Good Writing Is About Talent, Not Penises and Vaginas

Ask Tina Fey, Tolstoy and Mary Tyler Moore.

In the March 26th New Yorker, Ian Parker profiles Armando Ianucci, the creator of Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s new show on HBO. Ianucci is the genius (some might say monster) behind Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge character on the BBC. But he’s best known here for the Brit TV series The Thick of It and its movie adaptation In the Loop, which was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Indeed, his acrobatic profanity—in screenwriting, though not in person—is legendary and hilarious. Given that I’m a fan of Ianucci’s work, I liked the article.

In the May 7th issue, I saw a letter to the editor from L.A.-based Jennifer Wachtell, a film industry exec. She wrote, in part:

Ian Parker’s interesting profile of Armando Iannucci highlights the fact that his new HBO comedy, Veep, about an American Vice-President, is written wholly by British men. But while the central character is female, the fact that none of the writers are women—American or otherwise—seems not to merit discussion. The gender disparity among television writers is apparently so widely accepted that it’s barely worth mentioning, even in an eight-page article. “Veep” is about a woman tantalizingly close to power, yet lacking any real control. What would female television writers in Hollywood know about that?

I suddenly felt exhausted. Why must women do this? It’s as if Wachtell was reading with her vagina instead of her brain. The article was not about writers in the TV industry. It was not about gender equality. It was not about the fact that the character at the center of the show is female. It was a profile of a writer/director/journalist who happens to be male and who has a long-time writing team composed of men.

When women judge an article or a cultural product based on its inclusion (or lack thereof) of women’s issues, that’s what sets gender equality back. The tendency to view any content through a narrow lens is anti-intellectual, and in this case, it’s patronizing. Lest Watchell forget, Louis-Dreyfus is a key part of the team that makes Veep. She writes for the show too. In fact, though Louis-Dreyfus was uncomfortable with the makeup of the writing team—it was because they were all British.

As for Ianucci, he’s created several popular, long-running, culture-defining TV shows in the U.K. with this team of writers. It makes perfect sense that he’d use them for this project. American directors—Aaron Sorkin, Christopher Guest, the Coen Bros., Judd Apatow—use teams of writers and actors repeatedly. Ask them why, and they all say the same thing: There’s a seamlessness, a shorthand, that makes things flow.

Wachtell also implies that a female writer would be better able to understand the experience of Louis-Dreyfus’s character. I’ve heard that same argument made many times by other women authors. And it seems Ianucci, at least here in the States, is going to have to deal with that perception. In an interview for The Washington Post, June Thomas asked Ianucci, “Veep and Season 3 of The Thick of It … both focus on female politicians, but you have an all-male writing team. Isn’t that potentially problematic?” Seems to me the only problem would be if they weren’t funny, but Iannuci says he is hiring a female writer. Well, he better!

I just don’t buy the idea that men can’t understand or convey a woman’s interior life. Like most women my age, I grew up reading books primarily by men. Now it’s evened out, but the female characters I “met” through Tolstoy, Hardy and Flaubert still feel completely real to me. And I was inspired as a kid by Mary Tyler Moore—a feminist pathbreaker written by a man. There are times when I can tell a male writer is struggling to breathe life into a female character, but that’s an indictment of the writer not the gender.

Women who make this charge would not, I think, want it reversed. Would a female critic, writing about Jennifer Egan or Geraldine Brooks, claim they should not do so because a woman can’t fathom a man’s inner life? Would a female TV critic insist Tina Fey work with a man to create true, lived-in male characters?

Wachtell’s reaction embarrasses me, and makes me want to post a notice on a large door, Martin Luther-style, that says: “NOT ALL WOMEN READ WITH THEIR VAGINAS.”

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  • Mark Cofta

    Another great essay, Liz! This ridiculous criticism comes up frequently in theatre as well as film and TV, and ultimately hurts the people it’s supposed to help. When people insist that only a black director can stage A Raisin in the Sun, for example, those directors find that they’re judged incapable of directing anything else (though no one would admit it). The idea that one’s color or plumbing is their main qualification for writing or directing is absurd and demeaning, and also discriminatory. If VEEP was about a male character, no one would complain that the writers are all male.