When It Comes To TV, Women Creators Are The Real Revolutionaries

If only there were X-ray vision for TV shows. That way, behind each episode of Scandal, or Girls, or Orange is the New Black, you could also see the all-night writing sessions, arguments with studio executives, and rallying cries it took to make that episode. You could see the woman showrunner at the helm of each of those shows, implementing her vision and creating the kind of characters that TV gatekeepers long had excluded.
Stealing the Show by Joy Press, out February 27, effectively is that X-ray vision. The drama of this fascinating, fast-paced book isn’t what’s on the many shows Press, a writer and former culture editor for Salon, discusses– it’s what’s behind them. Press turns writing room dynamics into plot points, and the showrunners bringing women’s stories to TV into three-dimensional protagonists.
In addition to being a blast of a book (Press includes behind-the-scenes tidbits so juicy they feel like gossip), Stealing the Show delivers an important narrative. The book proposes that women showrunners have been instrumental in creating TV that reflects and understands the modern era. The Golden Age would only be possible with creators like Shonda Rimes, Jenji Kohan, Roseanne Barr, Tina Fey — and the list goes on. We spoke with Joy Press to discuss the role have women had in revolutionizing TV, and the challenges they faced along the way.
Refinery29: Before reading your book, I had no idea that a showrunner was a superhuman. Can you explain the qualities that make a good showrunner?
Joy Press: "The showrunner is an enormous job. It involves setting the creative vision for the show, it involves hiring, it involves often being the head writer, but not always – sometimes there’s a separate person who runs the writers' room. It involves liaising with the studio and network, dong a lot of the business conversations. It’s a crazy job for someone who almost always starts out as a writer. It’s a really unique set of skills that is required to be a successful showrunner. You have to be really driven, aggressive enough to be able to communicate your vision, and be able to motivate people and make them feel good about the project they're doing."
All the women you wrote about in your book had big visions, and also the wherewithal to implement them.
"It was interesting to see how they navigated an industry where often any kind of female assertiveness could be taken for being difficult, or being a bitch. I talked to a lot of these showrunners and various writers about this issue. Some women were very aware that they were not navigating it as they were doing it. They were very careful about how they moved about the world. Other women said, ‘Fuck it. This is who I am.’ Amy Sherman-Palladino was very clear about herself, and said, 'This is the way I am. If you don’t like me, fire me.' She talked very openly about struggling, struggling with male directors initially. Struggling with [the] studio and really feeling like, I’m not going to sand down my edges. She had a difficult journey through the industry for that reason."
Speaking of the curse of being branded difficult. What are some challenges that are unique to women showrunners?
"There are probably more challenges that male and female showrunners share. It’s a difficult job no matter what. But certainly, there are a lot of expectations that are placed on women in the workplace and unconscious biases."
Often, executives would push back on female characters and say, this character's not likeable enough, or this character’s too old. Or even when they were pitching shows — 'We don’t want to have a 40 year old woman who doesn’t have children. That’s not relatable.' The kind of restrictions that female showrunners were facing as showrunners, they were also hearing these same criticisms for their characters."
A lot of the kind of discrimination and differences are invisible. And it’s impossible to know what could’ve been. In general, the number of amazing shows, pilots, pitches that these various women put together over the years and couldn't get on the air is staggering to me. Lots and lots of shows don’t get on the air. Every great TV writer has a list of shows that didn’t work, or pilots that didn’t go. It’s hard to tell what the gender component or the race component is. But considering the talent of these women and the number of their shows that got flushed down the toilet, it seems fairly likely that it was more difficult for women to get their shows on the air, because the gatekeepers, until fairly recently, were white men who were deciding what was interesting and what was funny, and were convinced that they needed to have something that would appeal to what they saw as a really important demographic of fairly young men."
The irony is, by letting in creators who hadn’t been allowed to create before, we got to see different characters — and characters there clearly was a craving for.
"It’s indisputable that some of the most exciting, innovative shows that are on the air in the last five years, certainly the last few years, have been made by women and people of color because their voices hadn’t been heard. A show like Broad City, or Insecure, or Atlanta — these shows were made possible by a changing TV landscape in which those white male gatekeepers have loosened up the reins a bit. You have these platforms that don’t necessarily require a mass audience. It’s a different curation of the TV experience."
How did you choose which creators to include in the book?
"It was really difficult. I had more, originally. I ended up consolidating because I really wanted to be able to tell a story. I built a chain of people who were connected to each other. Someone could write a book with a dozen other female showrunners and tell a story. In a way the hardest part was where to start. Going further back, the history of the very small number of women in early TV is very fascinating. I hope someone else writes the book."
You started writing this book in 2015. Could speak to how current events changed your imagining of the book’s narrative, and how you incorporated current events as you kept writing?
"It actually makes me feel a little bit nauseous to think about it. I was probably two thirds of the way done when the election happened. When I started the book, I felt it was very clear that history was going in a specific direction, and that the explosion of great female talent and voices in television was the culmination of history moving in this direction. A lot of the woman I had interviewed had directly been supporting Hillary [Clinton]. It seemed obvious that she was going to win, and Hillary seemed very much a piece of the book. By the time the election happened, I realized that things looked very different.
My book starts with Murphy Brown and the era of the ‘80s culture wars. I was steeping myself in that period and thinking, ‘We’re in such a different place. It’s so historically interesting to go back to the Dark Ages.’ Then the election happened. In that aftermath of the election, the conversations were echoing the exact news stories."
We are back to an echo of the culture wars of the ‘80s. I feel like these female showrunners are very much on the front lines of trying to push the boundaries of what is allowed in the female imagination, what is allowed in the American family, in the American workplace. It was a weird thing to have to finish the book, realizing that everything I took for granted as I was writing the book was wrong, and that something else had happened, and what these female creators were doing was almost more important. To create this space for female experience at a moment when it was really, really being endangered. Suddenly it seemed much more important."
Now women creators are back to being revolutionaries, of a kind.
"Yeah. I don’t know that most of them would want to be considered revolutionary. Very few of them would say they were driven by politics. To a certain degree, some of them are aware — Jill Soloway is aware the role [her] show plays in the culture and feels a real pressure. But I’m not sure that was true at the very beginning. At the very beginning it was a personal story."
Speaking of Transparent — it’s interesting to see how that’s become wrapped up in #MeToo. Transparent has become a focal point for many different discussions we’re having.
"I had finished the book in the middle of 2017, long before the Harvey Weinstein revelations happened. Having gone back in and rewritten after the presidential election, I then had this second zigzag of the explosion of #MeToo.
When I talked to these showrunners, we had great conversations about discrimination, about the struggles they’d had, but the conversation about sexual harassment was a very tricky one, and something that really no one would have talked about before this moment. No one. If anybody said anything, it was off the record. It was fascinating. This was absolutely locked in a box in their hearts, because it was impossible to talk about and keep working in the industry. That would make you a troublemaker. And the weight that I feel has been lifted off a lot of these women is tremendous. It was just something that you knew was happening, and you just kept going. I think that’s true for most women, as we discovered with #MeToo. Everybody had something in the lockbox in their heart. I had women tell me about bosses that swore at them. or didn’t understand their show, or ripped them off. But the conversation about that interaction really did not happen."
Earlier you were talking about how we’re back in the culture wars. And aren’t we? In a Twilight Zone twist, Murphy Brown and Roseanne are coming back. How do you foresee those shows functioning in 2018 and dealing with politics?
"It really is a Twilight Zone. If you had told me when I started the book that Murphy Brown and Roseanne and One Day at a Time were all going to be back on the air, I would have laughed. It’s super weird. It certainly makes sense for Roseanne and Murphy Brown to be back. At the time, both of those shows functioned in different ways in regards to politics. Murphy Brown was always a show that tussled with the issues of the day. They had enormous fun with it. I think that will be more difficult now because news moves so quickly. But I have high hopes that Diane English can make that work. I think that there’s absolutely room for a show that very intelligently interacts with political culture, and certainly people are really excited to have a kind of female avatar of fury out there, lambasting political bozos.
Roseanne was very different in its approach to politics. They didn’t talk politics. They just embedded them in the lives of this very working class family, and very realistic struggles they were having with work and unemployment and trying to get by in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s America. My sense is that they're going to do that, but making the family pro-Trump."
TV is a less uniform medium than when Murphy Brown and Roseanne were on the air. I wonder if, with the changing TV landscape, and the advent of internet-based shows, that’ll affect women creators’ opportunities.
"I think this’ll be an interesting, pivotal year, and it’ll give us a hint of what is going to happen as we go forward. It feels to me, anecdotally, the changing landscape and the introduction of a lot of streaming options and more cable channels has allowed a lot of female voices to get shows made. But if you look at the statistics, they haven't changed very much. There’s still a small percentage of shows on streaming that are made by women. It looks to me this year, the number of pilots being made from female creators is way up. Shows that have female leads is way up. But we don’t know if those pilots will get made. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s actually changing.
The female TV writers that I talk to are telling me that they feel a huge shift. There’s a lot more openness to their projects. It would be crazy if things didn’t change because there’s a hunger for characters and perspectives and stories. I’m optimistic."