In the summer of 1816, a teenage girl named Mary Godwin, later Mary Shelley, invented the genre of science fiction with her tale Frankenstein. Shelley’s work was preceded by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, who wrote her proto-science fiction novel The Blazing World in 1666. Over the years, the genre has seen brilliant minds from Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood to Ursula K. Le Guin and Tanith Lee and on and on. Yet somehow, science fiction is still seen as a man’s genre.
This rings true even in other media, with men dominating the writing of both genre film and television. Of course, that’s across the board in Hollywood, with women making up only 13% of writers in 2016. But just because something has always been one way doesn’t mean it has to remain that way. Case in point: for its third season, Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty hired not one, but four women to write for the show. This resulted in something rarer than a unicorn; 50% representation parity for women in the writers’ room (barring showrunners Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland). The Hollywood Reporter has an in-depth interview with the writers — Jane Becker, Erica Rosbe, Sarah Carbiener and Jessica Gao — about what it was like to join a cult classic like Rick and Morty at the height of its popularity.
Of the four women, only Jessica Gao has worked for Adult Swim before. No stranger to firsts, she was the first woman to write for Robot Chicken. When asked about how adding women can change the dynamic of a show, she had a thoughtful response. “More often than not, I’m the only woman in the room or the only person of color — or I’m both. So, having a balanced room just makes things a lot easier for women in the sense that you feel you can pitch things and someone else will understand you. [W]e have experiences that are very different from the men in the room. They can come up with stories that work in general or for either gender, but there’s a lot of nuance when you start getting into emotional stories and motivations and things like that.”
The interview goes on to add that the men of Rick and Morty have been perfectly normal about having women join their club. Having a XX chromosome didn’t relegate the women to writing “girl stories.” In fact, the male writers welcomed a fresh perspective to help vet stories that might need a non-dude set of eyes (or four) to help make them better. Sadly, the same can’t be said for a sub-section of the fandom that lost their minds when the announcement was made months ago. Dan Harmon even referred to the women as being “joyless ambassadors.” Not in the sense that they are joyless, but that pushing for inclusion is a thankless, but necessary, task.
Hopefully, the addition of more women to Adult Swim doesn’t stop with Rick and Morty. The network currently has 47 shows, all run by men. But in the aftermath of some truly ignorant quotes from Adult Swim executive Mike Laazzo about the lack of women in the industry last year, seeing the needle move toward inclusivity is a positive sign. One that isn’t confined simply to Adult Swim.
Recently, another sci-fi writers’ room has realized it was an accidental sausage fest and took steps to correct course: The X-Files. After fans began questioning why all the show’s writers were male — including Gillian Anderson herself — three women were added to the writers’ room for the second season of the revival. The show also added some much needed diversity in the director’s chair, with two women slated for the upcoming year.
Now the little cracks like these in the glass ceiling of science fiction on television are spreading. NBC recently picked up Midnight, Texas from female showrunner Monica Breen, based on books from author Charlaine Harris. Also on NBC, Timeless has at least three women on its writing staff. Shonda Rimes is delving into genre with Still Star-Crossed on ABC, Melissa Rosenberg is helming Jessica Jones for Netflix, and Emily Andras is killing it with Wynonna Earp on Syfy. In fact, Syfy is going all-in on diverse science fiction. From The Expanse and Dark Matter to The Killjoys and The Magicians, the network is committed to diversity both in front of and behind the camera. That kind of change on the genre’s flagship network can only be good news.
And if you’re upset about an increase of women behind the scenes? I’ll leave you with this quote from Rick and Morty writer Jessica Gao.
“One thing that really pisses me off is when people talk about how hiring writers should be a meritocracy. The people who say that have never ever thought about what that actually means and where that meritocracy comes from. Overwhelmingly, the person who is deciding who is the funniest is going to be a white guy, usually in his 30s or 40s who for sure grew up middle class or upper middle class. Someone like that is going to have very specific life experience and a specific sense of humor.”