From Difficult Men to The Revolution Was Televised, histories of television’s new “golden age” have tended to highlight shows run by and centered on men like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. In a new book, entertainment journalist Joy Press bucks the trend by highlighting female television creators only — and arguing, by extension, that titles like 30 Rock, The Mindy Project, Girls and Transparent deserve a place in the renaissance narrative.
In Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television (Atria Books), released Tuesday, Press profiles over 12 shows running from 1988 to the present day that broke ground for female representation on television. Starting with CBS’ Murphy Brown and ending with Amazon’s Transparent, Press speaks to showrunners, stars, writers and others to learn how an unprecedented number of diverse, idiosyncratic female-driven titles filtered into television from 2011 to the present day.
Press’ book details the ongoing battle between Roseanne creator Roseanne Barr and what Barr called the “network censors”; long hours and burnout on the set of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s fast-talking Gilmore Girls; how Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes popularized the term “vajayjay” to get around network regulations; and Jenji Kohan’s struggles to find a home for Weeds and, later, Orange Is the New Black.
When The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Press about her new book, she reflected on what “the rise of 21st-century female-centric television,” as she called it, means after the 2016 election — and how the election may have contributed to it.
Tell me a little bit about how this book came about.
I’ve been writing about TV since 2000, and [since] I’m a feminist writer I always had an eye toward gender. The offerings by female showrunners and shows focused on the female experience were few and far between when I started out, but around 2011 it felt like something changed and there was a flood of really interesting shows coming down the pipeline that had mostly female creators and an exciting range of female leads and female experience. You had New Girl and Don’t Trust the B– in Apartment 23, Girls was in development and The Mindy Project and even shows like The Killing. It felt like a volcano was erupting a little bit.
And yet it also felt like it was a moment when there were some histories of TV being written, and this golden age of TV was being framed very much as a male construction: male auteurs and brute masculine characters of the Sopranos, Breaking Bad [mold]. I loved all of those shows but I really felt that I wanted to write female-driven shows back into history and to start to look at the journey that those female writers and creators had taken to get those shows on the air and the cultural context that it came out of. How did we get to this point where things were starting to change?
You started this book at what you call in your introduction a “triumphant” moment for women on television, in 2015. How did the events that transpired during the 2016 election and into 2018 change the way that you wrote these women’s stories as you were constructing the book?
History has a way of screwing up your plans. I was writing this book in 2015-2016 with a real sense of forward motion in the culture. Then the election happened and I was about two-third of the way done through the book, and it really confused me, like a lot of people: I questioned what the point of the book was, why am I writing a book about this when it all had just gone to hell? And I gradually started to realize that in fact it gave a new significance to these shows, because when you look back, you realize that you are living through a cultural backlash. It suddenly dawned on me that these shows I was writing about as part of a triumphant moment were actually part of the fodder for the backlash. These were the kind of provocative women, the female characters that were really disturbing to a conservative mind-set, that were really creating a sense in probably some Trump voters that America was going to hell in a handbag and in heels.
I had decided to start to write the book with Murphy Brown and Roseanne partly because I was really fascinated by the large part they played in the late-’80s, early-’90s cultural backlash. As I was writing those chapters I was thinking, “Ugh, things are so different now, can you imagine living [in that time]?” Of course, the joke was on me. I really couldn’t believe how much the post-Trump election conversation and many of the things Republicans wanted were almost direct echoes of the conversations that were happening when Murphy Brown and Roseanne were on the air. So it was horrifying, and on the other hand, it gave a different kind of importance to these shows that were very much in the vanguard of what then became the resistance.
Are there any lessons that we can learn from backlash to progressive shows in the past to take with us into 2018?
Something that’s really instructive about both Murphy Brown and Roseanne is that they never spoke down to their audiences. These were shows in an era when there really was a vast proportion of America watching these shows; a hit show meant tens of millions of people, a really broad cross section. They did not contort themselves, they did not try to speak to interest groups. They were written with extreme skill and they were really enjoyable to watch. I think that’s one of the reasons they’re coming back [in reboots]: There’s an absolute need for fierce, forthright female characters who are written in such a way that they can connect to a really wide cross section of people, it’s hard to do.
Many of the shows that you include in your book, run by women and about women, are comedies. Why does that genre tend to dominate for women who are breaking into the industry, in your opinion?
I actually talked about it a lot with women, and nobody had a really definitive answer. Certainly there have been dramas created by women, and increasingly so, but I think that there was definitely more of a comfort level with women handling comedy. I think it’s partly about being taken seriously. It was much harder for women to take the reins if dramas are considered a more serious genre — serious in terms of their content, but also in terms of respect. Dramas are usually an hour, there’s a lot more money invested, and comedy [is] half an hour and lighter in theory. I think executives were a little more able to imagine women in that space, handing over less money and less prestige, so that just became a much easier place for women to worm their way in.
But when I talked to the female writers and creators, a lot of them hadn’t really thought a lot about it. Even the older women who were talking about being the only women in the writers room for years, show after show, they sort of felt good about it because that meant they were exceptional — they were the one woman that was allowed in the room. A lot of these things are very unexamined problems within the industry that everyone just sort of took for granted, and it’s only now that all of these questions of gender and race are being unpacked. It was just considered absolutely normal to have one or now women or people of color on your staff until 10, 15 years ago.
You wrote about several channels, including Comedy Central and Showtime, that actively sought to diversify their offerings with female-centered shows. Have they continued to be leaders in bringing women to TV, or have others filled that space?
I do think there is history of networks that need to raise their profile turning to female showrunners. Showtime was the first example of that: They were always just behind HBO, trying to create a prestige slate of original programming. And HBO at that point was very much defined by male auteurs and macho shows like The Sopranos. Showtime hung their chances on female showrunners: They took a chance on Jenji Kohan’s Weeds, which had been turned down elsewhere, and The L Word, and basically continued over a long period to bring in [female creators]. The WB did something similar, they created their reputation by catering to so-called niche audiences that the networks were ignoring: young women, African-American audiences. Certainly the streaming platforms found it very useful. Amazon built their reputation on Jill Soloway’s Transparent; for Netflix Orange Is the New Black was one of their first huge hits.
I think one that’s been really consistent has been The CW. They’ve done well with their slate of female creators and showrunners and made that part of their mission. Hulu has made a habit of bringing in female showrunners. Amazon, they appear to be maybe going in another direction and possibly turning away from female-driven programming. Showtime has said they’re trying to get back to [female-driven programming], with MILF and they have Lena Waithe’s The Chi.
Since you’ve finished your book, what are the shows that have continued “revolutionizing” television?
One of the most painful things was to try to narrow [the titles down]. I originally had far more women that I wanted to cover. I would have loved to write about Insecure, I think Issa Rae is a spectacular talent and has really upped the game. Fleabag blew me away and I think it took the kind of character development and provocation and discomfort [that others were doing] and took it to another level. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is doing fascinating things with structure, Jessica Jones is really doing interesting things with genre, I’m in awe of Ava DuVernay and what she’s doing with Queen Sugar [and] I Love Dick was such an interesting show and opened up an amazing space for women to jump into. And there were other things that didn’t end up working in the narrative, people like Winnie Holzman, who did My So-Called Life, or Yvette Lee Bowser, who did Living Single.
What didn’t we touch on that you think is important?
I finished the book before all the “Me Too” conversations began. I went through literally as the book was going to press and added a few references to what was going on. It’s a very odd thing to write about the contemporary moment, because the moment is changing so quickly and in such unexpected ways, whether it’s “We’re not going to have a female president” to “Wow, the conversation that no one would have nine months ago about sexual harassment and sexual discrimination is suddenly open.” It’s incredibly exciting and I feel like I immediately want to read the book about the next chapter in all of this. I feel like it’s changing incredibly fast and I have a lot more optimism than when I began the book.
The one statistic that did feel good was the fact that when there are female executives and showrunners, they’re far more likely to have a diverse staff. And there are an increasing number of women at all levels of production. And when you talk about unconscious bias, once you make the bias conscious, it can’t help but improve things. And certainly, at this point, I think it would be very disingenuous for any executive or showrunner to say, “I didn’t know that women were harassed, I didn’t know that women were not being given opportunities, I didn’t know that the vast majority of first-time TV directors are white men.” No one can say that anymore. It’s all being aired. The hope is that that will actually result in change.
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