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These days, women run HBO—but for how long?

Issa Rae, Reese Witherspoon, and Evan Rachel Wood (Photo collage: Nick Wanserski)

Not long after Donald Trump declared war on the media, CNN’s picked up the gauntlet, firing back against the president once more in the new edition of The Hollywood Reporter. In the cover story, CNN president Jeff Zucker brags that he and his employees wear their status of enemy combatants against false information and corruption “as a badge of honor.” He detailed the network’s new arsenal in this fight, which includes a plan to “dominate digital,” which does sound like a good volley against President Twitter. But judging by the THR cover, this looks like a war that will be fought exclusively by men.

The photo features Zucker, sitting comfortably with a bunch of his “soldiers” from the network: The Lead anchor Jake Tapper, United Shades Of America host W. Kamau Bell, Anthony Bourdain (because armies have to eat), and CNN senior producer Josiah Daniel Ryan. The all-male cover was probably never going to go over well, but then Ryan tweeted that their barbershop quintet was the “future of media,” and the backlash couldn’t start fast enough.


There are obviously many women that work in front of and behind the camera at CNN, but that just makes this gaffe all the more perplexing. And seriously, did no one at CNN or THR question that this new edition would land on digital doorsteps on the first day of Women’s History Month? There’s been an emoji for it on Twitter for eight years.

But at least one cable network kicked off the weeks-long celebration of women’s history and achievements properly. Around the time that HBO premiered Big Little Lies, CNN’s corporate cousin began running a promo that urged women to write their own stories.

The video runs through HBO’s current block of programming to show off the many female faces therein, including the women of Game Of Thrones; the Veep herself, Julia Louis-Dreyfus; Insecure’s awkward black girl, Issa Rae; and Divorce survivor Sarah Jessica Parker. We also see The Leftovers’ Carrie Coon, Amy Brenneman, Regina King, and Liv Tyler, as well as Big Little Lies stars Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Zoë Kravitz. Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood, the newly awoken and empowered women of Westworld, now stalk the frontier. The whole walkthrough’s set against an impassioned speech Kimberly Hebert Gregory makes in Vice Principals, in addition to moments of levity from Lena Dunham’s Girls.


It’s clearly a marketing tool, which accompanied an announcement about all the great women-centered content that’s available for streaming at HBO Now/Go. But it strikes more of a nerve than your typical sizzle reel: It shows us that HBO’s present is dominated by women. Across all genres—comedies, dramas, dramedies—women lead the lineup. They’re the most riveting players in HBO’s ratings juggernaut, while series creators like Sharon Horgan (Divorce), Rae, and Dunham are holding down executive producing duties. Their shows have a majority of women writers and/or directors, so the women-led efforts aren’t just on screen. But speaking of, we also have Tyler and her Leftovers co-stars, who regularly threaten to steal the show from Justin Theroux.

But it’s not just CNN’s message that HBO’s “Write Your Own Story” video stands in stark contrast to—it’s also the network’s own programming history. HBO’s come a long way from its 1st & Ten days, but the wheels of progress didn’t pick up speed until the last decade. Early on, HBO was the home of comedies like Dream On, The Larry Sanders Show, and Arliss, which surpassed the network’s first offering in the genre (1st & Ten was bad, very bad).

The network’s rise to prominence is, by now, a well-known tale, one that kicked off with The Sopranos, which began its critically lauded run in 1999. This was just a couple of years after Oz kicked off its six-year bid on the network, and two years before Six Feet Under entered the lineup. In addition to these critical darlings, the 10-year stretch following HBO’s renewed investment boasted such dramas as The Wire, Deadwood, the underrated Carnivàle, and Big Love. It didn’t fully leave comedies behind either: Larry David yielded another hit of Seinfeld-level hilarity with Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2000, while Adrian Grenier and his Entourage came along for the ride starting in 2004.


HBO’s programming powerhouse reputation did suffer from the departure of The Sopranos; it struggled to find another similar hit in the following years. It was an adaptation of fantasy novels that lifted the spell, as David Benioff and D.B. Weiss scored an immediate hit with Game Of Thrones in 2011. And the fantasy drama shows no signs of stopping (that is, except for the end of the series, which is set for 2018). But HBO will worry about that then—the flood gates had been opened, and not just for dramas like Thrones, The Leftovers, and True Detective. Comedies came back in a big way with Girls and Veep in 2012, and later, Silicon Valley.

But the crowning achievements, past and present, were male-centered and male-led. That went beyond the casts, writers, directors, and producers of these shows; the dynamics of dramas like The Sopranos and Deadwood saw men in power, and women mostly in the periphery, or worse, in peril. These and series like The Wire are all truly great dramas, and feature great performances from the likes of Edie Falco, Kim Dickens, and Amy Ryan, but they were still primarily male-focused efforts. This is an observation that’s become rote, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Carmela Soprano, Joanie Stubbs, and Beadie Russell had great arcs and were all multidimensional characters—Carmela, nearly iconic. But their stories were also often in service of a husband, customer, or wayward Baltimore cop.

What we see with HBO’s new efforts is that this holdover from its early days is losing its grasp. We have women creators, producers, and writers now, but the balance of power is changing in the material as well—just have a look at who was sitting on the Iron Throne last. Sansa, once the most pitiable Stark, is calling the shots—and with a female knight by her side. And that’s all on a show that’s primarily written and directed by men. Look to the programs created by and starring women, and the storylines show them striving, but also butting up against all-too-real obstacles: Divorce’s Frances is learning how hard it is for middle-aged women to start over, while Insecure’s Issa struggles with her clueless questions about her background from “well-meaning” white co-workers. Meanwhile, some of the most jaw-dropping revelations and moments of Westworld center around Dolores (Wood) and Maeve (Newton), who are caught up in the most masculine world these shows have to offer.


This sea change might be occurring organically, or just as a result of HBO’s push for greater representation behind the scenes. But at least it’s happening, and none too soon, either: The winter/spring lineup will bring Girls to an end, and Big Little Lies, for all its star power, is still just a limited series. The Leftovers and Game Of Thrones are due for their curtain calls in the next two years as well. That leaves just Insecure and Divorce representing for women TV makers, which received awards recognition and renewals after their first seasons. There is a question of sustainability here, but at least, with Westworld gaining traction, Selina Meyer’s imminent return, and cinematic offerings from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, the real future of media is looking (hearteningly) female.

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