The XX Factor

Mike White on Why Men Won’t Watch Women on TV

Enlightened co-creator Mike White.

Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Mike White is making the press rounds to drum up support for a renewal of his HBO show Enlightened. Loosely, the show is about corporate drone-turned-do-gooder Amy Jellicoe (played brilliantly by Laura Dern) and her struggle to make positive change in her life and the world while contending with the worst of her own nature. But that doesn’t really describe it, because Enlightened is so unlike anything else airing on television right now that it’s almost impossible to categorize it as a comedy or drama or anything.

While a show about an activist with good intentions who manages to annoy or antagonize almost everyone she meets was probably always going to be a tough sell, White recently told Vulture that he sees another thread in his career that’s made his work less popular than it might have been: his fondness for female leads.

If I have a male protagonist, it’s a studio movie, and if it’s a female protagonist, it’s an indie movie. That’s just how it is. It’s not about the studios. It’s about America and who goes to see movies. Women are interested in men and women, and men aren’t interested in the woman’s story. They just aren’t. There are exceptions, but by and large … I mean I do think that it’s feminizing for a guy to go see a movie with a female lead unless it’s Angelina Jolie shooting people or Zero Dark Thirty or something that feels like it’s in the male sphere. The devaluation of the traditional female roles or the traditional female approach, it starts to feel like this is what’s wrong with our country.

I heard something similar from FX president John Landgraf at January’s Television Critics Association press tour. “I think that male antiheroes are something that’s more easily acceptable,” Landgraf said. “I don’t mean that a female antihero can’t be done, but I just do think that somehow it’s a more acceptable character, a more easily accessible character to have a male antihero.” Landgraf was specifically referring to Patty Hewes, the manipulative lawyer played by Glenn Close in the legal drama Damages, which ran on FX before transferring to the Dish Network. Hewes is a great anti-hero, but it’s true that she didn’t find the same audience on FX that a show like Sons of Anarchy, about a violent, and all-male biker gang does. FX is experimenting again with The Americans, a period drama about Soviet spies that co-stars Keri Russell, and had ordered The Bridge, a murder mystery in which Diane Kruger will play a cop investigating a body found on the U.S.-Mexico border.

But those shows, like Showtime’s Homeland, have female leads operating in what White refers to as “the male sphere.” It’s not the same thing as getting male viewers to tune into a show or movie focused on the Amy Jellicoes of the world. “There so many people in this world who are in their own way little heroes, people who are cleaning up the messes created by the guys with the guns or the overgrown kids fucking everything up,” White told Vulture. “There is a little part of me that feels like I have a little bit of creative capital, and I’d rather use it to put a different face forward as the center of the world.” The current center of the world, however, is yet to respond.