Orange is the New Black, True Detective and the gender problem on prestige TV

The latest season of Orange is the New Black is currently screening on Showcase – but do female showrunners get treated in the same way as their male counterparts? Showcase

Thanks to the globalisation of American television, Australians can now access almost all “good” – or “prestige” – American television at the same time as those in the US.

Netflix dropped the new season of Orange is the New Black on June 12 in both US and Australia. Showcase (the Australian home of HBO) premiered True Detective last week, mere hours after it debuted in the US.

Much has been written about each of these shows and they have been widely discussed in terms of gender, class and race. As we import these series and many others into our laptops and our living rooms, we also bring with them gendered, raced and classed value and taste hierarchies. While there has been much discussion of the new wave of “feminist television” there remain significant issues in terms of gendered conceptions of taste, value and quality.

Male-centred and male-authored television series are always treated differently to female-centred and female-authored television series. Looking for evidence? Start with the level of scrutiny endured by Lena Dunham and her series Girls.

Trailer for Orange is the New Black - season 3.

HBO has built its particular brand of “quality” on the back of male-centred drama series. Since Sex and the City and The Sopranos ushered in what is often referred to as the postnetwork era or the Golden Age of Television in 1998-1999, HBO has produced approximately 50 scripted narrative original programs. Of these only 10 series have a female lead and only two have been drama series – Big Love and True Blood. American prestige television has a gender problem both in terms of the reception of female-centred shows – and the treatment of female creator-showrunners.

The television creator-showrunner

The gender of a television creator-showrunner affects the narratives that are constructed around their television series. As seen in how male showrunners are often framed as “artistic geniuses” while their female counterparts rarely receive the same praise.

For their August 15 2014 issue, The Hollywood Reporter released two different covers featuring two television creator-showrunners: Orange is the New Black’s Jenji Kohan and True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto.

Trailer for True Detective - season 2.

Both covers bore the headline “The New Disrupters” – but the accompanying articles and interviews with Kohan and Pizzolatto are strikingly different. Both articles are written by the same journalist, Lacey Rose, yet there is a distinct gender bias present when these articles are placed side by side.

The article on Pizzolatto paints him as a solitary figure who does not collaborate well with others.

True Detective Season 2 airs on Foxtel’s Showcase channel. Showcase

According to Rose, he deliberately locates himself outside of Hollywood (geographically and philosophically) and has various film and television opportunities eagerly awaiting his attention. Emphasizing Pizzolatto’s past as a literary wunderkind who would rather pull his novel than publish something he was unhappy with, the article works to create narrative around him that is distinctly masculine, literary and auteur.

While The Hollywood Reporter article raises some of the criticisms made by television critics like Alan Sepinwall and Emily Nussbaum about the lack of complex female characters in True Detective’s world, Pizzolatto dismisses them offhand and pays little to no attention to the idea that his series has a “woman problem”. Pizzolatto is framed a true artist who is not answerable to his critics.

In contrast, The Hollywood Reporter article on Kohan characterises her as crass and anti-establishment in her attitude. Rose positions Kohan as surrounded by men who are funnier and happier than her. The article goes to considerable lengths to emphasise the ways that Kohan is different to her, variety show producer father Buz Kohan and her brother, Will & Grace co-creator David Kohan.

Orange is the New Black Season 3 is currently screening on Foxtel’s Showcase channel. Showcase

Kohan’s so-called “distaste for authority” is repeatedly mentioned by Rose, alongside a list of television series that she has been fired from or willingly left, including Friends and Gilmore Girls.

Kohan’s career is framed as one long battle, including the account of her highly successful Showtime series Weeds. Rose’s discussion of Weeds focuses on disagreements between Kohan and the series’ star Mary Louise Parker. The narrative constructed around Kohan operates around the idea that before Orange is the New Black she was bogged down in politics and petty squabbles.

Kohan is framed as a commercial television producer who is constantly answering her critics. Unlike Pizzolatto she is not positioned as an artist. The implication is that any success achieved by Kohan is not her own, but rather it is enabled by Netflix’s location outside of traditional television structures.

Gendering value

I’m not suggesting that either article is factually inaccurate. Rather this treatment of male and female television creator-showrunners reflects a gendered bias in the kind of narratives that are constructed around contemporary prestige television series. These narratives shape the ways that both True Detective and Orange is the New Black are valued and discussed.

Australian audiences and critics are participating in an international discourse on what and who makes television “good” or “bad”.

When we discuss True Detective as a masterpiece and Orange is the New Black as guilty pleasure we need to take a step back and think about why we are framing our response in that way – and how we are engaging with gendered constructions of value and taste.

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