Their Own Best Creations. Women Writers in Postwar Television

Berke, Annie
Feminist Media Histories
Anzahl Seiten
XIII, 284 S.
$ 29.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Kristin Skoog, Department of Humanities & Law, Bournemouth University

Lucille Kallen, writer for hit television comedy-variety, Your Show of Shows (NBC 1950–1954) later described her experience in the writers’ room as: “at the time I felt it was one big happy family, but later I said, What an idiot!... There was a male phalanx, and then there was me” (p. 59). Kallen, the only woman writer amongst a group of men, recalled her struggle in finding her place and expression – to be taken seriously as a writer - amongst the cacophony of male voices. This is just one intriguing example from Annie Berke’s Their Own Best Creations that explores women writers in post-war US television – a crucial period for both gender politics and the television industry.

The book traces the work and careers of women writers across genres such as comedy-variety, the family sitcom, daytime soap opera, and the suspense anthology single drama, 1949–1963. A time when television established itself as a form of mass entertainment and experienced industry overhaul with production moving from New York to Los Angeles (from live to pre-recorded). Their Own Best Creations navigates this moment of change tracing a range of well-known women writers to others whose remained hidden or obscured. The book moves chronologically between different “rooms” – the writers’ room, writers’ “own rooms” at home, the studio – showing how different settings shaped their writing and personas. This allows Berke to investigate how women adapted to new circumstances and grappled with a society and an industry negotiating the roles, opportunities and limitations of post-war womanhood.

Their Own Best Creations is an account of white, educated, middle-class women, yet it does acknowledge and discuss class and racial barriers, albeit briefly. By intertwining a range of histories, the book raises important themes. First, it speaks to a growing body of scholarship, researching women’s labour within media industries.1 Women’s visibility or invisibility, as Berke shows, has implications for how researchers trace and uncover these histories (pp. 44–48; 166–169). Second, the book makes detailed connections and references to histories of women in film and radio. Not only does this show how women writers moved across different media, but importantly, how gendered labour carried over from film and radio to television. Third, Berke reads the public personas of the women writers, their scripted lives, and their creative body of work as precursors to second-wave feminism. This is another important contribution in an ongoing revision of the period arguing for a more complex understanding of mid-century feminism. In particular, the role of the intimate, the ordinary, and the confessional in women’s broadcasting.2

Chapter one locates the gendering of television writing within the broader historical (and historiographical) context of women’s labour in media industries pointing to both opportunities and limitations. Once industries and institutional practices became more established, women faced discrimination, obstacles and were excluded or side-lined – a cycle Berke also sees in post-war television. By building on this backdrop, the chapter explores the professionalisation of the television writer in the post-war period and how gendered conceptions shaped this, in particular how men and women framed their writing for television differently.

The second chapter focuses on comedy and women’s experience of the collaborative writers’ room (too often as Berke notes linked to a fraternity house – and in this case not far from it!). The spotlight on Lucille Kallen (Your Show of Shows) reveals possibilities and challenges women writers faced in this type of milieu where a gendered politics of male and female collaboration had to be negotiated. Kallen, at one point mistaken as the secretary by writer-director Mel Brooks, developed various tactics. For instance, closer collaboration with a male writer on a recurring sketch on marriage allowed Kallen to use her experience and expertise as a wife and woman, channelling frustration in a gutsy voice through the star of the show, Imogene Coca (whom Kallen later continued collaboration with). Carving out as Berke argues “an important space for female subjectivity and expression” (p. 66).

Chapter three, turns to Gertrude Berg and Peg Lynch and their respective creations: The Goldbergs (CBS, 1949–1956) and Ethel & Albert (NBC, ABC, CBS, 1953–1956). Here, Berke introduces the idea of the “Stay-at-Home Showrunner” – a term used to “explain this purposeful conflation of work and home, the creative and the maternal, that Berg and Lynch cultivated in their personas and on their programs” (p. 82). As the author argues, they foregrounded domesticity and the American housewife in playing their respective characters (“Molly Goldberg” and “Ethel Arbuckle”) yet – they were career women. As both sitcoms were adapted from radio to television, they maintained the intimacy, familiarity, and ordinariness so characteristic of radio, yet developed a pioneering television realism and authenticity that spoke to women.

A close-up analysis of another pioneer; writer and showrunner, Irna Phillips, and the daytime soap opera is the focus of chapter four. Phillips enjoyed a successful career in radio and made the move to television with the first television daytime soap opera These Are My Children (NBC, 1949). Berke produces new insights by placing Phillips within the “Chicago School of Television”. Additionally, These Are My Children, was characterised by “women’s conversations and confessions serving as the primary vehicle for storytelling and the show’s subject matter” (p. 137) – essentially an influence from radio. This is another good example of how personal and intimate storytelling that resonated with women audiences continued to develop on television.

In chapter five, Berke shifts attention to the “Woman Story Editor”, whose complex role and responsibilities, often left women invisible despite exercising great editorial influence. This, as Berke notes: “is to rewrite the histories of television authorship in the first ten years of commercial television and to interrogate how gendered forms of work are rewarded or ignored” (p. 149). After defining the term and its changing meaning historically (from silent film to post-war television), the chapter introduces key examples: Dorothy Hechtlinger (US Steel Hour), for instance, whose story reveals sexism and marginalisation in the workplace.

Finally, chapter six, explores the suspense anthology drama focusing on women writers and the pre-recorded teleplay such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents (CBS, 1956). The chapter shows how women writers “adapted, institutionally, professionally, and literarily” (p. 172). Male-authored fiction was reworked to represent a female perspective – often one reflecting the confinement imposed by post-war domesticity. In a precarious professional context, Berke captures how women moved across industries developing a “circuit of female discourse” – drawing on Maria LaPlace’s term exploring melodrama and the 1940s “Women’s Film” – she extends this to radio, television and print (p. 180).

The book is energetic and animated drawing on rich source materials that comes to life – the book is also in constant dialogue with key authors in relevant fields. The conclusion brings the discussion up to the twenty-first century and includes showrunners such as Shonda Rhimes. A concluding point is that putting the spotlight on the woman writer historically sheds light on how little has actually changed – which is striking.3 The book will be of interest to readers of feminist media and women’s history, US broadcasting, and histories of women’s creative labour. The way Berke combines the woman writers, the genres they represent, cross media perspectives (film, radio, television and print media), and the 1950s as a period of social and industrial change, makes Their Own Best Creations an impressive accomplishment and valuable contribution.

1 See for example Catherine Martin, In Their Own Little Corner. The Gendered Sidelining of NBC’s Information Department, in: Journal of Radio & Audio Media 26 (2019), pp. 88–103; Jeannine Baker / Kaitlynn Mendes / Kate Terkanian, Labour, media and technology: editors’ introduction, in: Women's History Review 31 (2022), pp. 533–541; Sarah Arnold, Gender and Early Television. Mapping Women’s Role in Emerging US and British Media, 1850–1950, London 2021.
2 One example is Justine Lloyd’s work on radio in Australia, Canada, and the UK, 1930s–1960s, that argues women’s radio reconfigured the relationship between private, personal, and public life. Justine Lloyd, Gender and Media in the Broadcast Age. Women’s Radio Programming at the BBC, CBC, and ABC, New York 2020.
3 Although progress has been made, women’s representation is still an issue in US media, see Women’s Media Center, The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2021, 18 November 2021, (15.06.2023).

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