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Two Outstanding Books Explore the Progress and Pitfalls for Women in TV

Hollywood is hard on everyone involved, to be sure — but if we’ve learned anything in the last six months, it’s particularly hard on women and people of color.

As decades’ worth of statistics have shown, men of color, women of color, white women, and LGBT individuals are regularly shunted to the margins, if not out of the industry for good. Breaking down how and why that happens — whether in writers’ rooms, on sets, or in executive suites — couldn’t be more valuable, because those tales offer clues about how to dismantle the endemic bias that still lurks in every corner of the industry.

Two fine new books about the TV industry — “Stealing the Show” by Joy Press and “Just the Funny Parts” by Nell Scovell — are truly a lot of fun to read, packed with anecdotes and details guaranteed to enthrall pop culture fans. But beyond simply being juicy page-turners, they both provide lessons in how to combat Hollywood’s inherent sexism, given t hat they chronicle the paths of impressive women who managed to defy the odds and carve out substantial careers in TV, despite any number of obstacles put in their way.

“Stealing the Show” documents the rise of a number of female showrunners who helped change the industry in the last few decades, among them Liz Meriwether, Mindy Kaling, Jill Soloway, Jenji Kohan and Amy Sherman-Palladino. The Golden Age of the aughts was one where white male auteurs largely held sway, but Press’ book travels further back in time to the creation of shows like “Murphy Brown,” “Gilmore Girls” and “Roseanne,” to deftly describe the challenges those programs and their creators faced, and to talk to her interview subjects about how they helped set the stage for the evolution of female protagonists on TV.

Press, who has worked for the Los Angeles Times and the Village Voice, is a engaging, gifted writer, and each chapter is a feast of details, revelations and inside dirt. The chapter on “Grey’s Anatomy,” for example, chronicles its exciting rise from mid-season ABC “afterthought” to juggernaut to the foundation of the Shondaland empire. But it also gives Press, Shonda Rhimes and her collaborators a chance to dig into why, not that long ago, getting women of color on TV as protagonists was such a difficult task.

It’s hardly an issue that has gone away. Black women still represent only 19% of all speaking roles on TV, and at the broadcast networks, the employment of women as directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and DPs has essentially “frozen” at around 27 percent — just one percent higher than the 2006-2007 season, according to a 2017 study. In TV, real progress is glacial, if it comes at all. 

“A number of things surprised me while writing the book, but the biggest one was how slowly things changed,” Press tells Variety. “I decided to start with ‘Murphy Brown’ and ‘Roseanne,’ because it felt like an important moment when shows about wildly outspoken, strong, complicated women (with equally strong women behind the scenes) could exist at the center of American pop culture. It should’ve changed the TV landscape forever, but it didn’t. It was like women had to keep fighting the same battles over and over, carving out tiny victories and chipping away at the narrow behavioral paths women were allowed onscreen.”

Scovell, too, has enjoyed her share of triumphs: She was the creator and showrunner of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and has worked on more than a dozen other shows, many in the comedy realm, which is famously unforgiving to women. But she tells Variety that her initial obliviousness to the sexism women face shielded her, at least for a while. 

“I entered the workforce in the late ‘80s thinking we were well down the road to equality. Gloria Steinem, Flo Kennedy, Betty Friedan and so many others had fought hard so that women of my generation could have the same career as any man. I was naive,” she says. “My sense is that women just starting out today are less naive. They seem more aware that women and people of color still face obstacles which are baked into our culture. I hope this knowledge will help them better navigate through an unfair system.”

Her dissection of the toxic atmosphere that existed during her time on David Letterman’s “Late Night” writing staff is a must-read, as is her exploration of the fallout from a brave essay she wrote in 2009 about that experience. In both books, there are haunting and intelligent examinations of what it’s like to be the only woman in a writers’ room (where men and women of color are even more rare), and evocations of the exhaustion that sets in from having to fight the same kinds of gender-related battles over and over again.

As Press says, “so many of the showrunners and TV writers I spoke to — from ‘Murphy Brown’ creator Diane English to Shonda Rhimes to Jill Soloway — recalled being told that a female character they’d written was problematic in some way: unlikable, difficult, slutty, loud, old, fat, ornery. I had spent years watching, thinking about and writing about television, yet I had never fully understood how much what we watched was shaped by these restrictions until they began melting away (or being burned off) in the last decade.”

Along the way, many of the women who fought these battles had their own #MeToo moments; Scovell’s story about a predatory showrunner she worked for is all the more heartbreaking for being rendered so matter of factly. Her book is also terrific on the kind of sabotage women directors often have to silently deal with (another endemic, far-from-solved problem in the industry). Scovell also quotes one of her friends as saying that being a showrunner is like being “beaten to death with your own dream,” which is the most accurate description of the job I’ve ever seen.   

Though both books were mostly written before the revelations that began with Harvey Weinstein, they are right on time. They’re not simply necessary, enjoyable and well-crafted. As you read these honest and thoughtful stories, you may sense the lurking shadows of the women who were pushed out or who left, because the hurdles and psychic costs were just too high. It would be nice to think that, because these women already fought so many battles, Hollywood’s sifting machine won’t work quite so well in the future.

That’s the dream, anyway.

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