‘Good Girls Revolt’: sex and the newsroom
In a world of instantly streamed international entertainment, we all hold the same remote control. Here's what to point it at
The year of Woodstock remains a pop culture touchstone for America and the way the world perceives America. And rightfully so. Everything was up for change, and freedom of expression rarely smelt as sexy. Philip Roth wrote Portnoy’s Complaint, perhaps the randiest literary masterwork in history. Midnight Cowboy became the first (and, to date, only) X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar. David Bowie, teeing up for an assault on convention and sexuality, sang Space Oddity.
It was a time for questioning and smashing boundaries. Naked Came The Stranger, a raunchy book of sexual escapades, was a huge best-seller written by Penelope Ashe—an alias for a group of male journalists who wanted merely to prove that sex sells. It did so rather effectively, the book only selling better after they cheerfully confessed to the hoax.
Non-imaginary women, on the other hand, had a more excruciating time getting their names out. Especially those working in the press. That very year, a group of Newsweek journalists were getting ready for a war to call themselves reporters—to have the right to write, and to have their names inscribed under stories they had already written.
Based on Lynn Povich’s book of the same name, the Amazon original series Good Girls Revolt is a remarkable eye-opener, showing just how recently a few ambitious young women had to battle for their bylines, and for rightful credit and appropriately equal pay—half a century after earning the right to vote. As a premise, it’s absolute dynamite: irresistible, real and universally worth rooting for.
As a show, it isn’t quite as magnificent. The Mad Men echoes are a tad too strong, the sex is consistently awkward, and the pacing frequently goes awry. And yet watching this has been one of my favourite binges this year, simply because of the way it underlines the unspectacular. This show is not about inspirational real-life women—though a couple of fascinating ones show up to light the flame, like legendary lawyer Eleanor Holmes Norton (played by an incandescent Joy Bryant) and the one and only Nora Ephron (Grace Gummer), who knows what she wants and how to phrase it snappily—but, instead, about the ones who would never peg themselves as revolutionaries.
There’s Patti, the sassy, Joplin-esque researcher spurring a young Christopher Reeve-y reporter to greatness through insight and legwork. There’s Cindy, hipflask-ing her way through a rut, her dreams of writing on hold. There’s Jane, more capable than any of the men in office but content with earning less—and being left out of the credit—simply because she doesn’t see journalism as her career. Their problems of money, marriages and mothers all seem bigger than bylines. Until they don’t.
The cast is compelling, particularly Anna Camp as the bright-eyed Jane and Erin Darke as the increasingly self-assured Cindy. And perhaps we should read into the fact that the men in the show, playing decidedly duller foils to the women, are ones we know mostly from silly comedy. Jim Belushi is great as a curmudgeonly old-school editor who can’t swallow the idea of women writing, while Chris Diamantopoulos—the absurdly insecure billionaire Russ Hanneman in HBO’s Silicon Valley, the off-his-rocker TV network executive Castor Sotto in Episodes—plays editor-in-chief and is clearly this world’s answer to Don Draper. The actors do just fine in the parts, but it’s hard not to see that the women are cool and the men are schlubs— and this doesn’t feel like a coincidence.
Good Girls Revolt is one of the first casualties of 2017, a show cancelled after this first season, by a boardroom full of men—The Atlantic pointed out that there wasn’t a single woman in the room when the decision to pull the plug was made. Again, not a coincidence. At a time when networks are throwing money at enormously expensive shows without caring about eyeballs in the short term, this decision appears myopic and insulting to the memory of these women and their struggle. All the more reason for you to watch it.
Nobody is born a mutineer. Yet it took these pioneering women to put their personal issues aside, pull on their Nancy Sinatra-style boots and march ahead, deciding that they needed to type to their own tune. That I am writing about this show in a Saturday paper that has always been edited by women is a true testament to their legacy.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print.