Author Joy Press on The Importance of Female Showrunners
WFTV is delighted to share this special guest blog post written by Joy Press, author of brand new book Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television.
“I decided to write a book dedicated to the struggles and triumphs of American female TV creators who fought their way through Hollywood and changed television forever.”
I grew up hungrily searching my TV screen for smart, weird, complicated female characters. When I found one – Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown, Jane Tennison, Roseanne Conner – I avidly followed her trail. Although I knew why I craved role models like these fictional women, I never thought about who had created them, nor why they were so few and far between.
During the second half of the twentieth century, women’s lives changed enormously. They expanded their ability to control reproduction, to pursue a career, to decide when (or whether) to marry. Yet surprisingly few of these revolutionary changes were reflected on the small screen. Part of the reason for that was that very few women had creative control over the shows we watched. TV largely ignored the experience of the female half of its audience.
Histories of television’s much-ballyhooed golden age skip over female-focused shows, focusing instead on the prickly and tempestuous male auteurs. So I decided to write a book dedicated to the struggles and triumphs of American female TV creators who fought their way through Hollywood and changed television forever.
The gender imbalance in who gets to create, direct, and write TV has dramatically shifted in the last five to ten years. Women increasingly took charge of writers rooms, ran their own shows, and, as the central characters onscreen, acted out a version of contemporary womanhood that was complex, messy, and risky as real life.
A torrent of comedies and dramas (not to mention shows that are thrillingly unclassifiable) have upturned the TV status quo, remaking the wider culture and changing all our ideas of what it means to be a woman. This revolution is occurring on both sides of the Atlantic: the U.K. has produced exhilaratingly raw and nervy comedies like Catastrophe, Chewing Gum, and Fleabag, while American cable and network channels have brought us such edgy entertainments as Orange is the New Black, Broad City, Transparent, Jessica Jones, Insecure, Inside Amy Schumer, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
The writers of these series don’t exclusively focus on female characters, of course – indeed the men are often as exquisitely etched as the women – but they are responsible for an avalanche of quality television that doesn’t confine women within cliched roles or shunt them to the margins of the action.
“when the showrunner is female, far more women get hired as writers and far more women get cast in major roles.”
Many of the women I interviewed for my book talked about starting out on their careers and finding themselves to be the sole woman in the writer’s room. They were expected to be tough enough to deal with the rough and tumble of these macho working environments, but also to rein in their own aggression in order to avoid being dubbed “difficult.” Over the years, some were asked to soften the edges of female lead characters, to make them sexier or younger or, yes, less “difficult.” Others found that when they proposed new female-centred series they would be told to bring in more male characters: conventional wisdom decreed that shows about women relating to other women just wouldn’t appeal to the mass audience.
You can track the effect of these constraints and pressures in the statistics. According to a report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, out of all the American series on the air in the 2016/17 season, only one in five creators of broadcast TV shows was female. Even in the supposedly more adventurous cable and streaming outlets, the ratio is only marginally better: one in four. Still, the report did note something else that gives cause for optimism: when the showrunner is female, far more women get hired as writers and far more women get cast in major roles.
Why does this matter so much? Because growing up in a world where you don’t see any versions of yourself reflected in the culture sends you a subliminal message: that as a woman, you’re invisible and unimportant. Because there are a million ways to be human, and watching different and complicated women puzzle their way through the world is bound to be inspiring.
In a virtuous circle, the stronger and richer portraits of women being created by the female showrunners, writers and performers responsible for today’s television revolution are surely inspiring a new generation who will be even more confident and fearless in representing the reality of their lives. In this way, TV doesn’t just reflect the world as it is; it can change it for the better.
Joy Press’ Stealing the Show: How Women are Revolutionizing Television is published on Thursday 8th March by Faber. Pre-order here.
About Joy Press
Joy Press has been writing about popular culture for twenty years and specifically about television for more than a dozen years. In the early 2000s, she was the chief television critic at The Village Voice, where she wrote weekly reviews and features from a perspective that combined feminism and fandom. She then served as entertainment editor of Salon and most recently was a TV editor at the Los Angeles Times, where in addition to commissioning coverage of the latest series, she wrote features and essays on the medium. She has contributed to publications including The New York Times, Slate, Vogue, the Guardian, and Salon. She lives in Los Angeles.