Amazon’s Good Girls Revolt finds contemporary relevance

October 27, 2016
Anna Camp

In March 1970, 46 women staffers at Newsweek–shunted away from reporting, writing and editing positions and paid less than their male colleagues–filed a lawsuit charging the magazine with sex discrimination. It was timed, brilliantly, to coincide with the magazine’s own cover story on the women’s movement, “Women in Revolt.”

The pioneering complaint, the first class action by women under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, led to a settlement–and then, when progress stalled two years later, a second suit that brought more substantial gains. It sparked a wave of similar gender-equity lawsuits at venues such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time Inc., the television networks, and other media companies. Those cases, in turn, paved the way for many of us to enter and advance in the field at a time when the investigative triumphs of Woodward and Bernstein were enhancing its luster. (Not that the old gender-related problems, from sexual harassment to troglodytic attitudes and glass ceilings, ever entirely vanished.)

Now, of course, the outlook for the entire profession, at least as a profit-making enterprise, is decidedly dimmer. In recent years, Newsweek, like many other publications, has struggled to survive plunging print circulation and repeated changes in format and ownership. As the status and pay of journalism jobs decline, women are flooding journalism schools, comprising about two-thirds of enrollment.

But even as our embattled profession threatens to become a pink-collar ghetto, men still hold nearly two-thirds of newspaper supervisory posts, according to a 2015 report by the Women’s Media Center. The first-ever female executive editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson, attributed her 2014 firing in part to deep-seated attitudes about how women in power should behave.

“Women in leadership roles are scrutinized constantly and sometimes differently than men,” says Abramson, who also reportedly complained to the publisher about her compensation. (So much for leaning in, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial remedy for overcoming discrimination.) At my former workplace, The Philadelphia Inquirer, for which I still freelance the occasional theater review, all seven masthead positions currently are held by men.

Against this backdrop, Amazon is premiering a marginally interesting new series, Good Girls Revolt, which combines nostalgic appeal with contemporary relevance. The show is loosely based on Lynn Povich’s 2012 memoir and history of the Newsweek suit, The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace. (Povich, who as Newsweek’s lone female writer joined the suit, later became the magazine’s first female senior editor and is a consulting producer on the series.) Amazon’s fictionalized take on these events is the brainchild of Dana Calvo, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and, more recently, co-executive producer of Narcos on Netflix.

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Good Girls Revolt is set in and around the offices of a magazine dubbed News of the Week, which happens to be battling Time for prestige and circulation. The action begins in 1969 and extends into the following year. The war in Vietnam is raging–it’s an ongoing subject of coverage and debate–and the counterculture, with its relaxed attitudes toward drug use and recreational sex, is making inroads into the mainstream. News of the Week is hiring blacks to newsroom jobs for the first time and trying to find the right angle for stories on the Black Panthers and violence at the Altamont music festival.

One top editor, William “Wick” McFadden (a convincingly cranky Jim Belushi), represents the old guard. Mired in the past, he is in thrall to his establishment sources, spurring conflict with his boss, the younger, Princeton-educated Finn Woodhouse (Chris Diamantopoulos). The workaholic, Scotch-drinking Finn has a clue, but just barely: He is trying to harness cultural currents he doesn’t entirely understand, while navigating a strained marriage and listing perilously close to an affair with researcher Patti Robinson (Genevieve Angelson). His savvy, overqualified secretary Angie (Danya Labelle) helps keep the proverbial ship afloat.

If Nelly Bly had been a flower child, she would be Patti, a star and prospective leader among the increasingly restive women on staff. One obstacle to equality appears to be the magazine’s publisher, Bea Burkhart (a fictional version of Katharine Graham, who was president of The Washington Post Company, Newsweek’s longtime former owner). A high-society elitist, she is preoccupied with circulation and disinclined to upset the gender status quo. Under her leadership, the magazine continues to consign its well-educated female employees mainly to jobs as researchers. Led by the supremely efficient Jane Hollander (Anna Camp, whose crackup we await with glee), they play back-up to a crew of entitled young male reporters.

The researchers track down sources, pore over documents, fetch coffee, and submit “files” that serve as the basis of the men’s stories. Occasionally, they accompany reporters to interviews, or even–pushing the boundaries–strike off on their own to break news. But when it’s time for a three-martini editorial lunch, they’re not invited. (In response to the women’s complaints about their exclusion, Graham once dismissed the lunches as “very boring,” according to Povich.) At News of the Week, it takes an outsider to plant the first seeds of rebellion. In the pilot episode, a spiky and talented Nora Ephron (Grace Gummer) quits the magazine, much as the real Ephron did earlier in the 1960s, when she comes to understand that she’ll never be a credited writer there.

“Girls do not do rewrites,” Wick tells this Nora, managing to cram two insults into a single short sentence. The other character whose name and role are essentially unaltered is Eleanor Holmes Norton (Joy Bryant), the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represented the women in their lawsuit.

The show takes its time getting to the suit. The Newsweek case would have made a good subject for a short miniseries or a television movie akin to HBO’s excellent Confirmation, on the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas sexual harassment showdown. Instead, Good Girls Revolt opts to provide a leisurely paced, wide-angled look at the entangled professional and personal lives of its characters, fashioned, Calvo says, “from the DNA of good friends, bosses, mentors, coworkers, clerks, and newspaper librarians.” Its central storyline about the gathering storm of protest is punctuated by periodic bouts of office sex–sometimes dramatically gratuitous, but true to Povich’s description of Newsweek as having been “a cauldron of hormonal activity.”

Good Girls Revolt turns out to be the television equivalent of a Bildungsroman: It concentrates on representing the viewpoints of a core group of women who begin to understand–and challenge–the pernicious effects of gender stereotyping at home and at work. Unfortunately, the characters constitute an array of predictable types, evolving in mostly predictable ways. From Hollander–a privileged “good girl” who comes to realize that her old assumptions about class, gender, and sexuality are outdated–to the dapper Woodhouse, who quotes Bob Dylan’s lyric, “The times they are a-changin,’” there are too few surprises, too many rote notes.

It’s a reasonable guess that Good Girls Revolt (like Showtime’s far superior Masters of Sex) would not exist save for the recent success of Mad Men–a show to which Povich alludes in her book. In the course of its seven-season run, Matthew Weiner’s overhyped but often engrossing AMC series transformed 1960s advertising office politics–with its racial, sexual, and gender prejudices; permissiveness about smoking and alcohol; and simultaneously forbidden and freewheeling sexuality–into a version of Camelot. Critics struggled to assess how much of the show was biting critique as opposed to a guilty-pleasure wallow in a gauzily-remembered past–a sustained Kodak moment analogous to Don Draper’s famous carousel speech. But that ambiguity was, in the end, a major source of the show’s allure.

Good Girls Revolt is an altogether less artful enterprise, but it traffics in a similar nostalgia–for the clothing and music and (fading) innocence of the era, if not for its biases. (The delicious soundtrack draws from the Zombies, the Rolling Stones, and Peggy Lee, among others.) The show’s creators have little patience with the attitudes that shackle its capable young women, not just in the office but in the bedroom. They also make clear, as Povich does in her book, that the impending revolt at News of the Week would be impossible to imagine outside the larger context of both the women’s movement and a culture in turmoil.

One storyline, about researcher Cindy Reston (Erin Darke), contrasts the more enlightened, woman-centered lovemaking of a magazine photo editor with the uninspiring attentions of her sexist, controlling husband, Lenny. An egocentric law student, he tries to undermine his wife’s professional aspirations by sabotaging her diaphragm. Could any villainy be more obvious?

When Lenny isn’t ignoring his wife, he insists on picking out her clothes, demanding that she wear a more demure dress to a friend’s birthday party. (In a TV movie, the next step would be battering.) Meanwhile, Cindy, inspired by a woman’s consciousness-raising group, has been reading The Sensuous Woman and acting out its sex-positive lessons. It’s not hard to see how this will end, even if Lenny is at least hip enough to be antiwar.

It is easier to root for Patti’s turbulent romance with “her” reporter, the handsome and talented Doug Rhodes (smartly portrayed by Hunter Parrish). Their chemistry is obvious both at work and at play. But the ambitious Patti can’t resist standing Doug up–for a black-tie event no less–to fly to California in pursuit of a story. Worse, instead of feeding his ego, she doesn’t hesitate to challenge his news judgment. At one point, he rejects her as being “too complicated.” In truth, they are well matched in their passion for news and for each other. But for the relationship to endure, they will both need to change.

At the heart of the show, of course, is the struggle, initiated by Patti and Cindy, to recruit the magazine’s women to their cause. But the writing too often takes a backseat to the seductive production design. Beginning with the opening credit sequence, Good Girls Revolt invites us back into a lost world of teletype machines, typewriters, micro-minis, tokes, and psychedelic, orgiastic parties. One episode, focusing on coverage of a nationwide post office strike, recalls the days when “snail mail” was an indispensable communications medium, and such a strike could be truly crippling.

Good Girls Revolt capitalizes on a strain of cultural nostalgia that sees the late 1960s and early ’70s as a time of tectonic perspectival shifts. The decades since have witnessed considerable backlash and retrenchment. But certain recent developments–including the widening acceptance of gay marriage and legal marijuana and the probable election of our first woman president–are undoubtedly fallout from that era, making its battles seem especially germane. And the fight for women’s equality is certainly ongoing–not least in our profession, where Fox News recently dismissed its chairman, Roger Ailes, and paid out $20 million to settle a sexual harassment claim by former co-host Gretchen Carlson.

On its own, journalistic nostalgia remains a potent force. It may not be mere coincidence that an affectionate homage to 1920s newsgathering, The Front Page, starring Nathan Lane and John Slattery (Mad Men again!), has just opened on Broadway. Alongside its condemnation of sexism, Good Girls Revolt celebrates a time when media behemoths like Newsweek guided the cultural conversation and made money doing it–when a cover story truly mattered. For all the show’s dramatic flaws, that may be sufficient inducement for today’s journalists to watch.

Julia M. Klein is a longtime CJR contributor and a contributing book critic for The Forward. She is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.