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Why TV Needs More 'Difficult' Lesbians of Color

Why TV Needs More 'Difficult' Lesbians of Color

LESBIAN WOMEN OF COLOR

Writers of New Girl,Difficult People,Fresh Off the Boat, and Being Mary Jane discuss what kinds of characters they'd like to see on television.

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When asked what kinds of characters are missing from television, the creator of Fox's New Girl had a specific kind of woman in mind.

Television needs "more lesbians," Liz Meriwether told The Advocate on the red carpet for the Daring Women Summit, a daylong, first-of-its-kind event held Wednesday by the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. To illustrate the gender disparity, she noted the larger number of gay male characters currently on the air.

She's right. TV does need more lesbians. According to a 2015-2016 report by GLAAD -- an LGBT media organization -- gay men, at 47 percent, do make up the majority of regular and recurring LGBT characters. Lesbians only represent 33 percent of these characters. That's not even mentioning bisexual (20 percent) or transgender people, who are nearly nonexistent in leading scripted roles, or whether these portrayals are progressive or problematic. A recent report from Pride.com on LGBT representation also confirms that there are 68 gay male characters on TV right now versus 40 lesbian characters.

It was these kinds of conversations -- about women and how they are depicted in or absent from media -- that filled the Daring Women Summit. Speakers throughout the day included Tangerine's Mya Taylor, Donna Karan, Rosie Perez, and Samantha Bee.

Meriwether, whose female-centric Fox series starring Zooey Deschanel was recently renewed for a sixth season, spoke on a panel of trailblazing female television writers that included Julie Klausner (Hulu's Difficult People), Keli Goff (BET's Being Mary Jane), and Nahnatchka Khan (ABC's Fresh Off the Boat). Throughout, these powerful women discussed how diversity both in the writers' room and in front of the camera can lead to the success of a series.

"Those shows are working because women like women who are like women!" Meriwether said to the applause of the audience.

Julie Klausner, the star and executive producer of Difficult People, also noted the positive influence of women helming productions -- on the small screen at least. "Television is really good right now," she said. "And that's a part of it."

However, Klausner bemoaned how many female actors are still trapped in flat roles that only require them to "memorize lines and get Botox."

Speaking to The Advocate about the characters she would like to see more of, Klausner had a new kind of girl in mind: "Women acting like assholes." She cited a bisexual character formerly played by actress Amy Sedaris, Jerri Blank on Comedy Central's Strangers With Candy, as among her inspirations for comedy.

"Amy Sedaris is a beautiful, adorable genius spending her time getting makeup done so she looks like a 46-year-old ex-convict and makes funny faces and is the most disgusting person. It's completely inspiring," Klausner told The Advocate. "It opened up a world for me that, Oh, that's it! I want to be funny, but not 'cute funny,' or 'funny for a girl.'"

INTERVIEWEES

Klausner referenced Valerie Cherish, played by Lisa Kudrow, in HBO's The Comeback, as another pioneer of female jerks. In the cult hit, Cherish, a once-successful television actress, attempts to renew her career in Hollywood. She encounters sexism and ageism, and in response, she often puts her own interests before those of family and friends.

"I remember thinking, Oh, this is the future! This is a female Larry David!" Klausner said. "I remember people were really turned off by it, and I think it had to do with. Why is a woman being a jerk? But all I saw was like, That's exactly what I want to do."

Keli Goff, a writer on Being Mary Jane, noted the absence of fully realized lead women of color on television. She attributed her show's success to its inclusion of these roles and to showrunner Mara Brock Akil for advocating for them.

"I think one of the reasons that Being Mary Jane really struck a chord with our incredibly loyal audience of a lot of women of color is because they said it was one of the first times they saw themselves depicted on-screen," she said. "It wasn't just a fabulous, fierce, successful black woman. It also wasn't just like a down-and-out black family. It was a complicated, messy mix of different sides and facets of black humanity."

"The truth is that African-Americans are complicated, just like Don Draper's complicated," she said, referencing the troubled and cheating white central character of AMC's Mad Men. "We should see more reflections that are complicated. And I'd like to see more of that on-screen."

The absence of these complicated, messy, and queer female roles is symptomatic of a problem that still exists in Hollywood, despite the work of these daring writers. According to numbers presented at the Daring Women Summit by Google's Julie Ann Crommett, only 22 percent of U.S. scripted cable TV shows are created by women. And 89.3 percent of these creators are white. These numbers are not representative of the U.S. population, which, in a business sense, means large numbers of viewers are being lost due to a lack of representation on-screen. Across the pond, the BBC is making bold commitments to gender, racial, and sexual diversity.

But more than dollars and cents, this lack of diversity also makes entertainment less entertaining, said Fresh Off the Boat's Khan. At the conference, she referenced a new episode of her ABC show, in which the members of an Asian-American family contrast their birth names with their "American" names. This, she said, is example of a plotline that could never be explored in most sitcoms centered on white families. The same could be said of LGBT people and families, whose unique experiences of survival, tragedy, and comedy remain largely untapped by mainstream entertainment.

"It's very important for me to write about the gay experience truthfully, or as truthfully as I know it to be," said Klausner, an ally whose show Difficult People boasts several out actors and characters, including costar Billy Eichner and trans actress Shakina Nayfack. "As someone who is blessed with gay friends, I have seen things in real life that I haven't seen on TV."

In her conversation with The Advocate, Klausner challenged Hollywood to do better in its representation of the great, gay, difficult, and diverse spectrum of women and humanity.

"The closer we get to honesty and truthfulness, and the more people that we can represent that [viewers] can identify with, the better it is for all parties involved," she said. "The more honesty, the better. And the more representation, the better."

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Daniel Reynolds

Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.
Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.