Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why the "Right" Age to Watch "New Girl" Shouldn't Matter: Supporting the Revolution in Female-driven Comedy

Earlier today, Salon TV columnist Willa Paskin published an article called "What's the Right Age for Watching New Girl?" Her thesis is this: there are too many women in their 20's and 30's on television today, as opposed to women forty and older, and the character of Jess on "New Girl" freaking out about diminishing fertility at age thirty is possibly naive and a symptom of the greater problem of the entertainment industry ignoring their 40-years-plus viewers. Factually, yes, both of these points are probably true. The statistics Paskin presents do suggest that women under forty are disproportionately represented on network television. I think, however, that in this particular case, she is missing the forest for the trees.

Like Paskin, I am in the demographic cohort that shows like "The Mindy Project" and "New Girl" are written for. I'm 29, and a professional (in a fairly male-dominated field), and until a few months ago, I was living in an apartment with two roommates where the precise routine we had to go through with the garbage disposal to keep the sink from backing up into the dishwasher made me wish Nick Miller could just come over and "fancy fix" our kitchen. I'm also an example of vocational irony (thanks to Dan Fienberg for coining that term). I have a job I love that entails significant responsibility, and I've been told I'm doing pretty well at it for being so new. But my personal life? Let's not even go there. These shows speak to me because the characters are facing similar challenges. I sit down in my living room from 9-10 each Tuesday, and I see that enough other people have been where I am that they wrote television shows about it.

My personal connections to these shows isn't the reason why I think they are important and relevant despite their rather targeted demographic, however. As recently as three years ago, shows like this couldn't have existed. I do a lot of reading about television and the entertainment industry, and I can't even count the number of articles I've read debating whether or not women overall can be funny. As a result of this long-standing perception that women are not as funny as men, and that they somehow keep men from acting the way they need to act to write comedy (read: crudely), women have been (and continue to be) horribly underrepresented in television writing professionally. This article in the Huffington Post quotes a Writiers Guild of America, West study to show that the percentage of television writing jobs flled by women is "stuck" at about 28 percent. A recent study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that "women comprised 26% of all individuals working as creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography on broadcast television programs during the 2011-12 prime-time season."

"New Girl" and "The Mindy Project" represent new ground. These are both shows created by funny women with strong voices, Elizabeth Meriwether and Mindy Kaling respectively. Except for the success of a few "Saturday Night Live" alums like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, women getting this sort of chance has been rare. Networks are finally beginning to trust women to be funny enough to start putting some money behind their ideas. Women bring a new, often unheard from, perspective to television comedy. The result thus far has been smart, interesting characters. Jess Day and Mindy Lahiri aren't just pretty faces. They are both intelligent professionals (Jess as a teacher and Mindy as an OB/GYN) with sharp wit and friends who care about them deeply. Their voices and points of view are unique and different from anything else on television, and there is value to that. While the picture isn't always flattering, "New Girl" and "The Mindy Project" depict women as fully formed human beings, and I think the fact that both shows were created by women is a significant reason why.

Paskin laments that there aren't many shows anymore where the whole family can sit down to watch and get something out of it. The humor of the newest crop of comedies is very targeted to the late 20's-early 30's set. There's a lot of humor for 80's and 90's kids, I admit (and I also admit that I understand it and find it funny). I don't think that all television needs to appeal to everyone, though. Television has evolved and can very much be appreciated as its own art form now. This artistic bent is giving women like Meriwether and Kaling an opportunity to be heard when that was not possible before, and I think that's something to be embraced. As the statistics I quoted earlier show, the entertainment industry overall and television writing in particular has a long way to go to be considered a profession where women are equally represented. Let's celebrate what women have been able to accomplish so far instead of shooting ourselves in the foot by tearing each other down.

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