Book of the Week: Are women screenwriters really Stealing the Show?

Joy Press makes a good case for celebrating female success on the small screen

Artwork Irina Levitskaya - Shutterstock.

In recent years, women writers have been hailed as the driving force behind some of the most successful shows on television. The undisputed queen of TV is Shonda Rhimes, who has brought us some of the small screen’s biggest successes, such as Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal. With other TV shows such as Lena Dunham’s Girls paving the way for a new type of viewing experience for women, it seems that women really are making themselves heard in the writer’s room. Yet in February of this year an open letter was signed by no fewer than 76 UK female writers, lamenting the lack of their inclusion on top TV shows, with Doctor Who – now boasting its first female doctor – having had a shameful run of five series with nary an episode penned by a female scriptwriter.

The book’s cover of Stealing The Show.

So is it too early to crack open the champagne and celebrate female success? Joy Press’s meticulously researched book Stealing the Show is definitely more of a celebration than a condemnation, although she is clear in her foreword that if we consider this the golden age of female-driven TV, we should not take it for granted, stating that “it took decades of struggle and perseverance in the face of preconceived ideas and outright exclusion to get here”.

Cloris Leachman, Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper in a publicity portrait for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 1974.

Press goes on to give us a detailed and lively look at the history of women writing for TV, heading all the way back to the days of Gertrude Berg – a true pioneer in the field – and Madelyn Pugh (who wrote for I Love Lucy) before giving honourable mentions to groundbreaking shows such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, its spin-off Rhoda, and Cagney & Lacey.  Press makes a point of emphasising contemporary women writers’ indebtedness to these shows and the fact that the handful of women managing to write for TV paved the way for the heady years that women writers – at least in the US – are enjoying today.

Erika Henningsen, Ashley Park, Taylor Louderman and Kate Rockwell in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls.

There is particular focus on well-known names, such as the aforementioned Rhimes and Dunham, while comedy writers and performers Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are given plenty of pages. In a nice touch of serendipity, Tina Fey’s Mean Girls has just opened on Broadway as a musical; a nice reminder of the phenomenal and enduring success of her screenplay. Tina Fey has been crowned queen of comedy writing and her work inspired a new generation of writers such as Lena Dunham. Her brilliant book Bossy Pants would make good companion reading to Stealing the Show, as Fey recounts her long, hard slog to make it to the top.

Lena Dunham on set.

Lesser-known writers such as Marti Noxon, who brought such delights as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and UnReal into our lives, are given plenty of space. Press mentions that Buffy fans could recognise which episodes were written by Noxon. She is about to gain new fans when HBO’s Sharp Objects is released later this year. Press has given us an interesting and in-depth look at women in US TV-writing. When we read about the difficulties women have overcome since the 1940s in order to get where we are today, Joy Press leaves us in little doubt that there is much to celebrate

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