Stealing The Show is an apt title for a book telling the herstory of women who have revolutionised television. Apt because, invariably, the stories of those women – from Shonda Rhimes to Tina Fey to Jenji Kohan – involve exactly that. Women slipping under the radar, stepping through side doors and sneaking female narratives on to the small screen without awakening the sleeping patriarchal giant of the network executives.
Author Joy Press, a critic and former pop-culture editor of the LA Times, knows that women have to be especially resourceful to make it to the top. And, once they are there, their hands are tied tightly, for example by a network that refused to allow the word “vagina” in a medical drama – that particular incident led to the seminal creation of “vajayjay” for Grey’s Anatomy.
In the course of interviewing the writers, creators and actors of some of television’s successful women-centric shows, Press stumbled across the ghosts of dozens of projects that never made it to air.
“You realise how many shows were pitched, certainly in America, [to] which the network said, ‘No, that female character is too unlikeable or too wild, or she needs to be married, or she’s too aggressive’,” she explains. “In a lot of ways, the shows that are in the book are the ones that found a way to sneak through… You don’t know what you didn’t have. There’s a whole history of lost things, some of which maybe weren’t very good, but a lot of which were just not up to the standards that television gatekeepers were keeping them to.”
These standards lead to arguments ranging from wincing at storylines dealing with abortion (Roseanne), confusion at rounded female characters (Gilmore Girls), misleading marketing campaigns (New Girl), misogynistic audience backlash (Girls) and concerns over lack of star power (Orange Is The New Black).
When Press started writing the book, in 2015, it was an attempt to document the shift she had seen in shows created by women. “I think there was a sense that we were moving in this direction; we were going to probably have a female president by the time the book came out. A lot of the TV creators in the book were supporting Hillary Clinton – I mean Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer were on the campaign trail. Shonda Rhimes had actually created the convention video for Clinton.”
It’s such a strange thing to have a million different kinds of male characters on television and yet female characters are expected to represent everyone. They’re expected to be role models
She was two-thirds of the way through writing when Trump won the election and she realised that the women creators she was profiling were part of the trigger for the backlash the US was experiencing – they were in the middle of the cultural conversation.
For so long, the path had been too narrow, explains Press: “I do think both behind the scenes and in front of the camera – a female director, a female showrunner, an actress – they’re considered representative of their gender. It’s such a strange thing to have a million different kinds of male characters on television and yet female characters are expected to represent everyone. They’re expected to be role models.”
This becomes even more complicated when women create and star in their own shows, as with Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, Issa Rae, and Abbi and Ilana of Broad City. Press credits this to women finding unconventional side roads into the business that involved centring themselves in their own work. But it is a double-edged sword – as they retain control, they also become merged with their fictional alter egos.
“There’s no doubt that almost all of these women that we’re talking about bear not that much resemblance to their characters,” Press explains. “Lena Dunham is an incredibly driven, hard-working artist and her character is a really feckless, problematic person who has had a really hard time getting anywhere because she’s constantly screwing herself up. Abbi and Ilana from Broad City could never have made a YouTube show, let alone a television show, if they were as stoned and as wild and slackerish as their characters. Some of the things that make them so original and loveable to their core audience are the things that make them targets for the world.”
Not least because those women in charge are defying gender expectations themselves in heading up gigantic, expensive and unruly productions. As Press says: “Part of the thing with the male auteur is that they’re strong and that they have a sense of vision and they achieve it at all costs. And it’s very, very hard for a woman in charge to achieve that sense of control and passion and vision within the realm of behaviour that people find acceptable for women.”
So, what is next for women in television? Press is wondering whether we will see the #MeToo movement represented on the small screen: “I’d love to start seeing those things that we’re feeling start filtering into television; I don’t feel that we had super-subtle portraits of that stuff.”
She had completed the book when the Weinstein scandal broke, but was able to make some edits and additions as it went to press in order to give it some context. She admits: “This book entered a completely different environment to the one even it was finished in.”
But with the likes of Fleabag, Insecure and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Press is optimistic: “It’s been kind of remarkable. I wasn’t sure it would carry on. It’s still possible things will roll back, but it’s incredibly exciting at the moment to see this explosion of talent – it certainly feels like it’s picking up speed. Someone will have to write that book.”