Capturing the feminine mystique

Writing is a genderless affair

Women have been writing men, and vice versa, in Hollywood since the days of Anita Loos, Francis Marion, Ruth Gordon and Dorothy Parker.

But in television recently, a particular female orientation in such ABC shows as “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Brothers & Sisters” and “Men in Trees” — with their complicated, beautifully flawed women characters — once again brings up the age-old question: How important is the female writer’s point of view, and what do male writers bring to the mix?

“The partitioning of people’s talents by their gender is absurd,” asserts “Brothers & Sisters” Jon Robin Baitz. “Writing is writing, acting is acting, and feeling is feeling. Great women have been able to write great men, great men have been able to write great women, throughout history.”

To a man — or woman — Baitz’s counterparts agree.

“Desperate Housewives” creator-exec producer Marc Cherry says that, as a single gay man living in the heart of Los Angeles, he’s the last person anyone would expect to create a show about suburban housewives.

“I didn’t consult any women when I wrote the pilot,” Cherry says. “It sprang from a conversation I had with my mother, where for the first time I realized that maybe she hadn’t been such a happy housewife after all. That realization struck a very resonant chord with me, so I decided to write about it. In the pilot I was trying to capture the truth of my mother, and as it turns out I think I captured the truth of millions of women.”

Cherry’s experience illustrates that keen, observant writers can write anything. “Men in Trees” creator Jenny Bicks agrees, but acknowledges that men and women are wired a little differently. “There are still some things that guys have a point of view on that you’d never know as a woman,” she says, “which makes for interesting dialogue in the room. That’s what a lot of my show is about — the differences between men and women — and I wanted to be able to represent that truthfully on the screen.”

A major gender difference came to light when writing the series’ second episode, in which Marin (Anne Heche) got flowers. “We were talking about men sending flowers and what it all means,” recalls Bicks. “It amazed me. The guys were all like, ‘Look, we basically use it because we know how to manipulate you. We use it to get laid.’ I’m like, ‘You do? That’s crazy!’ because women see it as a romantic gesture. That’s a moment I thought, ‘Thank God there’s a guy in the room!'”

At “Grey’s Anatomy,” a manly question arose in an episode where Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) was in the ER after almost drowning.

“I remember running into the writers’ room saying, ‘How does a man touch another man?'” recalls show creator Shonda Rhimes. The scene involved Mark (Eric Dane) trying to console Derek, aka “McDreamy” (Patrick Dempsey). “My instinct was, literally, ‘I think he should put his arm around him,’ and all the men in the room were like, ‘Absolutely not!’ We had this whole conversation, there were a bunch of demonstrations, and we decided: man hand (on the shoulder).”

It’s not just women showrunners who’ve witnessed the inner workings of the opposite sex. Cherry was pleasantly surprised to find the women on his writing staff aren’t always so ladylike.

“People might think having women on the staff would keep men from writing women in some awful way, but I find the opposite is true,” Cherry says. “Women will actually come up with more wickedly disastrous plotlines. On our show that’s exactly what we’re interested in — exploring the dark side of femininity.”

Cherry recalls being floored by a scene — written by Alexandra Cunningham — where a female park ranger, tired of listening to Susan’s (Teri Hatcher) woes, tells her off. “I was surprised by the ferocity (of the scene), but we left it in,” he says. “It turned out to be good because Alexandra captured something that was her point of view not only about Susan but about women like Susan. As a guy, I don’t know that I would have been so mean.”

Conversely, Cherry acknowledges the married men on his staff sometimes stick up for male characters: “They’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s make sure we protect Tom (Doug Savant) here.’ I look at that relationship more from Lynette’s (Felicity Huffman) point of view, but they’re a little more sensitive to how husbands are being portrayed.”

Rhimes says that, not too long ago, female characters on TV seemed to be written how people wanted women to be rather than how they actually were. “That’s why it’s really important for me — and we get flack for it — that the characters be flawed,” she says, “that they make terrible mistakes, say the wrong things sometimes, and that they’re competitive and can be vicious and emotional and all the things that people are.”

“The politics of being a woman is much more acute (today),” Baitz says; “the act of being a woman in society is more acute.” He feels issues like maternity, power and identity make women increasingly complicated and interesting characters to write for.

“The roles are changing,” he adds, “and I think what we try to do is show that shifting landscape — I set out to write a show about the shift from a patriarchy to a matriarchy.”

Instead of hiring x-number of men and x-number of women, these showrunners just want to hire the best writers possible. Discussing the men on her staff, Rhimes says: “I don’t think you’d look at them and necessarily say, ‘Oh, they’re going to fit in with this group of women who run around saying va-jay-jay.’ But their writing speaks to us in a way that fits. It’s not about having enough men or enough women, it’s about having enough good writers who understand the show — and that goes across gender.”

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