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Stealing the Show

How Women Are Revolutionizing Television

About The Book

From a leading cultural journalist, the definitive cultural history of female showrunners—including exclusive interviews with such influential figures as Shonda Rhimes, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Mindy Kaling, Amy Schumer, and many more. “An urgent and entertaining history of the transformative powers of women in TV” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).

In recent years, women have radically transformed the television industry both behind and in front of the camera. From Murphy Brown to 30 Rock and beyond, these shows and the extraordinary women behind them have shaken up the entertainment landscape, making it look as if equal opportunities abound. But it took decades of determination in the face of outright exclusion to reach this new era.

In this “sharp, funny, and gorgeously researched” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker) book, veteran journalist Joy Press tells the story of the maverick women who broke through the barricades and the iconic shows that redefined the television landscape starting with Diane English and Roseanne Barr—and even incited controversy that reached as far as the White House. Drawing on a wealth of original interviews with the key players like Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls), Jenji Kohan (Orange is the New Black), and Jill Soloway (Transparent) who created storylines and characters that changed how women are seen and how they see themselves, this is the exhilarating behind-the-scenes story of a cultural revolution.


Stealing the Show INTRODUCTION

Mary Tyler Moore became an icon of single working womanhood on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Growing up in the seventies, I devoured The Mary Tyler Moore Show and That Girl reruns. I couldn’t have explained why back then, but the chutzpah and ambition of those characters were a big part of it. Both shows featured young women chafing at their limits. Sometimes I felt they were winking at me, as if to acknowledge the ridiculousness of their predicaments. But as much as I loved them, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and That Girl were innocuous reflections of the ferocious changes shaking up our culture.

During the second half of the twentieth century, American women expanded their ability to control reproduction, to pursue careers, to decide when (or whether) to marry, and to end marriages gone bad. Looking back at those decades of change and turbulence, I’m amazed by how little of this translated to the TV screen—and how few women had creative control over the shows America watched. Marlo Thomas recalled that while working on That Girl, she was usually “the only girl in the room.” Although the sitcom revolved around her character, it was up to Thomas to nudge the male writers and producers toward a more accurate and realistic rendering of a liberated young woman’s life.

The idea for this book started clattering around in my brain in the spring of 2015. If you had to pick a triumphant moment for the twenty-first-century surge of revolutionary TV made by and about women, that would be it. More than a dozen new female-centric series created by women premiered in 2015—as many as had emerged in the three previous years combined. At the 2015 Emmys, Inside Amy Schumer won Best Variety Show, and Jill Soloway accepted an award for directing the series she’d created, Transparent. The same year, at the Golden Globes, four of the five nominated comedies, Orange Is the New Black, Girls, Jane the Virgin, and Transparent (which won), were made by women. On the drama front, Shonda Rhimes reigned over ABC’s Thursday-night lineup with three hit series, making her one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood.

For most of TV history, broadcast networks had focused on series that could deliver a mass audience to advertisers, with particular emphasis on eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old guys. Entertainment executives, who were mostly men, seemed to believe viewers wouldn’t put up with complex female leads, even as audiences lapped up series about cranky or difficult men. Women couldn’t be chubby, dark-skinned, or too far north of thirty, either. In the early years of the twenty-first century, though, those tightly held beliefs began to loosen. The TV industry was in crisis, threatened by an onslaught of cable and digital outlets. Where once ABC, CBS, and NBC divided up the entire American viewing populace among themselves, now they had to fend off an ever-multiplying number of rivals. The crisis became a moment of opportunity; cable and digital executives grew more receptive to programming that appealed to niche populations, and anxious broadcast networks took a few more risks in response. As a result, women began to enter through the ever-widening cracks in the system.

This is a tale of the extraordinary women responsible for an upheaval in pop culture, the reverberations of which continue to shake up the television landscape today. They’ve filled our screens with a throng of unruly female characters and stretched the format farther than we ever imagined it could go. So many aspects of women’s lives (as momentous as female friendship, as mundane as period pain) had never been depicted with any depth on a small screen because network executives believed that these things were inherently dull or off-putting. Nowadays, we take it for granted that we’ll be seeing female experiences depicted provocatively and hilariously on our screens—courtesy of a bevy of irreverent female writers, producers, directors, and performers.

Shonda, Jenji, Mindy, Lena, Tina—all those loud, visible female showrunners have made television feel like an equal-opportunity dream factory. Most of the young female TV writers I’ve interviewed came of age watching series such as Gilmore Girls, My So-Called Life, and Grey’s Anatomy, and took for granted that Hollywood would make space for them. However, despite the recent spate of high-profile, Zeitgeist-defining shows conceived, written, and starring women, television remains a male-dominated industry. Anecdotal evidence suggests that female showrunners earn less than their male counterparts, and there are still far fewer women in those positions of power. According to a report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, out of all the series on the air in the 2016/17 season, only one in five broadcast TV creators was female. It’s only slightly better at the supposedly more adventurous cable and streaming outlets, where 26 percent of creators are female. The report notes something else, though: shows with at least one female creator hired far more women writers and cast more women in major roles. It’s an ever-expanding circle in which powerful female showrunners can enable others to create cultural images and narratives that inspire the next generation of powerful women.

This book celebrates the modern era of female-driven and female-focused television, which I trace back to the twin disruptions of Roseanne and Murphy Brown. After all, when you’re living through what seems like a golden age, it’s important not to take it for granted, to remember that things weren’t always so golden, that it took decades of struggle and perseverance in the face of preconceived ideas and outright exclusion to get here.

The founding mother of the American TV sitcom, Gertrude Berg, is almost completely forgotten nowadays. In the 1920s, she created the radio sensation The Rise of the Goldbergs, a serial about a Jewish family (broadcast at a time when Nazism was emerging in Europe), and then retooled it as The Goldbergs for the early days of television. Writing, starring in, and producing the comedy series from 1949 to 1955, she retained creative control while playing a matriarch with a shtetl accent. The Goldbergs became one of CBS’s top ten shows in postwar America. A cross-promotional dynamo, Berg spun out of this franchise live shows, books, a line of housedresses, and a movie.

A former chorus girl and movie actress who spotted the possibilities of television as her ingenue options waned, Lucille Ball negotiated with CBS executives about creating her own comedy series. They were hesitant to cast her Cuban husband, Desi Arnaz, as her costar, so the couple convinced them by forming a production company and taking a live prototype of I Love Lucy on the road. The ensuing series about a zany, enterprising redhead and her exasperated bandleader husband was the number one show in America for most of its six years on the air. Ball ignored the prevailing norm of having an all-male writing staff and hired Madelyn Pugh, who remained with her for the entire run of the series. That women’s point of view showed itself in Lucy, a willful figure who constantly rebelled against her husband’s orders. Ball and Arnaz made the canny decision to produce I Love Lucy themselves, and to shoot it on film. (In those days, TV shows were generally performed and broadcast live and not preserved on tape.) Such innovation later allowed them to syndicate the series, keeping Lucy on television screens for decades and making Ball a role model for generations of funny ladies—not to mention a wealthy woman.

Although the Pill had hit the market in 1960, and Betty Friedan’s million-selling The Feminine Mystique helped kindle second-wave feminism upon its 1963 publication, liberated women were rarely glimpsed on TV. This all changed when That Girl premiered on ABC in 1966. Rising starlet Marlo Thomas had proposed a series based partly around her experience as a young actress living in Manhattan on her own. She wanted to call it Miss Independence but lost the battle. Thomas formed her own production company, Daisy Productions, and sought out female writers, but as a sign of how constrained things were for women, she was never credited on-screen as producer. “I ran the show, I signed the checks,” she later said, “but I chose to play down my power, so as not to be too threatening” and risk scaring off the “best and brightest men in comedy.”

Despite its breezy tone, That Girl was groundbreaking in its depiction of a young single woman focused on her career and her desires, rather than on reeling in a husband. “You did not have to be the wife or the daughter of somebody, or the secretary of somebody . . . you could be the somebody,” Thomas has said. Although the network heads worried that audiences would be turned off by all that female independence, the show was an instant hit, a sign perhaps of changes in society that TV had ignored. As Thomas recalled in her memoir, Growing Up Laughing, “[T]his girl, who seemed like a revolutionary figure to the men in suits who did the research, was not a revolutionary figure at all. . . . There were millions of ‘That Girls’ in homes across America.” As the show wound up its five-year run in 1971, the network, still resolutely misunderstanding That Girl’s appeal, proposed the traditional “happy ending”: a wedding. Rejecting this conventional closure for something truer to the energies roiling the era, Thomas insisted that That Girl conclude with the couple en route to a women’s lib meeting.

After a successful run as spry housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore, along with husband Grant Tinker, formed MTM Enterprises to produce The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Its 1970 launch coincided with That Girl’s final season—almost as if the baton were being passed from one TV icon of single working womanhood to another. But unlike Thomas, Moore didn’t feel the need to tiptoe around male hang-ups about empowered women: her authority was never in question, on-screen or behind the scenes. Her character, Mary, called her boss “Mr. Grant” and sometimes hesitated nervously to ask for what she deserved, but that didn’t stop her from forging ahead. It didn’t stop Moore, either, her power and ownership emblazoned in the very title of the series. “You never forgot for a second that she was in charge,” director Alan Rafkin once wrote. The show’s producers hired an unprecedented number of women—at one point, a third of the writers’ room was female. Scribes such as Treva Silverman and Susan Silver delighted in pouring their own experiences with dating, double standards, and workplace wrangles into the mouths of Mary and Rhoda, Mary’s equally single best friend.

During a conference on Women in Public Life held at the University of Texas in November 1975, Gloria Steinem imagined what aliens from outer space might make of American women if all they had to go on was TV and movies, as Jennifer Keishin Armstrong relayed in her book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. “First of all, they would be convinced that there were twice as many American men as there were American women. It would be quite clear that we slept in false eyelashes and full makeup. Some of us would be taken to be a servant class of some sort. If we lived alone, we would almost have to be widows, at least until recently.” This absurdly out-of-date picture, Steinem pointed out, was being challenged and changed by The Mary Tyler Moore Show, along with Norman Lear’s new series, Maude.

Although ideas from the women’s movement permeated mainstream America throughout the seventies, their impact on prime time remained minimal: there were Mary and Rhoda, there was Maude, and there was the working-mom sitcom One Day at a Time (co-created by actress Whitney Blake), but that was about it. Behind the scenes, things were equally unequal. A 1974 Writers Guild of America report revealed a shocking statistic: only 6.5 percent of prime-time shows that season had hired even a single woman writer.

It wasn’t until the early eighties that women really started to write and run more shows. That’s when writing partners Barbara Corday and Barbara Avedon finally got Cagney & Lacey on the air. They had been trying to pitch a buddy movie about two female police detectives since the mid-seventies. Corday’s producer boyfriend Barney Rosenzweig had originally suggested the idea, inspired by a book she’d given him: Molly Haskell’s feminist film critique From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. After multiple false starts and cast changes, Cagney & Lacey landed on the air in 1982 and became a hit for CBS, winning not just a huge audience worldwide but also a run of Emmy Awards.

Corday argues that people were excited by Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey not because they were fighting crime but because viewers wanted to see wise older women muddling through their complicated lives. Cagney was a hard-drinking and sharp-edged single chick; the more nurturing Lacey was a working woman with a supportive husband. “What people wrote letters about most were the bathroom scenes, where two women actually sat and talked about everything in their lives,” Corday says. “Eavesdropping on those conversations—it sounds silly, but it was very groundbreaking for women. There was nothing else like that on television.” The show followed through on its feminism behind the scenes, too, hiring dozens of female writers and episode directors. Among those writers was Ronnie Wenker-Konner, mother of Jennifer Konner, the future co-showrunner of Girls, which would ultimately push intimate women’s bathroom conversations farther than Cagney or Lacey could have imagined.

Many of the women who pioneered prime time did so in partnership with men, usually their husbands. Y chromosomes just seemed to make male network execs feel more comfortable. That was true for Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara Corday, Whitney Blake, Golden Girls creator Susan Harris, and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. Bloodworth-Thomason honed her skills writing for M*A*S*H, Rhoda, and One Day at a Time before launching a production company with husband Harry Thomason to create sitcoms such as Designing Women, a southern hothouse of female workplace repartee. Corday suggests that a lot of women writers back then clung to the creative side: “They didn’t see themselves as businesspeople, and their husbands did.” Even so, she says, “Barney and I were very aware that whenever we would go to a meeting, the executive would talk directly to him. The two of us would be sitting on a couch, but the whole conversation was directed to one person.”

One of the first to ditch the male-partner trend and step out on her own was Anne Beatts, a comedy writer who parlayed her Emmy-winning stint on the original incarnation of SNL into a TV deal. Square Pegs, her sitcom about two nerdy girls (one of whom was played by a young Sarah Jessica Parker), premiered on CBS in 1982. A cult classic, Square Pegs unsuccessfully pushed for an all-female writers’ room. Says Beatts, “I only wanted to hire women because it was about the experience of young girls in high school, but the network made me hire a token male writer.” (That token male, Andy Borowitz, would go on to create The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and to found The Borowitz Report.)

Much more common was for series to hire a token female writer, as if too many women might turn the room into a kaffeeklatsch. “When I started, the networks and studios were run by men, and they tended to gravitate toward male material, toward male writers and showrunners,” says Jenny Bicks, who launched her career in the early nineties, eventually ending up as a writer on Sex and the City and then as showrunner for Men in Trees, The Big C, and Divorce. Being “the only woman in a room of, like, twelve or thirteen men” was the norm, something that Bicks experienced time and time again. And if trying to carve a path through prime time has been challenging for white women, the difficulty was multiplied for trailblazing women of color such as Yvette Lee Bowser (Living Single, Half & Half) and Mara Brock Akil (Girlfriends, Being Mary Jane).

Female TV writers grew accustomed to thinking of other women as their competition for the tiny number of slots available—because they were.

Chances are you have only a vague idea of what a showrunner does. The word came into common usage in the late eighties and nineties. Before that, the person in charge of a TV series was called the executive producer, and he (almost invariably a he) was typically a business-minded type who managed the production and commissioned writers to churn out scripts. Slowly but steadily, though, decision-making power slipped into the hands of TV writers. You started out as a staff writer and worked your way up to executive producer, with the result that, on any given show, there could be a horde of people with various “producer” titles running around. The person who had overall control of the set came to be called the showrunner—and increasingly, writers assumed that powerful role. Writing tends to attract socially awkward introverts with shoddy math skills, but suddenly the nerds were managing multimillion-dollar productions.

Today showrunner is an elastic term that can encompass varying degrees of creative and managerial control over a TV series. That might mean developing the original concept, overseeing a cast and crew, shepherding a writers’ room, consulting with directors, editing episodes, maintaining a budget, and negotiating with studios and networks. The showrunner is the visionary in chief, operations manager, and financial officer all rolled into one.

“Being a showrunner is a terrible job,” declares Jane Espenson, who wrote for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, and other series before graduating to the role of showrunner on Caprica and Husbands. “Suppose you are a writer who is happy at your keyboard and you’ve risen through the ranks because you write really good scripts. Now you are running the show. You may not feel like schmoozing the actors and keeping the network happy. It requires so many different skills, and most of them are not the ones that got you that job.”

By the first years of the new millennium, thanks in large part to the rise of the Internet, it had become increasingly common for viewers to follow TV with the auteur-focused intensity of a French cinephile rifling through Cahiers du Cinéma in the sixties. Television fans rabidly dissected and debated their favorite shows on online bulletin boards and blogs, with a forensic attention to plot and character that would birth a new and distinctively twenty-first-century form of critical discourse: the recap. I first experienced this kind of TV nerd frenzy through the cult of Buffy creator Joss Whedon. It had never occurred to me to scour a show’s credits until I stumbled onto Buffy boards and encountered fans who could instantly distinguish between an episode written by David Fury and one written by Marti Noxon. That same degree of narrative close analysis became a hallmark of fan fervor over shows created by HBO’s flock of Davids: The Sopranos showrunner David Chase, The Wire’s David Simon, and Deadwood’s David Milch.

Showrunners were now treated as visionary world-builders. The hungry maw of the Internet demanded a constant diet of insider information, and showrunners became celebs in their own right, doling out teasers and tidbits. What better spokesperson for a series than the person who created it? Talk to anyone who works in TV, however, and you’ll discover that television production is immensely collaborative. Even the most multitalented genius can’t do it alone. There’s often some sort of showrunning partnership, such as the one forged by Shonda Rhimes with Betsy Beers, or Tina Fey with Robert Carlock. Beyond that, each episode depends on the work of a hundred or more people: casting, lighting, sound, costumes, set design, shooting, editing.

Nearly all series also rely on writers’ rooms. This refers to a collection of people who usually sit in an office brainstorming plot points and dialogue, and then go off to write full episodes individually. Some showrunners spend most of their time in the room with the writers; others (particularly those who also star in their series or juggle multiple shows) assign head writers to manage the process. On some sets, the procedure is organic and communal; on others, the showrunner (or sometimes the head writer) takes the raw material generated in the room and rewrites it to give the scripts a uniform voice. Some rooms glide smoothly through the seasons, while others are fueled by panic, anguish, and ego. As Tolstoy might have said had he lived long enough to visit a television set, “Every unhappy writers’ room is unhappy in its own way.”

The gonzo workplace behavior of some critically acclaimed male showrunners mirrored that of the macho antiheroes in their dramas, as if the set were a stage for them to play out their own psychodramas. “It’s almost like a war situation,” writer Terence Winter said of working on David Chase’s The Sopranos. Director Tim Van Patten echoed this savage sentiment: “If David finds your Achilles’ heel, he will go for it, at war or play.” Deadwood and Luck creator David Milch has been described as a brilliant, generous, and addictive personality driven to create a chaotic environment. Even after Milch was known to have lost many millions of dollars to gambling, HBO continued to work with him and publicly sing his praises.

Tina Fey once generalized that while men tend to go into comedy to misbehave, “the women I know in comedy are all dutiful daughters, good citizens, mild-mannered college graduates. Maybe we women gravitate toward comedy because it is a socially acceptable way to break rules.” Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, and Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer may impersonate women behaving badly, but behind the scenes they are hardworking perfectionists. There’s less room for reckless behavior when an entire gender is being judged on the basis of how one performs, as Roseanne Barr discovered.

“The history of women in television is: if women are ‘difficult,’ they don’t work again,” says Norma Safford Vela, who wrote for Roseanne and other hit shows. Conversely, men who perpetrate foul workplace behavior rarely get their comeuppance (though that began to change in the fall of 2017, when a wave of sexual harassment revelations forced a number of powerful men to resign, in Hollywood and beyond). Safford Vela recalls having footballs thrown at her head on one set; in another writers’ room that she describes as “a frat boy world,” a producer pinned her to the floor and taunted, “Violence against women!”

Showrunning requires the commanding style of a general leading an army into battle. “You have to be really good at making decisions,” says Ayanna Floyd, who wrote for Private Practice and Empire before developing series of her own. “You might literally make ten decisions in a matter of minutes and if you’re not good at that . . . it can kill a show.”

But what happens when female assertiveness is mistaken for aggression or bitchiness? Before they created the hit series The Middle, DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler ran a show they heard might be canceled. So Heline called the network president to clarify. Heisler, who overheard the conversation, recalls, “She couldn’t have been more straightforward and professional, but later we were told that DeAnn was being uppity.” Actors and executives began telling the duo they’d acquired a “difficult” reputation when “all we did was passionately fight for what we believed as any showrunner worth their salt would.” Heisler says that the out-of-control or hostile behavior of the gonzo male showrunner simply isn’t an option for women: most successful female showrunners “run a pretty tight ship, and they get their scripts in on time because, if you’re a woman, you have to be reliable.”

Many of the women I interviewed for this book are very thoughtful about the kind of atmosphere they cultivate behind the scenes. Transparent creator Jill Soloway, who lost out on jobs after being tagged as “difficult,” leans toward a kind of soft power that relies on communal creativity: “Gathering the crew and saying, ‘I just want to let everybody know that nobody is going to get in trouble today, nobody is going to get called out for making a bad choice. I don’t know what’s going to work, but let’s see what happens.’ ” After working on toxic sets for many years, Weeds and Orange Is the New Black showrunner Jenji Kohan says her goal is simply to “run a healthy show, where everyone is good at what they do and kind to one another. And when they’re done, they go home.”

In this book, I’ve chosen to chronicle a handful of women who’ve risen to prominence by bringing unique female characters to the small screen, but this shouldn’t diminish the accomplishments of the many others not mentioned here who fought their way through the industry. Nor do I mean to suggest that only women can evoke powerful female characters; Buffy the Vampire Slayer mastermind Joss Whedon staked that fallacy in the heart. Another major TV landmark, Sex and the City, is absent from this book because, although largely written by women, it was created and run by guys: Darren Star and Michael Patrick King. It is worth noting that King’s first real TV break was writing for Murphy Brown, and Whedon got his start on Roseanne.

When I embarked on this book, there were more women running shows than ever before. This rise of twenty-first-century female-centric television coincided with an unexpected resurrection of feminism.

Not so long ago, young women had distanced themselves from that F-word, the term seemingly a sour relic from a long-ago liberation movement. But by 2015, describing yourself as a feminist was not just legit but also trendy: You could pledge allegiance to lady blogs such as Jezebel, Feministing, and The Hairpin, which served up politics, pop culture, and confessional essays. You could commodify your dissent by purchasing THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE T-shirts and SMASH THE PATRIARCHY tote bags. You could find icons such as Beyoncé performing at an awards show in front of giant letters spelling out FEMINIST, and Harry Potter star Emma Watson speechifying about gender equality at the United Nations.

This mainstreaming of feminism dovetailed perfectly with the new wave of woman-powered television, shows that offered varied representations of female life and often engaged with serious issues such as abortion, equal pay, and violence against women. This period also overlapped with Barack Obama’s progressive two-term presidency.

The Obama White House advanced LGBTQ and women’s rights. An avowed feminist, the president appointed two women to the Supreme Court and created a White House Council on Women and Girls to make sure all policy treated women fairly. Michelle Obama traded First Lady primness for stirring eloquence, using her pulpit to support girls’ education. (“Compete with the boys,” she told young women at one public event. “Beat the boys.”) And Hillary Clinton dusted off her suit jacket after the bruising 2008 presidential primary and became a hard-driving secretary of state, one of the most potent and respected figures in world politics. At every level of American society and culture, women were more visible, and more visibly empowered, than at any other time in our history.

“Small advances spark resistance, resistance that in turn provokes propellant bursts of reactive fury,” Rebecca Traister wrote in Big Girls Don’t Cry, her account of the 2008 campaign. And so it was in 2016, when Donald Trump took the presidency. Fueled in part by the reactive fury of misogyny—who will ever forget the venomous way he spat “such a nasty woman” during the final moments of the final presidential debate on October 19, 2016, as if closing his deal with the American electorate?—Trump’s election was intended as a blow to the cause of women (as well as people of color and sexual minorities of every kind). The accumulation of small but significant cultural gains during the 2000s—gains that were not just mirrored but arguably amplified on television shows such as the ones celebrated in this book—triggered a thousand-ton backlash.

Whether it was Shonda Rhimes’s “color-blind” approach to casting her hugely popular dramas or the gender-fluid complexities explored in Jill Soloway’s Transparent, television was transmitting a vision of an America that was racially vibrant and sexually progressive, a vision that turned out to be too far ahead of the actual reality of much of America, which was still attached to traditional values and traditional inequities of power. Not only were these series creating female characters living realities that Trump would undoubtedly consider nasty but some of the showrunners were actually on the campaign trail in 2016 stumping for Hillary.

Excavating the culture wars era of the late eighties when researching the parts of this book that deal with Murphy Brown and Roseanne, I felt almost dizzy as I realized we’d come full circle: all the way back to “the Backlash,” as Susan Faludi dubbed it at the time. The drive to roll back women’s reproductive rights, negate affirmative action, and defund the National Endowment for the Arts and PBS, and the attempt to insert Christianity into the classroom—it appears that the Moral Majority is back, with a fresh coat of white paint.

Just as Murphy Brown and Roseanne were prime targets for the religious right’s venom in the early nineties, now the alt-right has fixated on Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer as the poster girls of “cancerous” feminism. These women represent so much that is horrifying to Trumpites: they not only loudly support causes such as gun control and trans rights but also exude confidence in their intelligence and a comfort with their bodies, apparently unconcerned with male approval. An enclave of Trump supporters clustered at a subreddit called “the_donald” encouraged haters to flood Amazon with one-star reviews of Schumer’s memoir (and, later, did the same with Netflix and Schumer’s comedy special). Breitbart covered Lena Dunham’s every move with obsessive attention because, as then-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos explained to Bill Maher, “The Democrats are the party of Lena Dunham. These people are mental, hideous people.”

From single mom Murphy Brown to Girls’s single mom Hannah Horvath—these are the antiheroines of the middle American imagination, the women whom deplorables love to deplore and who make Red-staters see red.

Events overtook me during the writing of this book: what looked like the forward march of progress turned out to be one of history’s grand zigzags. When I started, the golden age of female TV seemed like a permanent advance; now it feels significantly more precarious and embattled. Most likely, this period will prove to be another chapter in the long saga of cultural combat to decide what kind of country America will be. In a way, it makes the creative force waged by these women all the more crucial.

About The Author

Joy Press is the TV correspondent for Vanity Fair. She was previously the chief television critic at The Village Voice, an entertainment editor and writer for Salon and the Los Angeles Times, and a contributor to publications such as New York, The Guardian, and The New York Times. She lives in Los Angeles.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (March 19, 2019)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501137723

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Raves and Reviews

“A roaring tour of women’s professional, artistic, and political impact on television and on popular culture. By turns invigorating and sobering, Stealing the Show maps the progress of the expanded voice, vision, and reach of women on television and behind its scenes.”—Rebecca Traister, New York Times bestselling author of All the Single Ladies and Big Girls Don't Cry

Joy Press’s Stealing the Show is essential reading for anyone interested in women gaining power, in how edgy storytelling comes to screens, and in brilliantly talented females taking the reins of a once-derided-as-secondary-to-movies medium during its current multi-platform explosion. It’s a page-turner that – between emergency-amped-up feminism in the age of Trump and the digitalization of....well, everything – comes at a perfect time. Shonda, Lena, Jenji, Jill, et al are the hipster powerhouses driving a new bold, wacky, humane presentation of women’s truths and images, many too-long hidden or too-long shamed. I relished their stories – and was inspired by them, too.” —Sheila Weller, author of the New York Times bestseller Girls Like Us and The News Sorority

“Please read this book immediately. It is sharp, funny, and gorgeously researched, a satisfying blend of inside dirt and critical illumination. It also places female creativity on television exactly where it belongs: dead center in the cultural conversation.”—Emily Nussbaum, television critic for The New Yorker

“With a keen eye and a sharp writing style, [Press] presents the argument that, despite the limited power of TV and the current political backlash facing women, increased representation on-screen has the potential to inspire a cultural revolution . . . . An urgent and entertaining history of the transformative powers of women in TV.”— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“[A] powerful narrative that expertly weaves reporting, analysis, and anecdotes . . . . Press’s chronicle of a pop-culture movement should inspire a new generation of women creators.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[Stealing the Show] is well-organized chronologically and is an absorbing read with some politics thrown in . . . . Highly recommended for those who enjoy reading about the entertainment industry, how their favorite TV shows are created, and women.”—Library Journal (starred review)

“Press gives television lovers an inspiring, eye-opening look into the way women are creating groundbreaking, original content.”—Booklist

"Stealing the Show is informative and incredibly entertaining, and features insight from the very women who are continuing to make cracks in television’s glass ceiling."—Bitch Media 

"Stealing the Show is a wildly entertaining and informative jaunt through the creative upheaval that’s been taking place on TV screens over the past thirty years. Crucially, the book doesn’t treat women’s contributions to this awakening as a sideshow. Rather, Press’s book is something of an alternate history of the modern TV era, a persuasive rebuke to the now-familiar story of the brilliant male showrunners and their brooding male characters who breathed new life into the medium and ushered it to the top of the cultural food chain."—Village Voice

"In this thrilling book, Joy Press weaves the most influential TV shows created by women into a cohesive narrative arc. You'll learn how Murphy Brown and Roseanne paved the way for revolutionary shows like Transparent and Orange is the New Black — and how these shows actually influenced the culture around them. Press also conjures up figures, and the writing room environments, behind the creation of these shows. Through her sharp descriptions, the showrunners become characters as interesting as the protagonists they created for seasons."— Refinery 29

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