When you think of the brilliant, bad-ass women in entertainment and media in New York, it’s hard to know where their quirky genius begins and the city ends. From Clare Boothe Luce to Helen Gurley Brown, from Gloria Steinem to Barbara Walters, Gilda Radner to Diane Keaton, Diane Sawyer, Patti Smith, Whoopi Goldberg, Nora Ephron, Tina Brown, Annie Leibovitz and Lena Dunham (not to mention the new top editor at the New York Times, Jill Abramson), women in New York are not like anyone else, including each other: They’re razor-sharp, with unique voices and an outlying vision that enter the mainstream and tug it away from the lowest common denominator and toward something smarter, funnier, more tolerant, more knowing, better.
“It’s in the water,” says maverick ICM literary agent Esther Newberg. “Shirley Chisholm ran for president. We had a black mayor early (David Dinkins, 1990-2003). This neck of the woods is more sophisticated and open.”
Susan Stroman, the five-time Tony-winning director-choreographer whose collaboration with Woody Allen on the theatrical version of his film “Bullets Over Broadway” opened April 10, puts it down to fierce competition. “You’re always up for a challenge,” she says. “You’re inspired by every one of your peers. You’re inspired by the art at the museums. You’re inspired by just the architecture of New York City!”
Growing up in Michigan informed the work of filmmaker Paul Feig (“The Heat,” “Bridesmaids”) — but, he adds, it was the insight of what you grew up with and what you knew. “In New York,” he says, “you’re constantly being confronted with things you didn’t know, you didn’t see, you heard about but you haven’t witnessed. There’s nothing wrong with living in a small town, but you naturally go into your genetically programmed fear of outsiders. That’s why the red states tend to be so conservative.”
Which is not to say that it’s easy for women in media and entertainment to make it New York.
In fact, Patti Smith told an audience at Cooper Union college in 2010 that New York had “closed itself off to the young and the struggling.” “My advice to you,” she added, “Find a new city.”
It’s true that the rents are undercutting the arts scene (as well as the lower- and middle-classes). And yet artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers continue to break down barriers in this most densely populated city in the country, and to innovate in a way that shifts paradigms.
Lena Dunham shot New York City-set “Tiny Furniture” — the film she made at age 23, which helped her land her HBO series “Girls” — on a camera her parents had given her for a gift, and using her mother, sister and friends as actors, and her parents’ Tribeca loft as a set.
Young comedians Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson made the first season of their hit comedy “Broad City,” about two millennials intimidatingly adrift in New York, as a series on the Web — the new underground for television. (The second season of the show was snapped up by Comedy Central, and is being produced by Amy Poehler.)
“We were used to doing live shows for small audiences,” Jacobson says, “and a Web series allowed us to share with our families and friends and who knows who else. It felt like the possibilities were endless.”
Steinem demonstrated that can-do spirit in New York in 1971: She launched Ms. magazine, a radical underground publication at the time, as a way to speak to the people, because the mainstream channels were so resistant to feminists. And native New Yorker Gwyneth Paltrow is doing that now — subverting the mainstream magazine world with her weekly Internet newsletter Goop, in which she uses her celebrity to bring the advice of the best (and otherwise most expensive and elusive) experts in the fields of health, diet and spirituality to anyone with a computer, for free.
Maybe, to some people, this wealthy actress’s hugely popular newsletter seems like no big deal, or even worthy of scorn (throw a rock, and you’ll hit a Gwyneth hater). But when you consider that women still make 77¢ to every man’s $1, and comprise only 14.6% of the executive officers of Fortune 500 companies, you realize exactly how much muscle, grit and guile it takes for a woman to get noticed, let alone make a difference among hundreds of thousands of people who actually need a leg up.
“You still see, in media messaging, women are not considered full people,” says Glazer, whose solo Web series, “Chronic Gamer Girl,” premiered April 20. “I’m so happy it’s 2014,” she adds. “I’m so happy I live in New York City. Because you have to find your tribe, so you don’t feel like a crazy person.”
New York women in the arts are, as a rule, tough nonconformists. By necessity they have to have thick skins. The best of them don’t ask permission to break rules, and they don’t take shit from anyone. Which is the way it has always been, and, if we’re lucky, will continue.
In 1996, Ephron gave a commencement speech at her alma mater, the all-women Wellesley College, that one might find framed on the desks of every single one of the trailblazing women from New York in the media and entertainment fields, past and present: “Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.”