What does Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Success Mean for Women in TV?

After clearing up at the Emmy’s, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has secured her place as the Queen of Screenwriting, taking home not one, not two, but three Emmys, including the award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. But what exactly does her success mean for women in the TV industry?

We may have come on in leaps and bounds since the Emmy Awards in 2008 when only 9.8% of nominees (11 out of 112) were women, but much more remains to be done to reach equal representation. The impact of social media campaigns #MeToo and #TimesUp are expected to set in motion a new wave of female winners in non-acting categories such as casting, costume and screenwriting. However, in acting-based categories, comedy remains the only category dominated by women; with Waller-Bridge winning this year’s Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series Emmy Award as one of eight women nominated, in comparison to just four men.

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It’s certainly interesting to note that there is an element of tokenism surrounding female comedians. Phoebe Waller-Bridge in particular has been branded as the ‘funny woman’, exploring some quite serious issues in a light-hearted manner in her TV series, Fleabag. Primarily, the BBC Three series traces the life of a young woman from North London navigating life in her thirties, but below surface level explores topics such as miscarriage, anger, sex and death, to name but a few. Despite the jovial exploration of such topics, this hasn’t stopped Waller-Bridge being praised with “universal acclaim”, according to Metacritic, and from establishing her career from a one-woman show at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013, it is safe to say that PWB is unphased by her status as the ‘funny woman’. The success of Waller-Bridge’s comedy series Fleabag has not gone unnoticed, with it being ranked 8th on The Guardian’s ‘100 Best TV Shows of the 21st Century’ list. With only 14% of primetime TV written by women, having a woman win three Emmys must surely mark a movement in the right direction for female screenwriters.

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However, as a white, middle-class, privately educated woman, perhaps Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s victory at the Emmy’s has not quite opened up the stage for women in screenwriting as much as she’d hoped, with Fleabag described by some critics as reserved for ‘posh girls.’ In spite of these comments, in an interview with Elizabeth Day, Waller-Bridge defended her privilege, claiming that criticising a story on the basis of where the author had come from “undermines the story” and that her privilege “did not create Fleabag.”

Others at the Emmy’s this year highlighted the need for intersectional representation of women in the industry, in particular Michelle Williams in her acceptance speech.  When presented with her award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series, Williams took the opportunity to shed light on women of colour in the TV and film industry, thanking Fox 21 studios for “paying [me] equally because they understood that when you put value into a person, it empowers that person to get in touch with their own inherent value”. She continued, “so the next time a woman and especially a woman of colour, stands to make 52 cents to the dollar compared to her white male counterpart, tells you what she needs in order to do her job, listen to her.” Following her speech, Williams was widely praised on Twitter, hailed as ‘inspirational’ for her acknowledgement of the sad reality that women of colour often face being left in the background within this industry.

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Despite the number of women nominated at the Emmy’s having doubled over the last ten years, it doesn’t go unnoticed that white women are amongst those benefitting the most from this. Michelle Williams herself delivered her speech after beating two black women from Netflix’s When They See Us to the title; Jodie Comer triumphed over Sandra Oh who was the first ever Asian woman to be nominated in her category; Waller-Bridge’s comedy category wins were full of all-white nominees and only one woman of colour was nominated for the supporting acting category. So, when we look at the facts, how much do Waller-Bridge’s wins really do for women in less privileged positions than herself? For some, the answer is not a lot.

However, it’s easy to criticise Waller-Bridge and claim that her success has only arisen from her privileged upbringing, but the way we question female success is completely counterproductive to female empowerment. If we want to change the statistics, we need to focus on celebrating female success, not questioning it. As a society, we have a collective way of questioning women and how they got to be successful in a way that we would not for men in the same position; something that must change. So, while it is essential that we acknowledge our privilege, perhaps if replace this questioning and criticism with celebration and empowerment, we can create a broader space for women in the TV and film industry.

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