It’s a tough moment for women in comedy.
Television is, unfortunately, a business, so shows come and go at the whim of the market. The lifespan of a television show is rarely determined by its artistic merit, but by a nebulous combination of factors: ratings, production expenses, network demands, critical acclaim, etc. So when a fantastic but niche comedy finds its way onto television, it’s best not to get too attached.
When Hulu canceled Julie Klausner’s brilliant Difficult People in November, it was a tough pill to swallow. Then, a couple of months later, Netflix axed Maria Bamford’s zany Lady Dynamite. A few days after that loss, Amazon Prime killed both Jill Solloway’s daring I Love Dick and Tig Notaro’s bittersweet One Mississippi. It’s difficult not to see a pattern; the streaming landscape feels gutted of some of the best women’s voices in comedy. Does this cancellation spree spell the end of a brief but fruitful revolution for women in television, or is this just another growing pain in the era of streaming?
The temporal proximity of these cancellations can make it tempting to see overt sexism where there are likely just a series of business decisions. To start, Amazon is in the midst of a total brand reinvention, having recently closed a half-billion-dollar deal to adapt Lord of the Rings into a serialized show, a la Game of Thrones. This new big-budget, mainstream identity leaves little room for alternative comedies, especially those by and about women. Netflix and Hulu’s cancellations, on the other hand, both appear to be the result of low ratings: Lady Dynamite and Difficult People’s brilliance stems from their utter specificity and highly targeted humor which, understandably, can be alienating for most audiences.
So where does all of this leave women with distinct comedic voices deserving of a platform? First off, this round of cancellations reveals critical acclaim doesn’t ensure longevity even on streaming sites. The streaming landscape is no longer a creative free-for-all, or a beacon for idealistic programming—it’s now an industry geared toward maximum profit. This makes it harder for women creators, who often lack the resources and budgets of their male counterparts, to achieve program longevity, let alone get their show picked up by one of the Big Three in the first place.
With newfound mainstream success, streaming networks are behaving more like television networks, weeding out niche programming in favor of capturing the broadest possible audience. Heightened competition has created a demand for big-budget projects with mainstream appeal (which are nearly always awarded to male directors) at the expense of alternative critical darlings intended for a target audience (which are frequently helmed by women). Because Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are notoriously secretive about their ratings, streaming cancellations feel more abrupt and unpredictable than ever before.
But wait—there’s hope. Despite this recent cancellation spree, the Big Three still amplify female-helmed storytelling better than most television networks (hits including Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Netflix’s Glow, and Hulu’s The Mindy Project). They are undoubtedly in tune with the sweeping popular demand and shower of awards that confirm a mass desire for more women in front of and behind the camera. As they solidify their content identities, they’ll surely heed this groundswell to attract subscribers and maintain critical legitimacy.
Plus, there are other streaming platforms available to content creators beyond the Big Three. With a mainstream makeover underway for streaming platforms, divergent women storytellers will have to bring their content elsewhere. For example, Insecure’s Issa Rae got her start on YouTube, and Katja Blichfeld’s High Maintenance originated on Vimeo. It’s like Shirley Chisholm said: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” New platforms have also recently sprung up to provide homes for niche comedies; in October, Wyatt Cenac’s quirky web series aka Wyatt Cenac premiered on the website Topic, an indie storytelling platform that showcases fresh, diverse voices. These minority voices circumvented traditional platforms in favor of ones that afforded more flexibility, autonomy, and creative control.
Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu just pulled the chair out from under some of their best and most crucial comedies, prematurely snuffing out some of the most incisive female voices on television. It’s easy to feel powerless as a viewer, but for now, keep watching, supporting, and sharing female-helmed content on these streaming platforms—shows like Amazon’s Fleabag, Netflix’s Chewing Gum, and Hulu’s I Love You America. Give our streaming overlords the definitive, resounding user data they’re looking for: make it clear that we want more TV by, for, and about women—and we want it now.