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Emmys: Female Writer-Director Nominees Are Few but Mighty

A ’50s housewife discovers her comedic voice. A hitman shoots his Marine buddy point blank. An exasperated rapper tries to get a fresh cut from his distracted barber. And a female contract killer runs into a bored M15 investigator in the women’s loo.

Those are just some of the Emmy-nominated stories that women wrote and directed for television this season. The overall tally remains low despite calls for parity with men, but what women lack in volume, they more than make up for in creative diversity. Female storytellers received nominations for work in series including Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” HBO’s “Barry,” BBC America’s “Killing Eve,” Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and FX’s “Atlanta” this year.

One woman each was recognized in the drama and comedy directing categories, while two notched comedy writing noms and one more landed a drama writing nom.

“That’s just sad,” says “Barry” comedy writer nominee Liz Sarnoff, speaking of the directing tally but she could just as well be referring to female storytelling nominations in general.

By comparison, three female directors were nominated in the drama category last year and one more in comedy. For drama, Reed Morano went on to win for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” becoming the first woman to do so in 22 years. Two women received writing nominations in 2017, one each in comedy and drama; notably, Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win a comedy writing Emmy for her shared victory with “Master of None” co-creator Aziz Ansari.

Amy Sherman-Palladino and Phoebe Waller-Bridge are among the high-profile female storytellers to land nominations this year, with Sherman-Palladino nabbing both directing and writing Emmy nominations for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” pilot. Waller-Bridge picked up a nomination for writing the premiere episode of BBC America’s “Killing Eve.”

But once again this year, no female directors or writers got noms in the limited series/movie category. Widen the scope further and the picture improves slightly, with “Portlandia” director-star Carrie Brownstein among the chosen few.

Teasing out how gender informed these women’s work is tricky, however. It’s not always clear which decisions can be attributed to female storytelling versus storytelling while female.

“For ‘Barry,’ it was essential to get some good strong female stories going in the first season,” says Sarnoff, previously Emmy-nominated for her work on “Deadwood” and “Lost.” She points to the character of Sally (Sarah Goldberg), an ambitious wannabe actress, and Det. Janice Moss (Paula Newsome) on the Bill Hader-led hitman comedy as examples.

She and fellow female writers battled the perception that Sally wasn’t likeable enough. “Look, she’s bitchy and selfish so we don’t like her, but Barry’s a murderer and shows emotion so we forgive him,” she says. “Audience will forgive anything for men, and nothing for women.”

In the nominated episode, “Chapter Seven: Loud, Fast and Keep Going,” Sally insists on playing Macbeth rather than Lady Macbeth, only to ultimately realize that she needs the titular Barry (Hader) to get the performance she wants. The fact that he delivers that after killing his Marine buddy in a car adds to the episode’s absurd comedy.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, left, created “Killing Eve” for BBC America. She writes and also directs episodes.
Sophie Mutevelian/BBC

Waller-Bridge is wary about attributing too much of her writing to gender versus personal taste. But she acknowledges that “there are certain details that are very female,” such as last-minute armpit shaving and stressing about clothes. “But really my decisions were informed by what was driving these characters. They’re both very strong-willed women and their obsession with each other is multi-dimensional. I wanted them to leap out as layered, interesting, funny and positive, which women often aren’t in this genre.”

In the nominated episode, “Nice Face,” Waller-Bridge set about establishing Eve, the bored MI5 agent played by Emmy nominee Sandra Oh, and glamorous contract killer Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Luke Jennings originally created the characters for his Villanelle novellas, but encouraged Waller-Bridge to add her own insights into their behavior for the TV adaptation.

“Detailing their lives and characters with a female authenticity — from hangovers to having to wear a dress you don’t really like — was just so much fun,” she says. “It instantly humanized them.”

Eve and Villanelle first meet in a restroom, when the contract killer advises the agent how to wear her hair. “I just became obsessed with the idea that the power of a compliment between two women can be more seismic than seeing one hold the other at knifepoint,” Waller-Bridge says. “It felt strangely dangerous to write them like that.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” directing nominee Kari Skogland was nominated for the second season episode, titled “After,” which starts by depicting Aunt Lydia’s (Ann Dowd) grief over the death of so many handmaids in a resistance bombing and ends with June (Elisabeth Moss) reigniting her passion for editing with the touch of pen and paper.

As a director, “I was digging into it from a female perspective,” she says.

Stefani Robinson, meanwhile, has a hard time pinpointing how her gender may have informed her writing in the “Atlanta” episode “Barbershop,” which revolves around Alfred’s (Brian Tyree Henry) foiled attempts to get a haircut from distracted Bibby (Robert Powell).

“My approach was about the situation and situational comedy,” says Robinson, who “latched onto what was emotionally happening,” which was a character at the mercy of an inconsiderate weirdo. “That, to me, was interesting. Who is this a–hole?”

Emmy recognition for these women aside, the overall gender breakdown is overwhelmingly male on the storytelling side: Less than 10% of directing nominees are women this year, compared to slightly more than 20% for writing.

That’s a far cry from the 50/50 parity advocates have been clamoring for writers and directors. According to an Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study released in January, 17% of episodic TV directors through last season were women. In fact, amid all the talk about representation, the percentage of female directing nominees declined markedly this year. But at least the number of Emmy submissions for female writers and directors are rising.

“We are happy to see continued growth in the volume of submissions in the Emmy competition from female writers and directors,” says Television Academy president and COO Maury McIntyre. “Unfortunately, there is clearly more work to be done by the industry to showcase their work and achieve greater gender parity in the work that gets honored.”

“The wheels of change grind slowly,” Sarnoff says. “The first 10 years of my career, I was the only woman on shows; now, that is not the case.”

Skogland looks forward to the day when the discussion about directing becomes genderless. “At least it is being talked about, which is good,” she says.

Waller-Bridge is even more upbeat about femme prospects. “There are so many more platforms to pitch to, people have seen how much money female-led work can make and everyone is so desperate to show that they are on our side, that they are finally holding the door open to better opportunities,” she says. “It’ll be a while before we’re on equal footing, but we’re getting there.”

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