STEALING THE SHOW: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television, by Joy Press. Atria Books, 311 pp., $26.
We hear you, straight white guys. You hardly see yourselves on TV anymore. Seems like it’s all black people, LGBT people, chubby chicks, prison inmates and female butt-kickers now. Who can you guys identity with? Must be frustrating.
Of course it is. Welcome to the club of “other” viewers. TV used to be dominated by the “universal” worldview of “ordinary” people — as defined by the mostly male series makers. Men were the default focus of stories supplying them with housewife helpmates, minority background faces and virtually no sexual orientations/identities other than their own. This cultural norm left “different” people on the sidelines, outside looking in.
Until those “other” perspectives got a foot in the door, over the past 30 years, and especially the past 15. That expanding focus is chronicled in TV critic Joy Press’ scrupulously reported and lovingly written history “Stealing the Show,” subtitled “How Women Are Revolutionizing Television.” Press builds her chronological chapters around talks with series originators who just happen to be women, and who have redefined TV-normal by placing characters who just happen to be women/gay/whatever at the forefront.
Shows can now evoke “how it feels to be . . . a woman instead of what it’s like to look at them,” says Jill Soloway, creator of Amazon’s acclaimed “Transparent” tale of fluid identity, transsexual and otherwise. Soloway revels in embracing the self-assurance that mainstream men have, “since they were born [thinking] that it is their job to take up space and run [things].”
The idea of woman as center of her own universe, flaunting her opinions and finding her power, got its network TV kick-start from late-’80s sitcom “Murphy Brown,” contends Press. Candice Bergen’s bulldozing TV reporter was living “without any man in her life helping her out,” says series creator Diane English. Roseanne Barr’s “Roseanne” took that attitude home, as her working-class wife battled, Press writes, “to be a decent mom while making a living and not entirely letting go of her sense of self.”
“Roseanne” writer Amy Sherman-Palladino would go on to create The WB’s “Gilmore Girls,” reclaiming the term “girls” to describe its core relationship between a BFF mom and teen daughter. Their ultra-literate chatter upended what Press calls “a presumption that relegated a female-driven show to the cultural margins.”
(Here’s your cultural impact: “Gilmore” has already been revived by Netflix; the “Roseanne” cast picks up 20 years later on ABC on March 27; “Murphy” is due back on CBS this fall.)
With her 2005 stealth hospital hit “Grey’s Anatomy,” creator Shonda Rhimes kicked the doors wide open, casting women, blacks, gays and more “others” in lead roles written as if they were all, y’know, “regular” people. That approach built Rhimes into a production powerhouse handling up to a half-dozen dramas at a time. Meanwhile, women writer-actors were demanding attention on-screen, too — Tina Fey on “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” Mindy Kaling on “The Mindy Project.”
Cable and streaming offered even greater freedom. HBO’s “Girls” stormed the “last frontier,” explicit female sexuality. Creator-star Lena Dunham’s average body, often seen casually naked, shocked male viewers long accustomed to model-thin women glammed up to please the “male gaze.” That subversion multiplied on Comedy Central’s sketch satire “Inside Amy Schumer” and girl-buddy-com “Broad City,” two more distinctive lenses on their creator-stars’ gender-fueled worldviews.
The personal tack extends behind the camera. Press explores how her showrunners encourage cast/crew bonding to “cultivate intimacy” and create a “safety bubble” in which to explore daring ideas. That embrace also extends to viewers, through the connective online blogs and social media embraced by women. Fans feel a keener sort of kinship, while social media’s amplifying power drives cultural impact.
Press, whose writing and editing stops include the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times and Salon.com, neatly nestles her TV revolution in the context of its times: While women’s breakthrough was enabled by channel proliferation and audience fragmentation, other social/cultural media shifts allowed creative voices to resonate louder than fractional ratings might suggest. These shows aren’t made by women for women, they’re made to render a wider range of experience. “New Girl” creator Liz Meriwether doesn’t only have Zooey Deschanel’s “manic pixie” character — initially considered a male-aimed fantasy — stand up for her own right to be whatever type of “girl” she wants. Meriwether also explores what Press calls her male roommates’ “crisis of modern masculinity” at a moment when they “don’t know what being a man is supposed to involve nowadays.”
Once you’ve stolen the show, it’s yours to shape.