrepresented in top TV creative positions and face being treated as dismissively as bit players whatever their achievements.
"I certainly understand the impulse to celebrate high-profile women working in the business," said Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
But to grasp how women really fare in the TV industry and how much work they're getting, Lauzen said, "you have to count the numbers."
Yes, Dunham is nominated at Sunday's Emmys for writing, directing, producing and starring in HBO's "Girls." Fey, a triple-threat acting, writing and producing winner for "30 Rock," is competing again for on-screen and behind-the-camera honors, as is Poehler.
"New Girl," from creator and executive producer Liz Meriwether, is up for four awards including best comedy actress for star Zooey Deschanel at the ceremony airing live at 8 p.m. EDT Sunday on ABC.
The shows and the women creating them may be a sign of change. But they stand now as exceptions to the rule, according to the most recent research from labor unions and academic studies — and women themselves, including the industry's most successful.
"This town is still in a certain way a boys' club, even though there are more and more women executives," said Marta Kauffman, "Friends" creator and producer.
Or, as Jenji Kohan, creator and producer of "Weeds" put it, "Hollywood is its own little world."
"There are certain perceptions out there about women writers that are unfair ... and there are biases and there are a lot of decision-makers with mother issues or girl issues. It's all fraught," Kohan said.
Hollywood's imbalance in male-female hiring is so pronounced it could sink an ocean liner.
Of the more than 2,600 TV series episodes produced in the 2010-11 season, 88 percent were directed by men and 12 percent by women, according to a Directors Guild of America study.
A 2011 report from the Writers Guild of America, West, found the share of TV writing jobs filled by women is essentially "stuck at 28 percent," little changed compared to 2007 figures from the previous guild study.
TV's behind-the-camera bias also is shared by moviemakers: A scant 3.6 percent of directors on the 100 top-grossing films of 2009 and 13.5 percent of writers were women, according to a 2011 study by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.
The Oscars started in 1929, but it wasn't until 2010 that a woman finally won a best director award, when Kathryn Bigelow took home the trophy for "The Hurt Locker."
The Emmy Awards, past and present, tell the same tale.
This year, Dunham is the sole female directing nominee in all categories, including drama, comedy, miniseries and variety programs. Five women are nominated for writing drama and comedy, with a handful more scattered among the largely male writing staffs for variety shows including "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."
Since 1959, the debut of directing awards for comedies and dramas, three women have won: Betty Thomas in 1993 for "Dream On," Karen Arthur in 1985 for "Cagney & Lacey" and Mimi Leder in 1995 for "ER." Women have claimed somewhat more Emmy gold on the writing side, with about 15 trophies for comedy writing and eight for drama scripts.
If statistics are coldly revealing, everyday workplace accounts are unsettling.
"It's a frustrating thing being the woman producer," Kauffman said, even on a smash hit such as "Friends," which she and David Crane created and produced.
"I still have a list of stories of how other women and I were treated in the network process," she said. "Many times during 'Friends,' I thought it was a good thing I have a male partner and I can walk away and my head won't explode."
She's saving the details for a post-retirement memoir, Kauffman said, wryly. She also found a comfortable niche and a chance to direct with "Georgia," a short-form series that debuted this week as part of a YouTube channel, WIGS, focused on complex female characters.
Janis Hirsch, a veteran TV writer, said producers and writers, male and female, can be tough on women in the pressure-cooker world of TV. But her accounts of men behaving badly sound like absurdly outdated sitcom scenes.
Some men poison the work atmosphere by using raunchy sexual terms for women as a power play, she said. Others blatantly discriminate: One series producer made it clear Hirsch would be relegated to writing strictly for actresses.
"I'm sure some insurance agents hate women, too, but they have HR (Human Resources) to deal with," Hirsch said. "We literally get told, 'File a complaint and you'll never work again.'"
Why is Hollywood's shabby treatment of women — ironic in an industry seen as a reliable champion of liberal causes — so stubborn?
"This is not perceived as a problem by many of the individuals who could do something about it," said San Diego State University's Lauzen. "There's a good deal of denial, and until that changes the numbers are not going to move."
Kohan, whose "Weeds" wrapped on Showtime this month and who's moving on to a new Netflix series, "Orange is the New Black," said she doesn't "think about the gender thing that often."
"I'm just in pursuit of good work and good writers. In terms of whatever package they come in, I'm looking at scripts, I'm not looking at vaginas," she said, bluntly.
But she and others acknowledge that women working in a demanding industry can face unique demands.
"TV is a very consuming business and it's really hard to balance a life with that," said Kohan, a mother of three. "If you want to have a life, it's a very tricky equation."
Actress Julia Ormond ("Mad Men") also has faced the working mother quandary.
"It impacts us hugely when we're a mom," she said. "I can't just up and go to (a filming) location easily without certain considerations, and I don't think the industry has a great history of really looking at that."
Change may have to be mandated because "industries are not good at policing themselves," Lauzen said. But insiders say it's also up to women to reject being treated as second-class citizens in a medium that typically broadcasts to — and richly profits from — a heavily female audience.
"I have really high hopes for this new generation of women because they're not afraid. They don't see why they should be scared or why they should put up with rape jokes in the writing room," Hirsch said.
Others, also voicing optimism, issue a call to arms.
"Women have to get stronger and voice their opinion louder and say, 'Look, I can do this and I do just as good a job and it's time,'" said "The Young and the Restless" star Kate Linder. "It's definitely time for that."
AP Writer Michael Cidoni Lennox contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org.