'New Girl,''Fresh Off the Boat' Showrunners Discuss How to Be "Culturally Bilingual" for TV Work

"Men are afraid to write female characters, but as a woman, I do and I'm expected to write male characters all the time," said Liz Meriwether at a Tribeca panel.
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Julie Klausner, Nahnatchka Khan, Keli Goff and Liz Meriwether at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival

With Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Orange Is the New Black, The CW's Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and ABC’s entire Shondaland slate, it’s a great time for female-centric television shows.

“Those shows are working because women like to watch women who are like women,” said New Girl showrunner Liz Meriwether, who recalled a comment she heard while writing her first pilot. “There was a character who was smart and she was a slut, and it was like, ‘Well, this one’s smart and this one likes sex.’ No, she’s smart and likes sex. … People are understanding that women can be more than one word.”

Though much has changed for women on and in television, the panelists noted that a lot still hasn’t.

“There’s still this mystique about men writing women — men are afraid to write female characters, but as a woman, I do and I’m expected to write male characters all the time,” Meriwether said. I’ve gotten scripts to polish where they’ve said, ‘Well, can you just take a pass at the female character?’ … They can’t get their heads inside a female character sometimes. There’s that feeling a little bit of Hollywood that ‘women will write women because we don’t know how to do it. It’s scary.’”

Alongside Difficult People creator Julie Klausner, Fresh Off the Boat showrunner Nahnatchka Khan noted that “men still run things, for the most part. It’s coming from that place of privilege where we have to adapt to them. We have to write men, we have to be able to write everybody, but they don’t necessarily have to. Because they’re operating from that place of privilege, they have expectations, whereas we don’t. But the more opportunities we get, the more we rise up, the more that power balance is gonna shift.”

Being Mary Jane writer Keli Goff then referred to Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” comment. “Any of us sitting in this room have to know how to communicate with white males because that’s essential to us succeeding in our chosen career path,” she explained. “In terms of being a black woman, I knew every episode of Sex and the City; my white coworkers didn’t have to know every episode of Girlfriends, because it’s essential to me being culturally bilingual.

“Women are more culturally bilingual in every sense of the word then, often, men are,” Goff continued. “And that makes us, in some ways, better writers, because we have a more understanding or well-rounded worldview, which all makes for great writing.”