Ratings GoldWomen Showrunners Are Ushering In TV’s Golden Age

Television is entering a new “golden age.” Each night, people of color, women, and LGBTQ people are able to see shows that reflect their experiences, such as Atlanta, How To Get Away With Murder, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, The Good Place, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Yet, conversations about the new age of television tend to focus solely on the “genius men” like Donald Glover and Ryan Murphy who are ushering in the era.

In Stealing the Show: How Women are Revolutionizing Television, veteran entertainment journalist Joy Press reframes the conversation to purposefully center the rise and impact of female showrunners. Across 12 distinctive chapters, Press examines shows ranging from Murphy Brown to Scandal and the women who are responsible for bringing them to primetime. Through interviews with these showrunners and the women in their writer’s rooms, sharp analysis of the cultural moment when these shows debuted, and a keen focus on how the TV industry has treated these women, Press presents the “golden age” through the lens of the women who are creating it.

The day after the book’s release, Press spoke with Bitch about the pressure these female showrunners face and how feminism has been integral to shifting who gets to create television.

You began thinking about writing this book in 2015. What was so pivotal about that year that really stuck with you, and encouraged you to write this book?

I’ve been writing and thinking about TV for a while, and for a long time, I didn’t really think about how little of women’s realities were reflected on television. Like all of us, I could name a handful of shows throughout my life that had female characters that I love, but I hadn’t really realized how few-and-far between they were. But there started to be more female-centric series and more women creating them in the 2000s. Around 2011 or 2012, there were a whole bunch of shows coming on the air, like Girls, New Girl, and The Mindy Project, and by 2015, it really started to come to fruition and show that [the increase of women creating television] wasn’t a fluke. It became clear to me that something was happening. Something had actually changed in terms of who the TV industry was giving platforms to.

Stealing the Show by Joy Press

Stealing the Show by Joy Press (Photo credit: Atria)

This shift started being more reflected in awards shows. Suddenly, Amy Schumer, Jill Soloway, Jane the Virgin, and Orange is the New Black were winning awards. And at that point, Shonda Rhimes had become immensely powerful and had a grip on Thursday nights at a major network in a way few showrunners had ever had. She was just an absolute power, and I started to think about how original some of these shows were and how much they were changing the kinds of stories we were seeing on TV. They were opening up the space for what women were allowed to do on television.

In the case of Transparent and Orange is the New Black, TV was also opening up a space for trans and gender nonconforming characters. It felt incredibly exciting, and I thought we were pushing far enough that TV could never could fully go back to how it used to be. As I started writing the book, I realized there was a deluge of [women creating TV shows]. At one point, I made a timeline to get a sense of the different female-centered shows through the ages that were also created by women. There were like a couple every decade, and then it progressively grew until 2015, which is when I started writing the book. It’s wild. TV has exponentially expanded in terms of the number of women making the shows.

In the book, you chronicle specific creators, like Tina Fey, Shonda Rhimes, and Roseanne Barr. At the same time, you’re also examining their best-known shows as well as what was happening in the world when their shows entered the world. Can you talk through your process for choosing who to include in the book and which specific shows to focus on?

Deciding how to structure the book was the hardest part. I was a little bit like a kid in a candy shop because being able to take a deep-dive into the work and into their careers was really fun. At one point, I thought about doing much more of a survey by looking through the history and chronicling all of these great figures and TV shows. But I realized that I really wanted to tell a story. I wanted it to be a fun read. Somebody told me that the book reads like a novel, which is the best compliment I could get. That was really what I wanted to do. I wanted to make the book a really enjoyable crawl through the culture of television. It ended up being a complicated mix of shows and showrunners who had immense cultural influence, shows that I love, and the strength of the personalities behind them.

Joy Press

Joy Press (Photo credit: Joy Press)

I also wanted to have a variety of different approaches to shows and showrunners that came from different directions and were pushing different narratives forward. I wanted readers to have dots that connected because there were so many women who these shows had in common. For instance, Amy Sherman-Palladino started on Roseanne and Jenji Kohan worked really early on Gilmore Girls, so a lot of these people had a connection between them. Ultimately, I really wanted to focus on shows and showrunners who had pushed the conversation and kicked at the boundaries of TV behavior in some way.

You write that the “mainstreaming of feminism dovetailed perfectly with the new wave of woman-powered television.” Would you say that the rise in powerful women publicly identifying as feminists factored into the rise of female showrunners?

The rise of women identifying more happily as feminist has definitely enabled women showrunners to feel good about saying “I’m a female showrunner” and conceiving of what they do as something that fits under the rubric of feminism. A lot of the TV writers who I talked to bristled a little bit at being a “female showrunner” or a “female writer.” They want to be respected as writers, and it’s the old saw that if the ground were even, you wouldn’t have to discuss someone’s gender. At some point, we hope that it will all be even. The conversation around feminism has enabled ordinary women to bring a feminist analysis to what they do. 

Going back to the early days, Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) was a very overtly feminist character. Certainly, there were a million college dissertations about the feminism of Murphy Brown, and the right-wing reviled her as a figurehead of feminism. But very early on, Murphy Brown’s creator, Diane English, didn’t publicly identify as a feminist, though everything she did signaled that she was. Later, she embraced being a feminist, but in earlier interviews, I don’t think she would’ve called herself that. Murphy Brown didn’t come out in season one and talk about being a feminist. It was implicit that the word feminist wasn’t necessarily a cool identity to claim at that point.

In the book, Norma Safford-Vela, a former staff writer for Roseanne, says, “The history and women in television is: if women are ‘difficult,’ they don’t work again.” How does the gendering of likability factor into a woman’s ability to run a show in Hollywood?

The question of likability was one of the most fascinating things about writing this book. I found that it mirrored what was happening with women behind the scenes and the characters on the show. So many of these shows were taking on the question of how women “behave,” what’s acceptable, and what happens when she asks the way that a man does. It’s more blatant in recent shows, like Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) on The Mindy Project and Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) on Girls. The showrunners themselves were dealing with the same things. I heard over and over again that women behind-the-scenes were really having to think through how they presented themselves. It’s no different than how the rest of us have to navigate our workplaces, and the #metoo conversation has really brought that difficulty into the public eye. If Roseanne Barr didn’t have the most popular show in America, it would’ve been a very different story for her.

Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project

Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project (Photo credit: Jordin Althaus)

Amy Sherman-Palladino talked to me very openly about commanding the set. She was the boss of the set, but she had to fight for what she wanted from the network and directors. She had rough edges, and she wasn’t going to stand down. It caused a lot of problems. She said that she had standoffs where she had to say, “You’re not my mother. Just fire me if you don’t like what I’m doing.” Other women in that position also felt like they had to comport themselves. One of the showrunners told me a story about being on a phone call with her co-showrunner and an executive, behaving in a professional, but firm way, and being told afterward that they’d been very difficult. That happens again and again and again. You have 50 males showrunners and 50 male directors who are assholes and harassing women, but that’s considered appropriate behavior from male showrunners. Women are constantly having to figure out what it means to be a boss. A lot of that showed up on these TV shows from Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) to Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) to Murphy Brown.

Every week, Murphy Brown fired her assistant. They made a joke out of that, but looking back, that seems kind of radical because it’s basically a woman not taking bullshit. It was suggesting that Brown had incredibly high standards. We’re still having this conversation, and after the #metoo movement, the hope is that shows will be even more transparent and keep questioning why we have these ridiculous behavioral boxes.

How did 30 Rock usher in these other female-centered comedies about single, career-driven women?

30 Rock is a very sly show. It slipped a very weird, complicated, and ambivalent portrait of a working woman couched in this mad-capped half-hour comedy. It’s so zany and fast-paced that you’re tempted not to take any of it seriously because it’s nuts. There’s a joke every 10 seconds and the characters are loony, but a lot of viewers recognized something real in Liz Lemon that we rarely saw on TV. She was a very hardworking and ambitious woman who questioned herself. She knew she was good at what she did, but she was often self-deprecating, and rarely put herself in the spotlight.

She was also very, very ambivalent about romance and marriage. It was very intentional on Tina Fey’s part to create an unsexy character. She wanted to create the antithesis of Sex & the City, which was the most recent show that took on women’s lives. Liz Lemon was intended to be a woman who would walk around in a slanket—if people remember what a slanket is—all day if she could. She’d go to work in pajamas with a giant hunk of cheese chained to her wrist if she could. And she did not want to have to change herself in order to have a relationship. In some ways, those elements were really blown out of proportion because 30 Rock’s a comedy, but there was a grain of realism in Liz Lemon that viewers really responded to.

Tina Fey at the Muppets Most Wanted Premiere at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood on March 11, 2014

Tina Fey at the Muppets Most Wanted Premiere at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood on March 11, 2014 (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The creation of a brilliant, extremely funny woman who was not afraid to be silly, not be sexy, and not make men the center of her life was really important and set a template that a lot of shows picked up on. I have a chapter in which I talk about New Girl and The Mindy Project. Those shows are very different from 30 Rock, and certainly they have their own brilliant creators, but some of the writers and producers from 30 Rock went on to work on those shows. You can definitely feel a throughline in terms of their comedies and the influence of Tina Fey.

It seems like we’re living through a golden age for women behind-the-scenes e.g. showrunners, TV writers, etc., but TV is still a male-dominated industry. How can the TV industry be more intentional about sustained and ongoing inclusion?

It’s a hard question because it can be argued that one of the problems is there’s an unconscious bias in terms of gender, race, and sexuality. TV’s gatekeepers, until very recently, have been white men, and you can now argue that the bias is no longer unconscious. They’ve been informed that this is a problem, but really, evening the playing field is a huge task. It’s a circular firing squad where everybody blames everybody else. Agents will say the networks don’t want female or African American creators, so that’s not who we’re bringing in. Networks will say agents aren’t bringing them the people. The reality is there just has to be more diversity and inclusion all through the food chain.

One of the things that was interesting about some of the showrunners in the second-half of my book is that many of them found side doors into the industry. Mindy Kaling created her own off-off Broadway show with her best friend, which ended up serving as a showcase, and the creator of The Office saw her and asked her if she wanted to write for the show. Jill Soloway did something similar years ago with The Real Live Brady Bunch. Broad City came through YouTube as did Issa Rae. There are more platforms that are putting pressure on television. In fact, one of the things that’s led to the current explosion of female showrunners is that network television is fracturing. There are a really large number of platforms now; there are cable television channels and new streaming services, so there’s this absolute hunger for content.  We’re seeing more women able to get a foot in the door because there are more doors open.

Issa Rae as Issa on Insecure

Issa Rae as Issa on Insecure (Photo credit: Justina Mintz/courtesy of HBO)

A lot of that is going to shake down over the next few years, and I worry that some of this openness to new voices is going to shut down once this exploratory period ends and some of these streaming channels fall to the wayside. The industry has to have more diversity on all levels. There’s no doubt that having female showrunners and executive producers makes space for more women throughout the cast and crew. I haven’t seen any studies about an increase in inclusion with female executives, but that has to be the case. We’ve seen a number of disgraced executives being replaced by women, and there’s movement in the industry in terms of bringing more women into decision-making positions. The ideal would be that female showrunners, showrunners of all races, and gender nonconforming and trans showrunners can be funny or be serious or create an imaginary world that they want to see.

Having such a homogenous range on TV has put a huge amount of pressure on the handful women who are out there. Looking to Shonda Rhimes or Lena Dunham to create role models sucks. These females showrunners don’t necessarily want to create role models. Liz Lemon is not a role model. Hannah Horvath is not a role model, and she was never intended to be. The wide array of imaginative scenarios that are allowed to male showrunners is vast, and they don’t have the same pressure to “behave” and represent for everybody. Lena Dunham said to me that people are more angry about the stupid things Hannah Horvath did than the horrors that Walter White committed because there are so few women out there and we’re expecting them to speak for everyone. People are so hungry to see some version of their experiences reflected or something that connects to their imaginations, and until we have a whole array of those voices out there, there’s just too much pressure on an individual female showrunner.

They can’t be everything to everybody.

Right, and it just sort of restrains the imagination. That’s the reason why Broad City is so beloved. It’s one of the few shows that’s creating an untethered, and sometimes psychedelic freak fest, that just doesn’t worry about how to be a woman in the 21st century. It’s just following its bliss, and creating these fantastic characters who embrace pleasure and fun. In its own way, I suppose that makes them role models, but they’re definitely expanding the television view of what a woman could be like in the world.

by Evette Dionne
View profile »

Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader: