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Author Joy Press tracks the unseen fight to get real women's stories on TV

Rosanne Barr, center, fought to keep her vision intact for the original
Rosanne Barr, center, fought to keep her vision intact for the original "Roseanne."
TVLine (via YouTube)
Rosanne Barr, center, fought to keep her vision intact for the original
Netflix's "Orange is the New Black," created by Jenji Cohen, is an example of how streaming services provided opportunities for women producers.
JoJo Whilden/Netflix
Rosanne Barr, center, fought to keep her vision intact for the original
The producers of "Grey's Anatomy" had to battle the network for permission to say "vagina" on the air. (pictured: cast member Sandra Oh.)

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"Roseanne" is back on ABC with the show's original cast and there are talks of CBS bringing back "Murphy Brown" – another breakout hit from 1988 that featured a strong, polarizing woman character. Reboots are nothing new in TV, but these shows hold a particular place in recent television history, as journalist Joy Press notes in her new book.  

“Stealing The Show: How Women are Revolutionizing Television” tells the story of how 30 years of shows created by women got on the air. The book starts with the behind-the-scenes of Roseanne Barr's fight to get her show made the way she wanted to, and how "Murphy Brown," from creator Diane English, benefited from a writer's strike.

The book goes on to have sections devoted to other series such as "Grey's Anatomy" from Shonda Rhimes, "Gilmore Girls" from Amy Sherman-Palladino, and "30 Rock" from Tina Fey. They each illustrate different sides to an overall story about women's evolving place in the television business.

There's a chapter about the women who created and star in "Broad City" and "Inside Amy Schumer." Those shows helped pull Comedy Central out of the bro-centric atmosphere that once defined the network.

Press also writes about how the evolution of streaming provided opportunities for some women producers to get series green-lit that weren't going to be made in the traditional television landscape – including Jill Soloway's "Transparent" on Amazon, and Jenji Kohan's "Orange is the New Black" on Netflix. 

When The Frame's John Horn spoke with Joy Press about “Stealing The Show," they discussed  themes that she found in her reporting, and how changes in the television business affected the types of stories being told on screen.

Interview Highlights:

On how Shonda Rhimes handled network notes around saying "vagina" on broadcast television:

Talking to Shonda was fascinating because she clearly has amassed so much power and authority within the network system. And she really talked about how shocked she was when she was creating "Grey's Anatomy" and how much she was not allowed to do. [We] were in the 21st Century and there were so many things that hadn't been told, so many things that were still uncomfortable for network television. And these were doctors [on the show]. And at one point they wanted to use the word vagina. They were allowed to use male anatomical terms. I think you were allowed to say penis on network television. But you weren't allowed to say vagina. And this was a character who was a gynecologist.

So, initially, Shonda very pragmatically said, Okay, we're not going to fight this battle ... Let's come up with a nonsense word. And so she got the writers room together and all of the young writers brainstormed all kinds of great words, and they came up with the word vajayjay. Which then swept across America. Oprah was talking about vajayjays. And it's something I still hear all the time. Later on, Shonda picked the right moment and they did eventually get the word vagina onto "Grey's Anatomy," which was something of a triumph that, gosh, we can actually use an anatomical term.

On the pay gap between men and women show creators:

Unfortunately I think that it's pretty much the same in Hollywood as it is everywhere. I think women are underpaid. I also think that for a lot of these female creators, they're so happy to get a space to do what they want to do. A lot of these people have come up through the system. So when they see a crack of light and an ability to do their show the way they want to do it, it becomes less about the money. 

In the working world it's not an even playing field. And that's one of the conversations that's starting to be had. I mean certainly the news about the actress on "The Crown," who's actually playing the queen, being paid less than the prince, was rather shocking to people. I think that's absolutely indicative on how things work. 

On the evolution of women TV characters and how they don't always have to be likable role models: :

I think characters now are allowed to want different things. You have characters who are self-defeating in the ways that many of us are self-defeating. You have characters — from Liz Lemon [Tina Fey in "30 Rock"] to Hannah Horvath [Lena Dunham in "Girls"] to Issa Rae's character from "Insecure"– who are really struggling with all kinds of very real things in their lives. It's sort of a wonderful thing. That you can actually watch characters and have them provoke all kinds of weird and complicated loving feelings is a nice thing.  




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