"TV is like an empathy machine," that's why, says Joy Press, women have been stealing the show

Author Joy Press on how women are "Stealing the Show"

Published March 8, 2018 6:58PM (EST)

 (Kieran Press-Reynolds)
(Kieran Press-Reynolds)

When author Joy Press began writing "Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television," in 2015, we were already in the midst of a watershed era for females in popular entertainment. But Press couldn't have predicted how the 2016 election and the 2017 groundswell of the #MeToo movement would shape the narrative even more. 

Drawing on both cultural context and interviews with groundbreaking show runners like Diane English, Jill Soloway and Shonda Rimes, the result is a work that's part oral history, part analysis and part guidepost for where we go from here. It's also a truly entertaining peek backstage into some of the greatest television shows of the past 25 years.

Salon spoke recently to Press about culture wars, female anti-heroes and how Shondaland brought "vajayjay" into the lexicon. 

You begin the book with "Murphy Brown," which feels incredibly full circle given that now "Murphy Brown" is coming back. And you end it with "Transparent," and you have to say, "Oh, by the way, Jeffrey Tambor."  How did you manage writing this while so much was unfolding in real time?

There’s a moment you have to stop. And the world wasn’t stopping. There was only so much I could do to keep it current. The world just keeps going on, and it certainly is in terms of women. It's proceeding in all kinds of interesting and exciting directions.

People have said, “Oh, you’re so prescient that you saw all this coming.” I certainly didn’t see all of this coming. But there was very much something changing in terms of female creativity on television. That has only been borne out with more and more shows and more and more creative female showrunners and gender non-conforming showrunners.

"Murphy Brown" and "Roseanne" felt like a very important [starting] mark for me. It felt like a moment in which two extremely strong female characters and female creative forces had shaped the conversation in television in a way that very few had done before — and since — in history of female television.

Then when the 2016 election happened, I was personally knocked for a loop. I was supposed to have finished the book by then, and I thought, I need to rethink this whole thing. What am I doing? What do these shows mean? I started to feel like, “Oh, actually, this really takes on a very different meaning.”

As Trump took office, a lot of the rhetoric was the same. I saw those things that I had found in the period of my research on the nineties culture wars. It was eerie.

It was funny reading the first chapter and being thrust back into that moment when the idea that the White House could care about a TV show seemed both huge and also absurd. 

It is very weird. The thing about "Murphy Brown" is that it goes back to a moment where everybody was watching the same thing. "Murphy Brown" and "Roseanne" were hugely popular. You have these very seemingly inflammatory figures. Yet, they were very, very popular. A huge swath of America loved those shows. The vice president of America basically pointed to Murphy Brown as responsible for the downfall of the American family, and Americans watched. 

I also want to talk about where we are now. With shows like "Orange is the New Black" and "Transparent," it’s been women who have revolutionized the way that we watch television. It has been women who have been the driving forces behind the changeover in platforms like Netflix and Amazon, overwhelmingly. You go down the litany of these shows: "Fleabag," "Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,"  "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." These shows that are driven by women both in front of and behind the cameras transformed the way we watch television. 

A lot of the most exciting, innovative shows in the last five years have been created by women and been created by people of color, because there are voices that have been largely shutouts. I think television was largely guarded traditionally by male gatekeepers. It was fairly hard for women to get their vision on the air.

Jenji Kohan was a veteran TV writer and had not really managed to make anything work on network. She had various pilots. She had a show that didn’t really take off. She just didn’t seem to work within that system. When she created "Weeds," this was a moment when HBO was ascending with all of these very macho dramas. She set out to create a female anti-hero. So she created this great series based on a soccer mom who was dealing weed.

And the home that she was able to find for it was very much nipping at HBO's appeal but had not managed to really make a mark with serious drama and with serious quality original programming. Showtime took a chance on "Weeds" and Jenji Kohan, and really built their slate of shows around shows created about women. They had "Nurse Jackie," "The Big C."

And then Kohan did the same thing with "Orange Is The New Black" when she signed Netflix. They really didn’t exist yet as the network for original programming. "Orange Is The New Black" helped make Netflix this binging sensation.

When it hit everywhere, everyone was tweeting about it and obsessively talking about it. And that was exactly what they wanted. Women have benefitted from the fracturing of the network model, as more streaming platforms have occurred. You also have a lot of women come in through side doors. "Broad City" created their own content; Issa Rae created her own YouTube show. 

There’s been a way in which the exclusion of women from really being able to get their voices into mainstream network television benefitted them to make the shows they want to make, make them really original and weird and get a really strong sense what their vision. It’s sort of kind of like, “Well, I might as well just do what I’m going to do.”

But then let's talk about Shonda and what she’s done for television, because she has also really transformed it and in a very mainstream way. She has transformed our classic appointment, sit down on a Thursday night with my girlfriends television.

Shonda is a really singular figure. Looking at how it unfolded, it almost feels like a stealth attack on television. She was a successful screenwriter. She studied at USC and she had done some very successful movies and she wanted to get into television and was developing some shows for ABC. But "Grey's Anatomy" was not a show that ABC had high expectations for. It seems like it was just one of a bunch of shows that they had on their back burner. And it was an incredible hit.

Shonda was very much aware of what she likes and what she hadn’t seen on TV and was really kind of determined to do that as a pushback. She was clearly very, very strategic with her partner Betsy Beers. I just couldn’t believe what she was having to fight for on a daily basis, just basic things about being a woman in the world, being a sexual woman in the world, being a sarcastic woman, being ambitious. Every step, there were these crazy battles, having to fight to use the word vagina or to use anatomically correct words for woman’s body when these were supposed to be doctors and gynecologists.

Which is how we wind up with the vajayjay.

Vajayjay, yes. The birth of the word vajayjay was just, “Okay, we’re just going to come up with something so silly.”

It was a combination of this very creative strategy and just fantastically watchable television that was a huge hit. What you find in television is that money talks. If the show is successful, as with "Murphy Brown," as with "Grey's Anatomy," then you have leeway. You have a lot of room to play. Shonda continued to use that to break new ground without it feeling like something different was happening. It just was entertaining. There were certainly the people watching it maybe seeing things they hadn’t seen before, and identifying things that they’ve experienced that they had never seen on television.

But it wasn’t shouting at you saying, “Look at me! I’m creating a revolution in television.” It felt like a dramatic show that you had to watch and everyone wanted to talk about. Rimes really built an enormously powerful empire on the quality and watchability of her shows. In the background, she was clearly aware every step of the way of how much she had to fight for these little moments, including the questions of female ambition and having characters who didn’t want to get married, who didn’t want to have babies, whether it was on "Scandal" or "Grey's Anatomy." It was so unnatural for a female heroine to choose a job or a work or herself rather than have the focus of the story of the romantic happy ending. I think those are the shifts that she is constantly pushing for on her shows.

Which is a recurring theme in your book. We have stories about things that half of us live through, and yet have to be fought for again and again and again and again and again and again.

I didn’t realize how many things I hadn’t seen until I saw them. It’s invisible until we make something visible. And then you say, “Wow, how was it possible that this has never been on television before? How was it possible that this has never been depicted? Or depicted in this way?” So many clichés in television and on pop culture, so many things that we’ve seen over and over again and yet, there’s a crazy range of experiences.

I think that also puts an awful lot of pressure on the creators of these shows. I saw that a lot in the way that people talked about something like "Girls," where they wanted to see it represent everyone. I see it to some degree with something like "Insecure." There is so much hope and expectation placed on these shows because there aren’t enough of them. We’re hungry to see more and not just to see our own experiences, to see different experiences.

What you’re talking about is the intentional female gaze. When you see it, it is so shocking. When I see these films and television shows that are created by women, it just feels like coming home after a really, really, really long day.

There was a moment that I talk about briefly in the book, in "Transparent." There’s a middle-aged female mom character, and she's just come home from a school function and she’s just exhausted and she stands at the refrigerator naked, tired and fed up.

It’s startling when you see it because it is a concrete moment when you think, “I really don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman of that age in something that feels so real.” It feels really revelatory and at the same time it feels really upsetting to realize how blinkered what we absorb from television is.

What’s been happening in this #MeToo conversation has had a similar effect, where all kinds of experiences that women have bottled up have come out and that moves into the public domain. It’s the same thing. You start to realize the things that have not been publicly talked about and how much had been suppressed and how universal it is.

It’s the same kind of feeling when you see something on television and you think, “I’ve never seen a woman look like that. I’ve never seen a sexual experience quite like that. I’ve never seen a woman thinking to take it that way.” It’s really comes down to the feeling that a tiny fraction of human experience has really been put out there for us. TV is like an empathy machine; it opens the door to experience and walks in other people’s shoes.

For so many of us, we have walked in white men’s shoes for so long they feel like our own. And then when we actually walk in our own shoes, it’s like, “Oh my god, this is what shoes are supposed to feel like!"

White straight men are the default. That’s not to say that no straight white man ever created great female characters. They have. And they have mentored female showrunners. But I think in this case, I feel really strongly that the culture does need a wider range of voices.

I do feel optimistic at this moment. It feels like a really interesting moment when women are extremely conscious, and are making everyone around them extremely conscious. When I would ask people why there's such a small proportion of female showrunners and female directors and female leads, and the answer seemed to be unconscious bias. They’re working with people they feel comfortable with and they’re buying shows that seem interesting to them. That just happens to be about the characters that remind them of themselves when they were young. I think those biases are now conscious and out in the world.

You don’t know what you’re missing until you see it in front of you. So now we’re starting to see it. We’re seeing like traces of it and we have characters like Mindy Lahiri and Hannah Horvath and Issa. And it’s like, “Well, okay, so now we know what we’ve been missing. We know we have a little trace of a sense of what’s possible.” I can’t imagine how we put that genie back in the bottle.

This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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