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Guest Post: "No One Would Ever Say That to Larry David": Female Showrunners and the Hypocritical Critical Edge

Features
by Emily U. Hashimoto
May 9, 2014 4:00 PM
8 Comments
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Lena Dunham ("Girls") and Mindy Kaling ("The Mindy Project")

It's tough out there for female showrunners. Women and Hollywood has been documenting this for years, and it remains true that the women working in these roles - in comedy and drama, on network and on cable - do not get their due. It’s not simply about attention, though there is something to be said for women being treated as authorities of their craft. It is indeed about the work.

On Tuesday, The Mindy Project wrapped up its second season. The show has been the subject of much critique and close to cancellation. Co-showrunner Mindy Kaling was questioned at this year's South By Southwest about not having more female doctor characters, whether white or women of color, to which she responded defensively, "I’m a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking show." As if to say: I'm a woman of color writing, leading, and acting in her own show. What more am I supposed to be responsible for? She followed up by saying other shows - run by friends of hers - never get the same questions.

Another common complaint is that Kaling's character Mindy Lahiri only dates white men - though the Jezebel piece on this ends like this: "What's the use in having your own damn TV show if you can't hire a bunch of dudes you're attracted to and make out with them?" A valid point, especially when considering Seinfeld, a sitcom from another hyphenate who dates a parade of similar looking and gorgeous women. Perhaps the internet allows us to dissect in a way we didn't in the 90s, but a thorough search turned up no critique of Jerry Seinfeld, except for this piece meant to call out the double standard that is often applied to Girls.

Which leads perfectly into Girls, a show by co-showrunner and star Lena Dunham, critiqued as much as Mindy if not more. Right from the get-go, Dunham had to answer questions about the blaring lack of diversity in her characters - questions certainly not asked of Larry David. After an appalling go of it - Donald Glover playing a short-lived conservative Republican boyfriend for Hannah - this past season balanced out as the team behind the show realized that to fix their problem, they need only include people of color as coworkers, old friends, new friends, and romantic rivals. Some are stereotypes, some simply are. It's not perfect, but it's better - an example of the power of fair critique, and a showrunner wanting to do better who's not wholly unable to take constructive criticism on inclusivity

Girls also gets criticized for its amount of nudity, but mostly Dunham's nudity, which feels like it has everything to do with her form - a body that is average in size, neither thin nor fat. That she would dare show a body that is not bronzed or a size 00 seems to be the hidden message behind the criticism. Clothed or not, it seems like everyone has a lot to say about Dunham's body and how it is depicted - going so far as to offer $10,000 for untouched photos of a Dunham-Vogue photoshoot - but yet very little to say about other hyphenates like Louis C.K. who lack the six packs and smoldering eyes of more traditional leading men. Instead, critique of C.K.'s show Louie mostly tackle content or production. Imagine that.

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with critique. Kaling and Dunham have said as much, that as difficult as it is to not support all women-created art, one should be "clear about what behaviors aren't helping the bigger cause [of feminism]," as Dunham put it in a Rookie publication. But let’s call a spade a spade. As fair as some or parts of the criticisms Kaling and Dunham face are, it highlights the double standard that exists. As Women and Hollywood has already covered, it's an entirely different playing field for men, with different rules and expectations.

The way that Kaling and Dunham are handled is due, in part, to being front and center. Other female showrunners like Grey's Anatomy and Scandal's Shonda Rhimes, The Killing's Veena Sud, New Girl's Liz Meriwether, and Orange Is the New Black's Jenji Kohan are simply not as out there as those women working behind and in front of the camera. This elevated exposure puts them right in the spotlight, literally, and may explain why they seem to take the heat - not the show, but they themselves. Of course, the elephant in the room is what's already been described above: the unequal treatment of female and male showrunners.

We need to be honest about what we're seeing, and clear about the sexism that dictates how female creative leaders are treated. Kaling addresses this directly: "There are little Indian girls out there who look up to me, and I never want to belittle the honor of being an inspiration to them.  But while I'm talking about why I’m so different, white male show runners get to talk about their art," she has said. Dunham has said she’s embarrassed and feels dumb to address it when she'll say something like, "Not to be the girl who cried misogyny, but no one would ever say that to Larry David!" But she still points it out. It's never easy to tell this kind of truth, but when it is called out and published, there's an opportunity there for education and, hopefully, change.


Emily U. Hashimoto writes about feminism, queerness, pop culture, and their intersections. She has written for Bitch Magazine, Bitch Flicks, and Kalyani Magazine. You can find her on Twitter at @emilyhash and at books-feminism-everythingelse.

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8 Comments

  • Jennifer L. | May 14, 2014 3:00 AMReply

    This double standard reminds me of the way female actresses are treated in interviews versus their male counterparts.... getting more questions about who they're wearing/their make-up/their workout routine than actors do... Luckily, actresses have been calling interviewers out on their misogyny of late!

  • Richie | May 11, 2014 9:04 PMReply

    Let's be honest here. Lena Dunham does in fact have an average body but not one people want to see. Let's be honest that there are bigger women that would actually look better than Ms. Dunham naked and at least for me that's the critique. I get she's trying to show what real life is and that we all get get naked but she's a bit obnoxious about it as to say, this is reality deal with it. Mindy avoids even partially parading her body around in such a manner and even if she could as they are on very different networks I doubt she'd be so raw about it but instead tasteful. I like to **** an arse but I don't want to look inside of it ;-)

  • Ceilidh | May 11, 2014 4:10 PMReply

    I get the general crux of your argument and there's a lot of truth there, but Dunham was hardly the first showrunner to be criticised for lack of diversity in her show. Friends faced this, so did The West Wing & basically everything Sorkin touches, Frasier, Seinfeld, and indeed Curb Your Enthusiasm. Amy Sherman Paladino faced it for Bunheads from nobody less than Shonda Rhimes, and Paladino's response was essentially a deflection "support the sisterhood" defence, as if Rhimes should have to choose between her gender and her face.

    I also take serious issue with Dunham's defence that we should be "clear about what behaviors aren't helping the bigger cause [of feminism],". Tackling racial whitewashing from major entertainment IS helping the bigger cause of feminism. When the media claims that a show about 4 affluent straight white women in a borough of New York with 55% non-white inhabitants is the "new feminism" or the "voice of our generation" then there's a big problem there (Yeah, I know Dunham's character was quite literally high when she said that line but that hasn't stopped people using it seriously in reference to her). I would also imagine that criticism of Dunham's diversity issues stem from her repeated racial slip ups, be it her tweet about feeling a little "fundamentalist" to the essay she wrote about her time in Japan that ticks so many Orientalist boxes that it makes me cringe to think about it any further.

  • AFlinn | May 11, 2014 2:50 PMReply

    I think it's sort of amazing that it is not considered racist to tell Mindy Kaling that her character should date guys closer to her own skin tone. And this is the LIBERAL viewpoint? I missed something. Go, Mindy, go!

  • A | May 9, 2014 6:36 PMReply

    Larry David did get questioned all the time on the lack of diversity of his characters. Maybe you should research instead of making facts up to support you sexist claims.

  • Star | May 9, 2014 8:06 PM

    Yes, Seinfeld took a lot of criticism about that. Dunham and gang are suffering from some rather convenient amnesia here.

  • C | May 9, 2014 4:25 PMReply

    Not to be snide but Dunham does not have an average body size. Maybe in America.

  • cy | May 9, 2014 5:18 PM

    Hey C . . . look Up! Over your head . . . maybe you'll catch a glimpse of the point you missed, sailing by, over your head.

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