In the spring of 2015, Joy Press had an epiphany. As she writes in her extremely engaging new book, Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television, that year saw the premieres of more than a dozen new series, from Marvel’s Jessica Jones to rom-com musical Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, centered on and created by women — “as many as had emerged in the three previous years combined.”
Television, particularly network prime time, has traditionally attracted more female viewers than male. Yet, as Press — a former Village Voice TV critic — recounts, it took decades of female writers, performers, and creators to persuade the mostly male executives who literally ran the show that stories about women were not vegetables; that they could be just as meaty as programs centered on men, if not more so — even as they mixed in some “mind-nourishing feminism,” like shredding carrots into cupcake batter.
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. (For more on this, see Alan Sepinwall’s 2013 book, The Revolution Was Televised; Brett Martin’s 2014 book, Difficult Men; and Tad Friend’s recent, fascinating profile of Donald Glover.) A savory blend of reporting and criticism, Stealing the Show reorients this conversation, placing women front and center, starting with Murphy Brown’s 1988 premiere and ending with the arrival, in 2014, of Transparent.
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Stealing the Show is a corrective to young viewers who might think the debate about “likable” female characters began with Hannah Horvath. Diane English, who created the CBS sitcom Murphy Brown, remarks that the network was concerned no one would like the title character, a middle-aged, single, career-driven woman played by Candice Bergen: “The word unlikable came up all the time. All…the…time.” While the title character of English’s show was “a human tempest, a ruthless dervish whirling through prime time,” Press writes, English herself “worked smoothly and quietly to get what she needed.” Elsewhere, she points to the similarity between Murphy Brown’s fussy perfectionism and that of Gilmore Girls matriarch Emily Gilmore (Kelly Bishop) — the former cycles through a different secretary every week, while the latter does the same with her housemaids. Both gags, Press suggests, gesture toward the perfectionist impulses of the series’ creators.
There’s a slight irony in writing a book about women’s contributions to television that argues against siloing female creators. But, like so many of the women she profiles — including Shonda Rhimes (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy), Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange Is the New Black), Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project), and Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls) — Press seems to understand that women often have to sneak their ideas into the mainstream in whatever packaging the entertainment industry sees fit, even if those ideas have nothing to do with women’s issues per se. (Or, sometimes, when they do: I’d completely missed the fact that the word vajayjay entered the popular lexicon after a Grey’s Anatomy writer used it in place of vagina — which ABC’s Standards and Practices department initially objected to, even in a medical context. It did not have a problem with the word penis.)
The book is full of vivid illustrations of women who helped push television to the culturally dominant position it’s now in. Tina Fey, Press writes, helped steer Saturday Night Live “back into the zeitgeist” when she was promoted to head writer in 1999 — the first woman to hold the job in the show’s history. Jenji Kohan’s Weeds reframed Showtime “as a creative daredevil…a brash upstart nipping at HBO’s heels.” Press calls Sex and the City “HBO’s first zeitgeist-defining hit” — even though, as former HBO president Sue Naegle tells her, “every time there was a female-lead show that worked, no one wanted to repeat it.”
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Stealing the Show is, essentially, a study in how the television industry suppresses and belittles women’s stories. (“This is the business model: If you get men to watch it, you make money,” New Girl creator Liz Meriwether quips.) Press points out that genres that skew female, like soap operas and melodramas, often come with “a kind of lowbrow stench”; elsewhere, she writes that producer Lisa Vinnecour, who’s worked on United States of Tara, Weeds, and Orange Is the New Black, takes issue with using the word diva to describe fussy female performers: “These are artists,” Vinnecour says. Press describes how Transparent creator Jill Soloway learned to structure an ensemble series from her time writing for Six Feet Under — that show’s creator, Alan Ball, was a fan of General Hospital, and he “elevated the soap structure into a finely woven tapestry of ideas.”
At just under 300 pages, Stealing the Show is such a fun read, it’s almost deceptively informative. Press’s research yields unexpected delights — particularly for readers under thirty, who may not remember some of these details — like the rumor, swirling around the internet after Gilmore Girls premiered, that creator Amy Sherman-Palladino was actually a pseudonym for Aaron Sorkin and two other male writers who’d worked on his shows. (“What’s funny is that the rumor wasn’t even that I was fronting for him,” Sherman-Palladino told a reporter in 2001. “It was, I didn’t even exist.”)
The book shrewdly contextualizes the contemporary reactions to the series it describes — including the backlash from female viewers who took issue with, say, 30 Rock’s casting a privileged, wealthy, white woman as a feminist hero, or the fact that the Brooklyn of Girls is so blindingly white. Usually, the writers “embedded” such critiques in the shows themselves; the entitlement of the women on Girls, Press writes, “was an intentional feature of the show rather than a mistake.” As cultural critic Lili Loofbourow writes in a recent essay in the Virginia Quarterly Review, “We still have not quite learned to see female storytellers as either masterful or intentional.” As admiring as she is, Press does not wax poetic about these storytellers’ inherent brilliance; her emphasis is on the specific ways in which they got their respective visions to air; not on their inscrutable genius, but on their steady work ethic. As Broad City‘s Ilana Glazer says, “We work so hard to create the space within we can just play” — and, as Press adds, “They are also making room for all of us to experiment.”