Women Writers on TV: Girls, Let’s Change the Script

TV Features Girls
Women Writers on TV: Girls, Let’s Change the Script

Having turned 30 last weekend, I decided to skip the big party and/or midlife crisis by booking myself into a little spot of paradise, in an Andalusian natural park straight out of a fairy-tale. What sold me on this particular rental was a picture of a small wooden desk placed between two large windows, with a view of the mountains and trees surrounding this beautifully crafted, hobbit-style house. I immediately pictured myself typing away on my laptop with the Atlantic wind and the crackling fire as my soundtrack.

I’ve been here for four days now and this here is the first “purposeful” thing I’m writing. After days spent hiking and channeling my inner Indiana Jones, I’m buzzing with inspiration, eager to fill page upon page with meaningful words, but whenever I sit down to write something for me—in other words, not work-related—all I hear is crickets. Not the spaced out, meditative kind, implying a lull, but the frenzied Andalusian kind—a continuous electric flamenco vibration that suggests impending chaos: the moment in which my brain begins a familiar tug of war. I really want to work on my own thing, but I need to get these deadlines out of the way and get paid so I can continue to find the space to write for myself. Static.

Perhaps part of it is the constant fight against what Julia Cameron dubbed “poisonous playmates” in her book The Artist’s Way. Poisonous playmates are the people who see your work as a writer as nothing but a glorified hobby, the type who will purposely and condescendingly refer to your latest article in a popular online magazine as a blog, and are sure to put some extra, eye-rolling emphasis on the “o.” They are the friends and family members who will continue to “well-meaningly” send you job ads for secretary positions and TEFL courses; the ones who will insist on you coming to their shindig even though you’ve repeatedly told them you have to work because, hey, it’s not like you have a boss breathing down your neck, or an office that would miss you. So when I’m already having to justify writing for a living, how the hell am I going to justify writing for myself, i.e. for free?

I can see you all right now, dear writers, artists, musicians and people otherwise dedicated to the arts, vigorously nodding your heads and sharpening your pencils and plectrums, ready to attack the next poisonous playmate who dares to suggest you get a “real job.” This is our inescapable reality, our daily battle, and the fact that it is hardly ever depicted in the world of TV shows with ambitiously scribbling writers as main characters makes it all the more insulting.

As a self-professed Gilmore Girls nerd, it pains me to say that one of the few things about the series that really made my piss boil were Rory’s (Alexis Bledel) beginnings as a semi-professional writer. I couldn’t identify with her journey at all, even though we shared a few key similarities. Rory only ever had Mitchum Huntzberger (Gregg Henry) to contend with as a poisonous playmate; everyone else was one hundred percent supportive of her, and spoke of her with the highest praise. She went from the school newspaper, to an unearned and unpaid internship (one that didn’t have much to do with actual writing), to publishing a few pieces with an online magazine, et voilà—next we know she’s getting calls from The New York Times and covering the freaking Obama campaign. Super proud!

Needless to say, when the first trailer for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life was released and there was talk of Rory leading a “vagabond existence” with no job, no credit and no underwear to speak of, I felt a jolt of excitement. Or was it Schadenfreude? No, it was definitely a celebration of some form of authenticity in the depiction of a writer in the early throes of a journalistic career. Or so I thought. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life merely brushed the surface of what it means to be a young, broke writer trying to find her footing in the world of (freelance) journalism.

I have the same problem with Girls’ Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham), who throws a lazy tantrum on an opium-high when her parents decide not to finance her “groovy lifestyle” any longer, potentially ruining her chance, as she says in “Pilot,” to become “a voice of a generation.” Admittedly, parents supporting their kids well into their twenties has become something of a norm these days; no wonder millennials are considered to be the idlest of generations. (But that’s a whole other story.) Even experienced writers in their thirties make no sense on TV. Yes, Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw is an established columnist at The New York Star at the beginning of the series, but let’s get real—there’s no way in hell she’s able to afford her glamorous Manhattan lifestyle, her Choo addiction and countless cosmopolitans on a freelance “salary.”

When I started out as a freelancer, there were numerous occasions on which I would have ended up on the dusty streets of Andalusia had it not been for my mom’s “save Roxanne through the winter fund” (which she set up by putting a piggy bank next to the house phone and charging everyone who made a call a Euro), my dad giving me odd jobs on construction sites, or my local bar providing me with free food and infinite glasses of iced tea in return for restoring their old barstools. But had I ever as much as insinuated wanting a monthly “allowance” or whatever it is you call it in your twenties, my parents would have laughed in my face—and I’m extremely thankful for that.

I had to pull together enough money for rent every month with the same anxiety with which a junkie scrounges together enough coins for his next fix between the cracks of his neighbor’s couch. Next to translating manuals for household appliances, producing SEO articles about topics as varied as STDs and car ports, and writing content for a bondage website, I worked a whole host of random jobs to supplement my income: dental assistant (the trauma is real), car wash attendant (not the sexy kind) and, most soul-destroying of all, selling timeshare to unsuspecting old grannies. It wasn’t always fun, but it gave me plenty to write about and it taught me a lot; I can tell you everything there is to know about the EXP530 espresso machine, and I can present you with a different variety of oatmeal every day of the week. I never saw Carrie whoring herself out to the world of advertising or otherwise random writing gigs, not even when she faced losing her beloved Upper East Side apartment.

Hannah mainly relied on Marnie (Allison Williams) and her parents to cover her rent throughout the first season of Girls; come Season Two, the financial struggle seems to have evaporated when she starts, occasionally, working at a coffee shop. Most of her jobs, writing and otherwise, are somewhat ambiguous and/or not particularly stable (bar her time at GQ and her stint as a substitute teacher) and yet, the end-of-month urgency and anger most writers feel about religiously tardy payment from publications do not form a part of Hannah’s career. She never misses out on drinks and parties for lack of funds. She lives in a spacious New York apartment. She always has something to eat. She’s never heard fretting about whether she’ll be paid in time. And no one ever tells her to get a real job—well, except for her parents, but I guess that one’s a given.

She seems to spend more time talking about being a writer than she does, oh, I don’t know, pitching, reading, chasing invoices, hitting up literary agents—you know, the shit writers tend to spend most of their time on. Though in terms of personal growth the current (and final) season of Girls is undoubtedly the most successful of the series, the one that best portrays what it means to be a writer is Season Three. Working for GQ’s advertorial section, Hannah finally comes to understand that being a writer doesn’t always mean getting to write about what you truly want to write about. More often than not—at least during the first years—you’ll find yourself writing about anything as long as it pays the bills. Her struggle to find a balance between work-related writing and stories that “make people laugh about the things in life that are painful,” as she says in this season’s “American Bitch,” is one of the realest writing-related woes depicted in Girls. That and the fact that she’s mastered the art of procrastinating.

As a result of her piece for the Moth story slam in the Season Five finale, “I Love You Baby,” Hannah kicks off the sixth season on a career high. Having published her first piece with The New York Times—amazing how quickly these fictional writers graduate to the Times—she’s set off on a path that sees her covering a variety of stories for Esquire and Slag Mag. She’s finally growing into her own, as an individual and as a writer. And now, she’s pregnant. And while I have no doubt she, like many others before her, can swing motherhood and professional creativity, with only two episodes left to go until the series finale, it doesn’t look like we’re going to actually witness her success story, just as we never truly witnessed her true journey as a writer.

It seems as though the stories of women writers on TV all reach inevitable, open endings without having allowed them, or us, to experience the full potential of their professions. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life ended, as Girls seems poised to end, with their scribbling protagonists pregnant and about to embark on Lorelai Gilmore-style single motherhood, which, advertently or not, suggests the end of their careers. Why else would these characters’ stories come to an end, if not because there are no more stories to tell now that they have a whole other life to focus on? Just as there seems to be a reluctance to dig deep into the concerns and routines of a writer, TV is hesitant to allow women to thrive in a role outside the confines of marriage and family life, let alone explore the experiences of a (single) mother in the creative arts.

Even when there is no child in the picture, the path of many women writers on TV is eventually steered towards the traditional expectations of women, regardless of the character’s personal desires or circumstances. Carrie Bradshaw never consciously made the decision to have or not to have children—though she briefly considered breaking off her relationship with Aleksandr Petrovsky (Mikhail Baryshnikov), in the episode “Catch-38,” upon learning he didn’t want more children—so the subject was simply brushed under some $3,000 Manhattanite rug. Children simply wouldn’t have fit into her storyline, or TV’s “romantic” depiction of writers. This suggests that, apparently, women really can’t have it all: It’s either the baby or the career.

And yet, as great as Carrie’s achievements with her book and her work at Vogue may have been, they no longer seem to matter when, in the final episode, “American Girl in Paris Part Deux,” she hooks the guy she’s been fighting for throughout the entire series. Who cares about her writing career now? She got what she wanted, so she might as well pack it in and move into his fancy penthouse apartment. Which she does, as her story continues in the first movie. In other words, it takes a man to step in and take over the finances to make her lifestyle almost halfway believable, returning to the idea that writing is a mere hobby for women to while away their time prior to and after meeting their future husbands and/or (potential) baby-daddies. (Don’t worry, there are still Better Things to come.)

I must say, I find it surprising that, having opted for a clichéd “coming of age” note in Girls’ final season, Lena Dunham seems to be steering Hannah’s own conclusion in the same vague direction. Not only did we fail to understand her professional hurdles; we’ll never get to appreciate the bad-assery it takes to raise a child and maintain a successful career as a writer. I thought Dunham and her character were about more than women waiting to fulfil their hegemonic role as mothers—and, ultimately, it feels as though the message of Girls, as it approaches its end, is that motherhood is her purpose, more than being a writer ever was—especially following “What Will We Do This Time About Adam?” which further degrades her status as an independent woman by allowing Adam to swoop back into her life like a knight in shining armor, the man to the rescue. Even though the idea of getting back together and playing happy family is finally dismissed when they are served a reality check at the diner, Hannah was so easily seduced by the idea that it wouldn’t surprise me if, come the series finale, she’ll welcome Paul-Louis (Riz Ahmed) with open arms when he suddenly decides he wants in on the daddy thing after all. I thought Hannah was a kayak, just like Lorelai. But as of right now, I fail to hear the roar.

The noise of the crickets chiming outside of my window is being drowned out by the ticking of the biological clock to which all my female colleagues are meant to march— and it’s coming from my TV.

Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.

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