A young woman’s life is cut short by violence and trauma. Her strong, attractive, middle-aged white mother, unable to set aside her grief, cannot forget this tragedy that their small midwestern town seems to have forgotten. The mother uses all of her savings and the help of a young black man to confront the local sheriff. The plot weaves in an untimely cancer diagnosis, a fire that destroys evidence, alcoholism, and an abusive ex-husband. Sound like a Lifetime movie? Perhaps. But it’s actually the stuff of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and for her performance, the actress who played this grief-stricken mother, Frances McDormand, won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Actress.
In her acceptance speech, McDormand called not just for the voices of women in Hollywood to be heard, but for their projects to be financially optioned. “Look around ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Don’t talk to us about it at the parties, invite us into your office in a couple days or you can come to ours, whichever suits you best, and we’ll tell you all about them.” She ended her speech with a rallying cry—two words that threw some executives into a tizzy and sent most people to Google: “inclusion rider.”
McDormand calls for the Inclusion Rider
A rider, a stipulation sometimes placed within an artist’s contract with a media company, puts a particular demand on the legal agreement that, if violated, allows the artist legal recourse to walk away from a deal. Top creative talent—whether actors, musicians, or directors—have invoked riders, in part, as a way to demand respect (or claim diva status) and feel less like employees and more like artists. Common or outrageous examples of such demands include private chefs, no brown M&Ms in the candy bowl, time off to golf during the workweek, or an endless supply of premium cigars.[ (( Desta, J. 2017. “8 Movie Stars with Unbelievable Contract Clauses.” Vanity Fair. August 10, 2017.))] In contrast, McDormand’s applied a rider to ensure justice—financial and professional justice for her cast and crew. McDormand called on the top-tier industry insiders assembled at the Academy Awards ceremony to establish contractually-mandated inclusivity and equity.
McDormand’s call for inclusion riders excited a conversation in the industry, the press, and popular culture about inclusivity and about the potential for powerful individuals to make transformative change within work cultures and communities. We believe wholeheartedly that every individual working within the media industries—actually, every individual—should do everything in their power to make workplaces more equitable. But seeing inclusion riders as an answer to Hollywood’s problems leads to further questions. All riders will not be written the same way—and the fine print is vital to their impact. So, how inclusive will these contracts be? Will they demand 50-50 gender hiring of cast and crew–or be progressive enough to think beyond gender binaries? Will they look for sustainable equity or just, as the Time Up X2 movement suggests, doubling numbers this year? Will they consider race or ethnicity? Will they consider what roles or leadership positions those who are traditionally underrepresented will take in these productions? What else is in the fine print?[ (( One scholar tweeted out an easily downloadable inclusion rider, but the document stipulated that signers give that particular scholar unique access to their production data for research purposes This addition of a third party to a contract could mislead signers or impede adoption.
Kalpana Kotagal, a class action litigator and co-developer of the inclusion rider that MacDormand referenced, called a rider “an important piece of getting justice” and “a crucial tool for corporate accountability.”[ ((Dishman, L. 2018. “This Is One Of The Women Behind Hollywood’s Inclusion Rider.” Fast Company. March 22, 2018.))] A rider, as Kotagal says, is a compelling and powerful instrument, but in isolation, it is not a solution. Hollywood’s gender problems cannot be solved solely by individuals who use their star power to effect change on a project-by-project basis.[ ((Dvorak, P. 2018. “She wrote Hollywood’s ‘inclusion rider.’ But she fights for women at Walmart, chicken plants and hospitals, too.” Washington Post Blogs, March 8, 2018.))] Helen Wood and Heather Savigny recently noted in a shared keynote address at the University of Greenwich, there are deeply troubling neoliberal assumptions that underpin the idea that individuals can make a real-world impact and meaningfully transform systemic institutional sexism, racism, or classism.[ ((Wood, H. and H. Savigny. 2018. “Troubling Trailblazing: A Politics of Care.” Trailblazing Women On and Off Screen Conference. University of Greenwich, UK. June 19, 2018.))] One individual cannot unmoor a neoliberal meritocracy that systematically privileges white, able-bodied, cisgendered, straight, upper-middle class, college-educated men and disadvantages everyone else. Using feminist moral philosophy, Wood and Savigny instead called for a politics of care that would harness teams, groups, and organizations to work collectively to bring real and lasting change to companies, institutions, and systems.
With this politics of care in mind, individuals and companies must think beyond hiring practices noted in riders to consider how riders still might exclude those who do not have the access to apply for positions on production crews. Could a rider ever go so far as to demand reconsideration of how creative labor is organized and structured so that the culture of work is more equitable and inclusive? Wood and Savigny rephrase economist Milton Friedman’s famous quotation that “before there can be equity there must be freedom” to assert that “before there can be freedom, there must be care.” Care has been systematically undervalued—and without care for the well-being of others, Wood and Savigny state, true equity cannot be achieved. Using this logic, an inclusion rider forces a conversation and some action, but it must work in conjunction with a politics of care—or, at the very least within the current neoliberal economies of the media industries, to build or facilitate a semblance of corporate responsibility. Unless a vision for change is both action-oriented and has financial support—backed not only by powerful individuals within the organization but also by institutional policy—its chance for lasting impact is profoundly compromised.
Within the context of the highly conglomerated, capitalist system of television production that dominates the American market, what actions on screen and behind the scenes (from the corporate office to the set) highlight equity, justice, and care? In thinking about a company best positioned to implement these ideals, we arrived at Lifetime, the television network that has the for last 30 years branded itself as the dedicated network for women. In this two part series, we map how the network has found its way to an increasingly inclusive and compelling model of media made by and for diverse women. This first article follows Lifetime’s early history up to 2015. The second article, coming out next month, will explore how Lifetime’s Broad Focus initiative has transformed the network and how recent series, from UnREAL to Surviving R. Kelly, represent examples of how the network is reimagining what women—and others—who are increasingly interested in watching nuanced, representative, and engaging stories about women—want and/or need to see in 2019 and beyond.
The recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have placed gender equity and justice at the center of many cultural, political, economic, academic, and pop cultural discussions about gender in the United States. These conversations have expanded cultural understandings of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace, and served to let women of all ages, races, ethnicities, classes, sexualities, professions, and political affiliations know that they are far from alone in navigating these harrowing experiences. Lifetime is advantageously positioned to advocate for women in all the ways a powerful, women-centric television network should, by considering its practices around employment—on screen and behind the scenes—in its offices, and in its boardrooms.
At this time in Lifetime’s trajectory, its brand is well-known, but not particularly well-respected; in order to have the market influence it desires, Lifetime must invest in making the brand as well regarded as it is recognizable. By embracing the cultural moment and investing more deeply in developing systems of care, creative autonomy, and equity that have already been applied at various moments in its history, Lifetime could have a stable platform from which to enact meaningful change, reflect more nuanced and inclusive explorations of “women’s stories,” and recast its brand as one to be enjoyed by audiences and emulated by peers.
The Lifetime Television Network, which grew to prominence as “the network for women,”[ ((Meehan, E.R. and J. Byars. 2000. “Telefeminism: How Lifetime Got Its Groove, 1984–1997.” Television and New Media 1:1: 33–51.))] sold itself to audiences as a safe space for women to see and hear their own stories. Lifetime’s broadly constructed target market—women of all ages, races, classes and geographies—created a difficult executional conundrum: how to appeal to all women. Network executives resolved the dilemma by focusing on 18 to 49 year-old-women, a well-known and profitable segment that was easy to sell to advertisers.
As the Lifetime Network bolstered its brand identity and developed signature offerings, it seized upon the winning formula of the Lifetime Movie. These movies were regularly criticized—often for being overwrought, unbelievable melodramas. But audiences tuned in. On the level of plot, Lifetime’s movies were delivering pablum, but between the lines, they were offering something Lifetime’s target market couldn’t resist: justice for women. Justice they weren’t getting at home, at school, at work, or from the legal system. Any wild tale that culminated in some semblance of justice was vindicating, validating, and thrilling. And while its heroines were often brutally victimized, its movies gave viewers access to a world in which justice could, and would, prevail. The formula worked. As Heather Hundley observed: “Ten years after it began, Lifetime was in 59 million households and was the eighth most-watched basic cable network in prime time, but most importantly, it was first in one of its key demographics: 18- to 49-year-old women.”[ ((Hundley, H. “The Evolution of Gendercasting: The Lifetime Television Network—‘Television for Women.’” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 29.4: 174–181.))]
Typical Lifetime Movie Fare: My Stepson, My Lover (A.K.A. Love Murder and Deceit), circa 1997.
Lifetime, like most television networks, has mainly focused on external branding efforts—to cable carriers, advertisers, and audiences. But during its history, a few powerful and well-intentioned individuals have made compelling efforts to change the brand from within. In 2007, Andrea Wong’s first act as the network’s new president was to meet and listen to all 500 of her employees as they talked about perceived opportunities and challenges at Lifetime.[ ((Chang, C., W Guttentag, and R. Kramer. 2008. “Lifetime Networks: Andrea Wong” Stanford Graduate School of Business, EM5.))] In engaging these extended conversations with employees across the network, Wong learned that most felt they did not have the authority to make decisions. In response, she encouraged them to act, arguing that, from her perspective, making mistakes was preferable to inaction. As Wong worked to change the programming of “the women in peril network,” she noticed the women behind the scenes were also in peril and sought to give them agency.[ ((Ibid.))] Wong captured something vital about how women in the media industries were experiencing the workplace and took compassionate action to build care into daily corporate life. Sadly, her efforts were short-lived for a number of reasons, including that she was just one individual trying to fix an ingrained, elaborate process problem. But her management approach to corporate climate was a thoughtful and compelling way of making her employees feel seen, heard, and valued. Wong’s approach may have also encouraged Lifetime employees to, in marketing terms, “live the brand” and see the network more completely as both for and about women.
Wong, who had earned an MBA at Stanford prior to joining Lifetime,[ ((Ibid.))] appreciated the depth and the value of internal (or employee) branding—whereby companies regularly articulate their brand mission and values to employees to create better alignment between corporate mission and employee action.[ ((A recent example of a company trying to realign with its mission and action would be Starbucks’ decision to close its stores on May 29 2018, for emergency training about racial bias .))] One company that has done this particularly well is Southwest Airlines. A Harvard Business Review article,[ ((Mitchell, Colin. “Selling the Brand Inside” Harvard Business Review January 2002.))] and a business case study of the company,[ ((Miles, S.J. and W.G. Mangold. 2005. “Positioning Southwest Airlines through employee branding” Business Horizons. 48: 535—545.))] explore Southwest’s commitment to engineering the brand from the inside out, sending clear and consistent messages to both internal and external audiences about the brand’s mission and values. The article notes that Southwest goes so far as to screen job candidates not only for their professional skills, but also “on a scale of one to five on seven traits corresponding to the brand’s core values.”[ ((Mitchell, Colin. “Selling the Brand Inside” Harvard Business Review January 2002.))] By interviewing with its mission in mind, Southwest is able to recruit and hire employees whose personal values and personalities align with Southwest’s systematic and progressive way of doing business. Lifetime could consider hiring this carefully and deliberately to achieve its own organizational goals.
As Lifetime has struggled to be more inclusive on screen and behind the scenes, it has succeeded in some ways and faltered in others. In 2012, Lifetime began phasing out “Television For Women” to make way for its new slogan, “Your Life. Your Time.” This move was designed to make the network more inviting to those not yet interested in or committed to the brand. Part of this meant expanding its focus beyond white women.[ ((Amanda Lotz’s (2004) study of the early Lifetime original series, I’ll Fly Away, argues that in part because of creative differences between writers and network executives, the representation of women of color on the series, only went skin-deep. The authenticity the series sought faltered in its execution.))] As Newman notes “what often went unsaid in previous discussions of their brand was that Lifetime’s generic woman was actually a white woman.”[ ((Newman, E.L. 2016. “Conclusion–Lifetime at Thirty: Leading the Way for Women and Television.” The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 171-192.))] At some level, the network itself realized the myopic whiteness of its brand and started actively recruiting women of color as creative talent to help the network cultivate inclusion and creative autonomy throughout its ranks in recent years.
In 2012, the network remade the film Steel Magnolias with an all-black cast, drawing in 6.5 million viewers and strong reviews,[ ((Andreeva, N. 2012. “Steel Magnolias Remake Posts Ratings Records For Lifetime, Draws 6.5 Million.” Deadline. October 8. 2012.))] but this was a continuation of a superficial approach to representation. In 2013, Devious Maids, an original series created by Marc Cherry, resonated with many viewers by providing representation of Latina characters that pushed the envelope, just not too far. Jillian Baez argues the program captures “multiple segments of the female audience through postfeminist and postracial content that is intentionally polysemic.”[ ((Báez, J. 2015. “Television for all women?: Watching Lifetime’s Devious Maids.” Cupcakes, Pinterest, Ladyporn: Feminized popular culture in the early 21st century. Ed. E. Levine. 51-70.))] The series predictably positions these Latina heroines as hyper-sexualized members of the service economy but also presents them as more ethical than their rich and often white employers. This is a form of bounded transgression, which upholds televisual conventions around gender, race, class, and sexuality while subverting these norms and expectations just enough to court more progressive audiences searching for something newer and truer.
An example of bounded transgression, Devious Maids (ABC Studios/Lifetime)
Savvy viewers of color—as well as some scholars–saw Lifetime’s patterned representational problems clearly. Crosby and Bartlow highlight the contradictions in the original series Girlfriend Intervention, showing how it problematized white women’s behavior but expected Black women to do the labor of restoring “true” womanhood.
Extensively, the show advances white supremacy by helping white women; however, teaching white women to “embrace and celebrate their lives, speak their mind, lighten up and love themselves” (GI casting call) does not support the subservient role patriarchy demands of women of any color, especially if it is black women teaching even superficial empowerment.[ ((Crosby, S.L. and S. Bartlow. 2016. “‘What did we teach you?’ Racialized sisterhood in Girlfriend Intervention.” The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 21-37.))]
Audiences used their own methods of speaking back, taking to social media to exact representational justice through biting humor and memes. Brandy Monk-Payton, writing about the 2014 hashtags #LifetimeBeLike and #LifetimeBiopics that poked fun at the network, articulates how “social networking becomes a crucial platform for generating humor as a form of protest against systemic anti-Blackness in the United States.”[ ((Monk-Payton, B. 2017. “#LaughingWhileBlack: Gender and the Comedy of Social Media Blackness.” Feminist Media Histories. 3. 2: 15-35.))]
Taking heed to criticisms of their continued missteps and failures in its racist and stereotypical depictions of women of color, the network chose a high-profile marketing campaign around their decision to greenlight a biopic about the talented and beloved singer Whitney Houston, from the esteemed actor and first-time director Angela Bassett. The Lifetime movie, Whitney (2015), garnered the network’s highest ratings in more than a year,[ ((Kissell, R. 2015. “‘Whitney Biopic, Specials Score Big for Lifetime on Saturday.” Variety. January 19, 2015.))] but infuriated those overseeing Houston’s estate, who fired back that Bassett’s choice to make the film was short-sighted and opportunistic.[ ((Houston’s family was deeply angered by this unauthorized biopic. In a press release, Pat Houston, President of the Whitney Houston Estate, directed some of her anger directly at Bassett: “This creative pursuit at the expense of the integrity of such an iconic woman, who is voiceless today, reeks of condemnation and deceit. It reeks of enslavement to an industry that will likely do the same to you one day.” Whether Houston’s Estate was more angry at her representation, or that the movie eclipsed the Estate-authorized biopics in the ratings, is somewhat unclear. See Hyman, V. 2015. “Whitney Houston’s family on Lifetime biopic: ‘Brace yourself for the worst.’ NJ.com. January 18, 2015.
))] What resonates from Steel Magnolias, Devious Maids, and Whitney as examples of the network’s more recent approach to inclusivity—from the stories of women of color inserted into originally white narratives, to stories created by white men that push the representational envelope ever so slightly, to stories directed by women of color about women of color—is the importance of making space for women of color, queer women, gender non-conforming women, and women with disabilities to craft their own narratives and to visualize their own representation.
In Part II, we address Lifetime’s Broad Focus Initiative which heralded employment policy changes that led to some of its most compelling content yet, including UnREAL, which flips the script on the fantasy of on-screen romance, to Surviving R Kelly, a six-part documentary series that takes an intersectional feminist approach to one of the worst-kept secrets of the #MeToo era: Kelly’s serial sexual predation of underage girls.
1. Frances McDormand and Meryl Streep at the 2018 Oscars
2. McDormand calls for the Inclusion Rider
3. Typical Lifetime Movie Fare: My Stepson, My Lover (A.K.A. Love Murder and Deceit), circa 1997.
4. An example of bounded transgression, Devious Maids (ABC Studios/Lifetime)