ATX TV Fest Recap: Flipping the Script on TV’s Male POV
Writers and directors on reclaiming and centering the female gaze
By Beth Sullivan,
9:11AM, Tue. Jun. 11, 2019
If the male gaze seeks to depict women as objects, then the female gaze is when women become the subject. That proposition opened up the final day of ATX Television Festival’s eighth season, with a panel discussion on writers, directors, and shows destabilizing the male gaze on both sides of the camera.
Moderator Tara Ariano, co-host of Extra Hot Great podcast, joined a panel of female writers and directors working on shows that place women and their world views at the forefront: Tanya Saracho, creator and showrunner of Starz’s queer Latinx series Vida; Lifetime’s TV movie Tempting Fate’s director Kim Raver; Joy Blake, a former writer on Outlander; and Men in Trees creator Jenny Bicks.
Ariano opened the discussion with a survey question, asking the panelists how many female network or studio executives they’re working with – or worked with in the past – on the aforementioned projects. The numbers were abysmal, if unsurprising: Bicks and Blake counted around two each. On the other hand, Raver (who also played Grey’s Anatomy cardiothoracic surgeon Teddy Altman) considered her experience an “anomaly” because “in Shondaland, it’s mostly women,” which she’s also found to be the case at Lifetime.
As a showrunner, Saracho said she only needs to answer to one executive, Marta Fernandez, who like Saracho, is Latina. As the “veteran” of the group, Bicks, who also wrote for and produced Sex in the City, remarked on while she’s working with more women now, the change has yet to reach the very top, with most executives being men.
Another struggle Bicks identified was women being “likable,” both behind and in front of the camera. Early on in her career, Bicks recalled she’d receive more script notes from execs about making female characters more “likable.” She said, “I still sometimes get that, but now, given where I am in the power structure, I can say, ‘Go fuck yourself.’” On what it means to be “likable” onscreen, she explained it’s when a character acts out. If it’s a guy, they’d be deemed “ballsy,” but if it’s a female character, it means “she’s got problems.” (“Like how can a woman cheat on her husband,” Blake offered as an example.) Behind the camera, Raver dialed in on the hypocrisy of an opinionated or passionate woman being labeled as “bitchy” or a “problem,” whereas a man with similar qualities would be a “badass."
Ariano then pivoted the conversation to Vida, which just got greenlit for a third season. Saracho is particularly proud of Vida’s sex scenes, specifically ones between queer women of color. She explained, “Not just female, but brown, queer females are getting to handle the gaze and the perspective and the point of view,” which allows for depictions of sex often absent from television. Moreover, having queer woman on the crew – whether as writers, editors, or directors – lends an authenticity to the sex scenes, too. On directing and shooting one such scene, Saracho said, “Everybody in there was a queer woman, so the scene looks right.”
There was a lot of talk about humorous, “not pretty” sex scenes among the panel, but navigating depictions of rape and sexual assault were touched on. When it comes to rape scenes on Outlander, which is based on Diana Gabaldon’s eponymous historical time travel book series, Blake said, “It’s tricky when you’re doing an adaptation,” because the scenes are already in the original material.
Of Grey’s Anatomy's depiction of collecting a rape kit in season 15’s “Silent All These Years” episode – a first-ever for network television – Raver revealed there was pushback from Standards and Practices on showing semen under blacklight. “And Shonda Rhimes returned the email and said, ‘Respectfully, we decline. No.’ And I thought that was so incredible because basically she’s saying, ‘Wait, we show the violence of rape and the violence against women, yet we can’t show the reality of it.’”
During the concluding Q&A, one audience member asked what are the responsibilities of younger women breaking into TV to carry change forward. Raver advocated for women in powerful positions to keep creating real job opportunities for younger women to break in (not just internships), as well as providing mentorship. Saracho agreed: She urged the audience, “Just make sure you pay it forward. Because it’s your champions that will get you there.”
ATX Television Fest, June 6-9. www.atxfestival.com.
For more coverage of ATX Television Festival 2019, including news, interviews, recaps and photo galleries, visit www.austinchronicle.com/atx-television-festival.