tv Amazon's Cancellation of the Feminist Drama 'Good Girls Revolt' Feels Timely — But Not In a Good Way
Anna Camp, Erin Darke and Genevieve Angelson in the Amazon series "Good Girls Revolt.", Amazon Studios
When “Good Girls Revolt” premiered on Amazon in late October, shortly before an election Hillary Clinton was widely predicted to win, it seemed like a perfectly timely celebration of second-wave feminism.
The series, created by Dana Calvo, is a tale of workplace revolt that plays like a cross between “Mad Men” and “9 to 5.” Set in late 1969 and early 1970, it follows a group of young female journalists at a fictional news magazine who, barred from becoming reporters or receiving bylines, team up with the ACLU to file a gender discrimination lawsuit. (It was inspired by a real-life case at Newsweek in 1970.)
The parallels between the ambitious, trailblazing young characters in the series and the woman poised to break the highest glass ceiling of all were impossible to ignore.
As I noted in my initial review, the series was “a love letter to the Hillary Clinton generation,” opening a few months after the future candidate graduated from Wellesley College (and gave a speech that landed her in the pages of Time magazine).
Late last week, despite generally positive reviews and little more than a month after its debut, Amazon abruptly canceled “Good Girls Revolt,” in what felt like a small-scale reverberation of the election.
To many, the decision to ax a series about feminist journalists felt a little too on the nose at a time when Donald Trump, a man who has been accused of sexually assaulting a female reporter and has a habit of targeting female journalists for public criticism, is preparing to take office.
Like other streaming networks, Amazon does not release ratings information, so it’s impossible to know just how many people watched the show. But Calvo told Buzzfeed that “Good Girls Revolt” had twice the audience of “Transparent,” the critically lauded jewel in Amazon’s crown, and had generated a committed base of fans. (Calvo is a former journalist who worked at the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.)
In a statement, Amazon’s head of comedy and drama development Joe Lewis disputed these claims, saying the show “wasn’t performing at the levels we had hoped for.”
“We won the popular vote,” Calvo said in a tweet that explicitly tied the show’s cancellation to Clinton’s electoral fate.
Of course, all TV shows will one day end, and cancellation is part of the business. But similar to its streaming rival Netflix, Amazon has been unusually magnanimous with renewals, granting second and even third seasons to series that haven’t exactly captured the cultural conversation, such as “Red Oaks,” “Bosch” and even the widely panned “Hand of God.”
Adding insult to injury is the haste with which the series was canceled, barely a month after its premiere, and before Golden Globe nominations were announced. The rationale, according to the Hollywood Reporter, is that Amazon Studios chief Roy Price “was not a fan of the series” and didn’t view it as “an awards season player.”
While nominations for “Good Girls Revolt” seemed unlikely, even at the streaming-enamored Globes, the “awards player” label is a highly subjective thing, a marker of ambition and institutional support as much as actual quality. As we all know, the Internet is awash in highly unrealistic for-your-consideration ads, and there’s a gendered quality to what’s anointed “prestigious” — often tales of violent male antiheroes.
And just because “Good Girls Revolt” wasn’t going to be the next Emmy-hogging “Game of Thrones” doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth supporting; the cancellation suggests there’s a small-screen corollary to the “Ishtar” effect, one that holds female storytellers to a higher standard than that of their male peers.
On the one hand, the cancellation of such an explicitly feminist series seems curious, given Amazon’s promotion of other female voices. The network has staked out a reputation for frank, deeply
personal half-hour comedies (and quasi-comedies) written by and starring women, including “Transparent,” “Catastrophe,” “One Mississippi” and “Fleabag.”
But it has also been on a high-profile spending spree of late, doling out (reportedly) enormous sums of money to attract A-list — and mostly male — talent, including Robert De Niro, Matthew Weiner, David O. Russell, Billy Bob Thornton and Woody Allen. (Allen’s “Crisis in Six Scenes” even included an ironic joke about the money to be made in TV. Like “Good Girls Revolt,” it was set in the late 1960s; it was panned by critics.)
Maybe Amazon decided it had to cut costs to pave the way for these expensive projects from famous men, but the decision — particularly given that “Good Girls Revolt” is about women fighting for equal opportunity in the workplace — seems rather tone-deaf.
“Good Girls Revolt” wasn’t perfect, but then few shows are, particularly in their first season. Its positive attributes were, I think, rare enough to make it something special, even within a television landscape that grows more diverse by the day.
It was a show by, about and (mostly) for women, an admiring look at a movement that has been overlooked in pop culture portrayals of the 1960s and ’70s, one of the most exhaustively chronicled eras in American history.
There are dozens of acclaimed movies and TV shows about Vietnam and the civil rights movement, and rightfully so, but the same cannot be said of women’s liberation. Perhaps because of the movement’s unglamorous, dour reputation, Hollywood hasn’t seemed as excited to tell this particular story. Even proto-feminist characters such as Peggy Olson or Joan Harris of “Mad Men” seemed to embrace its tenets reluctantly.
The industry’s attitude is reflected in the finale of “Good Girls Revolt,” in which a group of male editors stands around discussing the image that will accompany a cover story about the feminist movement. After making cruel remarks about Betty Friedan’s looks, the editors ultimately go with a sexy red lipstick kiss on the cover, in lieu of an actual human woman.
“Good Girls Revolt” resisted the militant bra-burning feminist stereotype, instead depicting ambitious young women from a range of backgrounds — a black lawyer, a blond princess, a mousy aspiring novelist — each inspired to take action for unique reasons. It made feminism seem like an endeavor that was not only vital, but thrilling — and not just because of the newfound sexual freedom.
The Clinton echoes were always a part of “Good Girls Revolt,” but watching the final few episodes, which featured plots about illegal pre-Roe vs. Wade abortions and a news executive sexually harassing his talented blond employee, after the election, they felt newly relevant.
So did the transformation of said blond, a researcher named Jane Hollander (played by the reliably great Anna Camp), who initially resists joining her peers in the lawsuit because she clings to an image of herself as the Marrying Type and hasn’t fully accepted the scope of her own ambition. “I always thought that I would be standing next to my husband as he announced his bid for office or thanked his colleagues for an award,” she says.
But she eventually joins the fight and, in a surprising turn, becomes its public face, reading a statement at the news conference that concludes the finale. Jane speaks of the “talent, hard work and opportunity,” rather than gender identity, required of a successful journalist. “We deserve and are entitled to that opportunity.”
And, in a cruelly ironic twist, that’s where the story ends — with a woman pleading for a chance to tell stories under her own name.
Sony Pictures Television has said it’s shopping for a new home for “Good Girls Revolt,” and its stars have mounted a social media campaign to save the show. Now like the Clinton supporters who flocked to New York’s Javits Center on election night, fans are left to wait for a triumphant conclusion that may never come.
Follow me @MeredithBlake