Women In TV
Women Make the Best TV
Female creators and showrunners aren’t just taking more places atop the TV landscape, they’re reinventing the whole medium.
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The female prisoners are trying to stage a peaceful protest by standing on the cafeteria tables.
But as the guards rush in to break it up, chaos erupts. One inmate, still reeling from a violent fight the guards forced her into for their own betting ring, is repeating, “I did a bad thing,” as she throws herself against windows and trash cans. A white male corrections officer tries to subdue her; another inmate comes to her defense. Soon, the officer is trying to restrain both of them. In doing so, he kneels on that second inmate, a slight, sweet-faced Black woman named Poussey. She suffocates as the screaming and tussling continues around her.
This devastating moment comes near the end of Orange Is the New Black’s fourth season. The entire season had been leading to this perfectly scripted and acted moment, the death of one of its most beloved characters, so much so that its implications in the real world’s Black Lives Matter movement sneak up on a viewer only after she’s done mourning the loss of Poussey.
It’s scenes such as this that have made Orange Is the New Black a defining television show of the 2010s. It’s also a perfect example of what has become the true Golden Age of TV—an era driven by shows with female creators, including OITNB’s Jenji Kohan.
The recent fall of some of TV’s most recognized creative forces in what has widely been called the medium’s Golden Age—House of Cards star Kevin Spacey, Louie auteur Louis C.K., Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, Master of None creator-star Aziz Ansari—inspired an IndieWire piece that wondered in its headline if “the medium’s brightest era has gone dark.”
Not only is this melodramatic, it’s simply not true. In fact, women are actually leading the current Golden Age, artistically speaking—and leaving most of the male auteurs in the dust. Sure, in the early 2000s The Sopranos creator David Chase proved that TV could be an artform on par with Scorsese movies, but he did it mainly by making a show that beautifully mimicked Scorsese movies. Weiner and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, among others, ran with this edict to wonderful, critically acclaimed results. But female creators are the ones who have used the medium itself to true artistic effect, like the way Jennie Snyder Urman turns telenovela tropes into magical realism on Jane the Virgin or Kohan paints an increasingly sprawling, complete picture of the women’s prison system with every flashback on Orange Is the New Black. They’re not just mimicking cool movies; they’re revolutionizing the form, and, in fact, using it to say more about our current times than the male-driven shows before them did. They’re interesting artistically and provoking conversations about immigration, criminal justice and incarceration, race, sexual assault, and more.
Interestingly, some of TV’s earliest developments—in its first Golden Age—were also led by women. As the new medium battled to overcome audiences’ radio habits in the 1940s and ’50s, few men wanted to gamble their futures on TV. This left the door wide open for ambitious women. One of the first sitcoms on television, The Goldbergs, was the creation of writer-actress Gertrude Berg, who starred first on the radio version of her show and on the TV adaptation from 1949 to 1951. The legendary Betty White co-created her own domestic-life sitcom, Life With Elizabeth, which ran from 1952 to 1955. And Lucille Ball, of course, produced her standard-bearing 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy—which also had a female co-creator and co-showrunner, Madelyn Pugh.
Of course, as television grew in influence and audience size, men took over. Even landmark women’s shows such as That Girl, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Maude were created by men. An exhaustively researched new book by TV critic Joy Press, Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television, serves as the essential antidote to Brett Martin’s 2013 history Difficult Men by highlighting the women who, through a bit of luck and lot of brute force, broke through that patriarchal wall to make innovative work. Playwright-turned-TV writer Diane English, for instance, brought us a prickly, single, over-40 TV newswoman named Murphy Brown, whose decision to have a baby out of wedlock became a 1992 presidential campaign talking point. Comedian Roseanne Barr turned her standup act—in which she railed sarcastically against being a “domestic goddess”—into a mind-blowing combination of traditional family sitcom, feminist thinkpiece, and paean to the blue-collar class on Roseanne from 1988 to 1997. Following what Press calls “two of the most brazenly feminist sitcoms ever to grace prime time,” former Roseanne writer Amy Sherman-Palladino built a feminist utopia on Gilmore Girls from 2000 to 2007, melding screwball comedy, mother-daughter drama, and class issues. It would never get the critical recognition it deserved—always and still a hallmark of some of the best shows to come from female minds.
The early 2000s dawn of the current Golden Age had sexism baked right into it. The first shows hailed as artistic breakthroughs focused, without exception, on white, middle-aged men, often engaged in angsty struggles with their own sense of masculinity.
During those years, as men racked up TV awards for this work, women were starting to make TV that moved the medium forward artistically and made room for racial, sexual, and gender inclusivity. When Grey’s Anatomy became a surprise sensation in 2005, its Black, female creator, Shonda Rhimes, became a brand name and eventually built a sprawling TV empire whose likes haven’t been seen since Dick Wolf’s Law & Order franchise. No woman of color—aside from, perhaps, Oprah—has ever amassed such power in Hollywood. Rhimes’s pioneering inclusive casting on Grey’s proved a show could be a hit with varying skin tones among its leads; that success allowed her to subsequently create two major hits starring Black women, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. Her Shondaland brand became its own unique subgenre of television: the smart soap opera filled with powerful women who are allowed to be as deeply flawed—and thus as multidimensional and interesting to play—as Tony Soprano or Don Draper. Rhimes’s unwavering support had real-life effects for the women who played them: How to Get Away With Murder’s Viola Davis became the first Black actress to win a lead acting Emmy, and Grey’s Anatomy’s Ellen Pompeo became one of television’s highest paid actors when she signed a $20 million annual contract (with Rhimes’s support) this year. As Press writes in Stealing the Show, “The story of Shondaland is sprinkled with refreshing fuck-yous. At a time when the number of unconventional female TV characters could be counted on one hand, Rhimes sneaked a whole squadron onto prime time.”
Press’s book also pays tribute to the contributions of Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling over a similar period, noting their advances in the “single-girl” sitcom genre that began in the 1960s and ’70s with That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, through Murphy Brown and Sex and the City, to the women who were finally able to create and star in their own shows like Betty White and Lucille Ball did in TV’s early days. These women, Press writes, showed up right in time to refute the 2006 revival of the “women aren’t funny” argument, this time dredged up by polemicist Christopher Hitchens in a Vanity Fair article. Hitchens, Press astutely writes, “inadvertently pinpointed why funny women threaten so many men” when he said, “Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence. … [I]t could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals.” Kaling also did something else of significance: She was one of the few Indian-American leads on television, one of the few women of color to create and star in her own show, and the only one to do so in that lineage of single-woman sitcoms.
A string of distinctively Millennial voices joined this lineage in the 2010s: Girls creator and star Lena Dunham, comedian Amy Schumer with her sketch show Inside Amy Schumer, and Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. Their generational ability to give no fucks is clear in their aesthetics; they all draw humor from reveling in the least ladylike parts of themselves. Dunham dares to get naked in often deliberately unsexy ways. Schumer skewers herself as ditzy, hard-drinking, and sexually voracious. Jacobson and Glazer depict their single lives in Brooklyn as the polar opposite of the glamorous New York life of Sex and the City, with healthy doses of bathroom and slapstick humor. They talk nonchalantly about masturbation and specific sex acts like pegging, all while identifying as so openly feminist that Hillary Clinton made a guest appearance during her presidential campaign. All of these women’s decisions to flout the traditional standards of female comportment earned them varying degrees of “media clusterfuckdom,” as Press writes.
That “clusterfuckdom” of rabid, prurient attention has often been female creators’ consolation prize in lieu of the nearly universal critical acclaim lavished on meditations on masculinity like The Sopranos and Mad Men. Jenji Kohan’s surprise hit Orange Is the New Black broke that barrier to officially usher in this new Golden Age for women. It’s no coincidence that it was a streaming service, Netflix, that took a chance on Kohan’s vision; as a result, she planted a flag for women in the TV evolution that streaming represents.
As one of the first to create a major series for a streaming service, Kohan perfected the propulsive storytelling that made the show one of the first binge-watch sensations, effectively transforming how we consume television today. This points to one hallmark of this female-driven Golden Age: Many of these shows aren’t simply required viewing to slog through for cultural literacy’s sake; they are actually a joy to watch, even if they sometimes present hard truths. And those hard truths are another of these shows’ hallmarks. The Sopranos beautifully and novelistically examined ideas about modern masculinity, but Orange Is the New Black has spent its five seasons diving into a long list of relevant issues: the horrors of for-profit prisons and prison overcrowding; prison guard violence and sexual assault of inmates; and how race and class lead minorities and poor people almost inevitably to incarceration. Kohan took plenty of criticism for telling the first season’s stories mainly through the perspective of privileged, white Piper Chapman as she enters prison on a drug charge; however, the show was based on a memoir by the white, privileged Piper Kerman, and Kohan significantly widened its perspective to make a much richer series. Kohan, in fact, called Piper her “Trojan Horse”: “You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.”
Jill Soloway’s Transparent put Amazon on the map in 2014 the same way Orange did for Netflix the year before. And it won five Emmys for its very first season. The series confidently toggles among a family’s present, its flashback past, and its history two generations back to show how both Jewishness and gender have informed their lives; the result was the most experimental, intellectual, queer, feminist show ever seen. (Though Transparent is still grappling behind the scenes with its own #MeToo moment, with two co-workers accusing star Jeffrey Tambor of sexual misconduct.) It’s impossible to name a show more artistically and politically daring. Along with its progressive views, Transparent has also offered viewers a season-long flashback to Weimar Germany, a season-long meditation on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and a family full of characters flawed enough to rival the prisoners of Orange.
The work of Rhimes, Kohan, and Soloway made way for the many truly innovative series women have created in the last few years. Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend uses music video tropes—and original songs—to make important (and often hilarious) points about beauty standards, sexual orientation, and mental illness. Sherman-Palladino’s comeback via Amazon’s streaming service, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, combines Mad Men’s era, Gilmore Girls’ banter, the glossy production values of a prestige show, and a storyline reminiscent of the life of comedy groundbreaker Joan Rivers.
HBO’s Insecure has been a standout among the female-driven work of the past few years. The show has turned its creator and lead, Issa Rae, from YouTube famous to mainstream famous, and the cable network has at long last lent its prestige seal of approval to a predominantly Black, female-centric comedy. Rae’s clear artistic vision, backed by HBO’s lush production budgets, takes the legacy of shows like Living Single and Sex and the City and runs with it. And Insecure transcends those influences, giving it a shot at something neither enjoyed—respect across race and gender lines. It’s unapologetic in its blackness, femaleness, and sex-positivity, each of which would be revolutionary on its own. Together, they make Insecure unlike anything TV has ever witnessed.
Even some of the men who have fallen in Hollywood’s #MeToo reckoning ensured their own enduring TV legacy by—ironically enough—mentoring some of the strongest female voices in today’s Golden Age. Louis C.K.’s sometime Louie co-star and frequent collaborator, Pamela Adlon, created her own biting FX comedy, Better Things, in 2016. The acclaimed show features an actual grown woman facing the complexities of single parenting—and she’s allowed to be complex herself. Lena Waithe rose to prominence as a standout on Ansari’s Master of None and became the first Black woman to win a comedy writing Emmy for an episode she based on her own coming out. She has subsequently created Showtime’s dramatic series The Chi, which premiered earlier this year, telling realistic, nuanced stories about a Black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side without shying away from the effects of rampant gun violence or police brutality—critical at a time when our president continues to paint the region as a war zone that’s not worth saving. The demand for authentic women’s storytelling has become so strong that their association with these toxic male producers can’t bring them down.
On top of all that, most of the women who have risen to power in this new Golden Age are using that power to replicate their success and pay it forward, producing new shows for new female talents. Last year, Shonda Rhimes signed a game-changing deal to move from ABC Studios, her home of 15 years, to Netflix, where she’ll enjoy the unrestricted creativity of streaming. Meanwhile, two of the godmothers of this Golden Age of Women are returning to television, with a Roseanne reboot returning to ABC later this month and a Murphy Brown reboot in the works. Women are taking over the airwaves and the streaming waves, mining the past and the future for stories worth telling. TV will be just fine without men shaping the stories—in fact, it will be much better off. The female-driven Golden Age has always been in progress, with or without them.
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