2016 has been dominated by the discourse of discrimination: Racial, economic, and in recent months, discussion of sexism, sexual harassment and institutionalized discrimination toward women.
While we’re not sure exactly how brilliant/terrifying the Amazon Video algorithm is, we wouldn’t be shocked to learn that these particular political hot-button issues — which, let’s be honest, we all anticipated — led to the greenlighting of their next original series.
“Good Girls Revolt” is a workplace period drama that — like the criminally underrated “Pan Am” before it — can trick even the wary or supportive into viewing it as a distaff “Mad Men,” or worse, a ripoff: The bright pink Lego set for little ladies who can’t handle all that Draper realness. But like “Pan Am,” “Revolt” has so much going for it that sticking with it through that uncomfortable feeling makes it worth it — and it comes with so many prestige elements you might even be tempted into going there.
Based on the same true story that inspired Lynn Povich’s 2013 book “The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace,” the series follows a somewhat diverse group of women in the ’60s and ’70s — the first generation with access to not only the Pill and thus financial freedom, after all, but also to the world’s post-war understanding of women as capable, 100 percent actual human beings.
Povich, herself, was one of these Newsweek women, in fact, who — at the time, they were referred to as “dollies,” okay — played the role of female “researchers” for their male “reporter” bosses, meaning they did the journalistic work (while also grabbing coffee/avoiding grabby hands) and then were expected to surrender the credit.
Practically minutes beforehand, of course, female journalists were such an exotic idea you could build a whole movie around it: Think Lois Lane, “Meet John Doe,” “The Philadelphia Story,” every third Barbara Stanwyck role… well into the time period we’re looking at now. When you are expected to be grateful just to be in the room, it can be a fight even just to imagine the idea that you deserve more than the kids’ table: Zero upward mobility, no chance of getting credit or ever writing a story under their own name, and the kind of workplace horrors we still hear about today, times a million, are all par for the course.
There was a menace to “Mad Men” in the beginning, that slackened as it explained its universe more fully but never quite went away. Every female character had her own arc about this awakening and how to deal with it, but as much as we loved them they were never entirely the lead — you could make a case for Peggy, but even then she was just Don’s other half. So if we must look at it as a “Mad Men” spinoff, imagine that you’d wished for a story set among Joan Holloway’s early typing-pool monarchy — how lovely it would be, to see them waking up.
In the pilot, this office is visited by Grace Gummer’s Nora Ephron (yes, that Nora Ephron, the “Sleepless in Seattle”/”When Harry Met Sally” Nora Ephron), who quits almost as suddenly as she appeared, like a Mary Poppins of equality, but sets the ball in motion for the rest of the dollies to realize just how badly they’ve been had — and how illegal a lot of that crap really was.
While Ephron’s departure is slightly exaggerated in the show (she left within the first year, and certainly not with this near-epic confrontation, equal parts “Jerry Maguire” and “Dead Poets Society,” that leaves the whole staff watching grimly as she marches out — most of them wondering who the hell she is, since she started her job like an hour ago) but in fact it was the nature and timing of Ephron’s exit that eventually led to the dollies calling the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — and starting the revolt for real.
Ephron is one of the few characters in the show who keeps her real-life name, and of course is played by one of Meryl Streep’s brilliant, beautiful daughters — a fun nod that doubles, in turn, when you consider that Streep herself worked with Ephron, and has also played a semi-fictional Nora (!), in “Heartburn.”
Over the course of the revolt, using their invisibility and having bathroom meetings, the core four began building an army, reaching a high of 46 women workers backing the movement. Meanwhile, they were also working with Eleanor Holmes Norton, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney at the time, with fierce beliefs in civil rights. She told them something we should probably all remember: To be prepared for what they want, and to ask neither nicely or politely.
By March of 1970 the women had accepted a settlement from “Newsweek,” with the promise of substantial — not just token — changes. Two years later, after those promises were not exactly kept, they filed a second lawsuit, and “Newsweek” finally promised that by 1974 at least a third of the office’s writers would be women, and by 1975 at least a third of the foreign correspondents would be women as well. Eventually, Povich herself even went on to become the first Female Senior Editor at the magazine.
This version of “Newsweek” is very subtly renamed to “News of the Week,” and a number of characters’ names have been changed from their real-life inspirations. So while it may take some getting used to the look and feel — even with all-star talent like Gummer and Camp, Hunter Parrish, and Chris Diamantopoulos, who in addition to some great rising stars make the viewing worthwhile all on their own — but ultimately, the joy of “Good Girls Revolt” lies in seeing something very crummy happening, and something very cool begin…
And then to remember that they were real — that their fight helped make our world what it is today, and form what it will be tomorrow.
“Good Girls Revolt,” Season 1, is available now on Amazon Prime.