Comedians Lena Dunham (Girls), Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project), Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black, Weeds) and Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids, SNL) spoke about women in television and film on Saturday (January 24) at the Serious Ladies panel.
New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum guided the panel through such topics as the rise of three-dimensional female characters, the different ways humour can eliminate stereotypes and the importance of sex within a narrative construct. The event was part of the Power Of Story series.
Female-driven series in television
After general references by the panel to the emergence of female-driven television series – Jill Soloway’s recent Golden Globe winner Transparent and Jane Campion’s Sundance 2013 selection Top Of The Lake arose as examples – Kohan turned to viewer demographics.
She cited the film industry’s catering to men aged 18-34 as a reason for the lack of strong female leads and television’s (seemingly) wider target audience for a more diverse range of offerings.
Chiming in, Dunham jokingly equated television networks’ ideal audience as women who stay at home and buy mops.
However Kaling noted that popular women’s show like I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Ab Fab had made lasting impressions on today’s women writers.
“You have to find your voice,” said Kaling. “When I wrote for The Office (from the age of 24), my voice was considered special – not seen much on television. I don’t see why it is not like that in film as much, which makes it a scarier arena.”
Dunham added, “After I made Tiny Furniture and then Girls, I started getting film offers. The executives would say ‘Your writing is so fresh – how about working on a Strawberry Shortcake movie?’ Or ‘We want something like your film but with Anne Hathaway.’”
On working with men
Citing an article in which Björk discussed the difficulties she has experienced as a female auteur in the music business, Nussbaum asked the panellists if they had experienced similar travails.
Wiig said her work environments (SNL and comedy troupe The Groundlings) had been predominantly male workforces – “That’s kind of the way it is.” Yet she also gave utmost credit to [television producer] Lorne Michaels who helped start her career on SNL.
Kohan agreed saying, “You should be able to work with whom you want. It would be limiting to say we should only work with women in order to make things easier.”
“I have only worked with men that are feminists and I only hire men that are feminists,” said Kaling. “I am lucky by my devious design that I have my name on the show and can make these decisions.”
Dunham also gave kudos to male working partners: “I have had something of a fairy tale experience in working with Judd [Apatow] who has given us space to tell stories we want to tell. I know certain women feel their voices are not heard creatively – my goal is to shift that paradigm as someone entering the world of producing.”
Kohan made a comedic reference to a friend who once told her, ‘If God had meant for women to be in a comedy room, he wouldn’t have made tits so distracting.’
When shock and humour push boundaries
“We call it rape-ortunity,” said Kohan, laughing. “You have to use different types of language to convince the networks of new ideas. If they won’t censor us, then we are going to take advantage.”
But Kohan also reminded that shock value has to serve the story. “If not, it’s sloppy and then it’s not funny. You can’t be reckless.”
“Humour is a form of expression,” added Dunham. “When people say things that offend you, you have the power to shut them down. There is a real lack of understanding of what humour can do for us.”
Kaling referenced a scene [in The Mindy Project] that incorporated anal sex. While the series has a supportive attorney, they couldn’t outright include the act. “It became ‘artful’ how we worked around it – situations like this make us better writers.”
For Wiig, a joke can be hilarious on paper but when read out loud it falls flat. She said the first moments when rehearsing in front of others can be ‘incredibly nerve-racking’.
On female audiences reacting to disturbing situations
“While I consider myself a feminist – there is a side of you that wants to show the ideal perfect woman – then it’s a boring character,” said Kaling.
“I am a contrarian and I want her to say bold things. It’s striking a balance,” she said, referring to her character Mindy. “She is so wrong-headed and that’s kind of fun.”
What drives story arc throughout the different seasons?
“In a sense, I am just telling stories about me – that reflect how I am maturing,” said Kaling.
“We do two seasons worth of filming in one season. So when [Mindy] was single for two years, it was like, ‘How many more dudes can she have sex with?’ After 50 episodes, it seemed natural we try having Mindy fall in love.”
For Orange Is The New Black, Kohan said it was about coming together after the hiatus and discussing issues that had peaked everyone’s interest – be news or cultural events – and how those might have affected the characters.
In the show’s second season, Kohan was intent on avoiding the sophomore slump. “We wanted to go deeper. It started with weeks of conversation about the women and progressed from there.”
She continued, “Every season we have a slush pile – if the issues don’t make it in that season, they can come into play for the next season.”
Dunham spoke about organic development, mentioning a reflection on past experiences of the Girls writers as a natural shift for the characters. “We never want it to turn it into a ‘Wink, wink – we know what you’re saying about what we’re saying about what you’re saying.’ Ultimately the show is a reflection on what it’s like to be a young female artist.”
She added, “By the fourth season we’re finally getting to understand what works and what doesn’t but there are moments we try things more satiric or more dramatic. We try and gauge what our characters can hold.”
Deconstructing romantic comedies
“I love romantic comedies when the obstacles are people’s own shit rather than forces of nature,” said Kohan. She used the example of When Harry Met Sally. “When their relationship doesn’t work – it’s because of what they are scared of, not some gimmick.”
Kaling chimed in: “When a couple gets together, it’s looked at by audiences as uninteresting and that is sad. If you have an interesting character – love in itself is interesting so conflict will continue. Look at Vicky Christina Barcelona or The American President or even Silver Linings Playbook.”
Directing sex scenes
“Just tell actors they are going to win Emmys,” said Kohan with a smile. “Close the set, have them sign papers, offer wine – there are all sorts of tricks and cajoling.”
She noted extreme cases: “We hired a body double – so when they saw the double getting ready to do it, they got the courage to perform the scene themselves.”
“Actors are like you and I – they have days where they don’t feel good about their bodies. Asking people to be exposed is cold, unnatural, awkward – but it’s often necessary for story. It’s a big negotiation.”
Dunham agreed. “I feel okay because I am asking people to do things I have done 15 times worse. There is a precedent – so I know what they are feeling – it’s not just lip service.”
“Our cast understands why [sex scenes] are in the show. I have gotten great notes from actors – why they don’t feel like it’s where their character is at. And we listen, because they are right – sometimes a sex scene is uneventful.”
Is good comedy effortless?
Kohan referred to a quote by Peter O’ Toole that she said summed it up: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”
“Something can seem funny when writing it and then you read it out loud and everyone is just silent,” said Wiig. “With comedy you have no perspective. The audience is the true determiner. You really never know. It’s not as effortless as it seems.”
“I have such a fondness for Tyler Perry,” said Kaling. “He built his empire from the ground up. He has created so many shows and helps give people voices, who might otherwise not get heard.”
Lena Dunham gave credit to comedic greats such as Gilda Radner and Elaine May, along with writer Maya Angelou.
Wiig noted, “You have to be your own person – you have to make choices that other people may not find great. But I would give the utmost credit to Lorne Michaels – I still go to him for advice.”