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Against the odds, women have changed the face of TV: 'Stealing the Show' looks at three decades of female showrunners

Against the odds, women have changed the face of TV: 'Stealing the Show' looks at three decades of female showrunners
Producer Shonda Rhimes at ABC's "Scandal" 100th episode celebration in West Hollywood, California on April 8, 2017. (Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

"Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things." So says the heroine of Jenny Offill's 2014 novel "Dept. of Speculation," a mother who fantasizes about becoming such a thing — an impolite, difficult-to-work-with jerk, all in the name of expressing her artistic vision. The art monster is guided by talent and ambition and unbreakable focus, and not necessarily attention to detail.

Men have been able to be art monsters for ages, of course. There have already been a few great books about the male auteurs — creators, writers, directors and producers — who've revolutionized television in the last 25 years. Brett Martin's "Difficult Men" and Alan Sepinwall's "The Revolution Was Televised" chart how showrunners for modern classics "The Sopranos," "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" elevated television to an art form worthy of devotion and criticism as much as film is. These books argue that these showrunners (all of whom happen to be male), with their dynamic casts and innovative storytelling, ushered in a new golden age of television.

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Joy Press
Joy Press (Atria Books)

Now a new offering, "Stealing the Show," explores how women in television are beginning to catch up and how they are getting to be art monsters themselves. Joy Press, former L.A. Times books and culture editor, began to write "Stealing the Show" at a time when four out of five comedy series nominees at the 2015 Golden Globes had female showrunners, and television platforms were more diverse in format and point of view than ever before. From network giants Roseanne Barr and Shonda Rhimes to streaming innovators Jenji Kohan and Jill Soloway, Press charts how a group of enterprising women and gender-nonconforming individuals have not only changed whose creative visions we are able to engage with, but what kinds of characters we can see on television and whose stories get to be told.

"Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television" By Joy Press
"Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television" By Joy Press (Atria Books)

Chapter by chapter, Press charts the peaks and valleys of the female gaze through the lens of TV in the last 30 years. We see norms slowly change, from Vice President Dan Quayle questioning Murphy Brown's "family values" for daring to have a child as a single mother, to Rhimes' staff inventing a fake word for "vagina" ("vajayjay," of course) because ABC would not let her use the anatomically correct word during her prime-time hospital drama "Grey's Anatomy."

We see new kinds of characters brought to the screen: Bad mothers ("Weeds"), women with untoned naked bodies ("Girls," "Orange Is the New Black") and women who make rape jokes that are actually funny ("Inside Amy Schumer"). We see a brilliant performance by Laverne Cox, the first transgender actress to be nominated for an Emmy (for "Orange Is the New Black"), and we delight in how "Broad City"s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are"radically carefree" and successful at shunning the male gaze in favor of focusing on the friendship that anchors the show.

The women profiled in "Stealing the Show" have different goals and aesthetics, but similar themes run through Press' capsules of their careers. First, there is the battle for control with their networks — the need to assert their own working style and their creative independence, again and again (to be fair, this appears to be a problem for most art monsters of any gender). Then comes the dreaded concept of "likability," both for the creator of the show herself and the female characters she puts out in the world. Intense and opinionated female showrunners like Amy Sherman-Palladino ("Gilmore Girls") and Liz Meriwether ("New Girl") tend to be labeled as "difficult" and "volatile" even as Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham took heat for the flawed and unruly characters they depicted on screen. Then, the comedians in the group dealt with a particularly gendered problem in the early aughts, a time when Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece for Vanity Fair titled "Why Women Aren't Funny." Yet somehow Tina Fey managed to make "30 Rock" a hit anyway.

Even as Press details the specific ways that the women have changed TV, a great pleasure of reading "Stealing the Show" is her nostalgic run-through of beloved shows and the things that made them tick. She captures their magic with some choicely worded phrases: the dialogue pacing "Gilmore Girls" was "like a Ramones song transposed to television or a Hepburn-Tracy movie on speed." "Girls" was like "experiencing the world from a yoga position that is both enlightening and borderline unpleasant." As a cheerleader for these women and their projects, Press doesn't necessarily engage with their flaws so much as recast their flaws as strengths. If you're looking for backlash, consult nearly any corner of the internet instead.

So where are we now? At the 2017 Golden Globes only one out of five nominees for comedy series was created by a woman (Sherman-Palladino's "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel"). Press acknowledges the nature of culture is one step forward, two steps back: "History is a giant tease: it jerks around our hopes and assumptions, it ebbs and surges and doubles back on itself." That Donald Trump was elected partway through the writing of this book is a good reminder that culture wars against women are never-ending, and it's still an act of defiance (most often for less-than-equal pay) for women to make great art. New voices continue to emerge in the TV world, even as, for better or for worse, reboots of both "Murphy Brown" and "Roseanne" are in the works.

Roseanne Barr in an episode of ABC's "Roseanne," originally aired on October 31, 1989.
Roseanne Barr in an episode of ABC's "Roseanne," originally aired on October 31, 1989. (Courtesy of ABC / ABC)

Another event in the television industry that Press could not have predicted: the #MeToo movement has brought a great reckoning about sexual harassment in the workplace. There's no way to read Press' chapter about "Transparent" without being painfully aware that star Jeffrey Tambor was accused by two different members of the "Transparent" team of sexual harassment and was fired from the show by Amazon Studios. How the movement will evolve is hard to guess, but the more women who feel empowered to speak up against internalized misogyny, the closer we get to defining what equality might look like.

On Feb. 1, 2018, Shonda Rhimes tweeted: "Entertainment industry, time to stop using the phrases 'Smart Strong Women' and 'Strong Female Leads'. There are no Dumb Weak Women. A smart strong woman is just a WOMAN. Also? 'Women' are not a TV trend — we're half the planet." How will we know when a TV revolution has really happened? There will be a book about TV art monsters that isn't broken out by gender at all.

Kreizman is the creator of "Slaughterhouse 90210," a blog and book celebrating the intersection of literature and pop culture. She's also a writer, critic and former editorial director of Book of the Month.

Joy Press

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Atria: 320 pp., $26

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