The Art of the “Girl-Writer”: On Annie Berke’s “Their Own Best Creations”

March 30, 2022   •   By Sophia Stewart

Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television

Annie Berke

I Love Lucy co-creator and writer Madelyn Pugh never liked being called a “pioneer” of television. She bristled at the term, even as it was applied admiringly by young women who were treading the path that she blazed. In her 2005 memoir Laughing with Lucy: My Life with America’s Leading Lady of Comedy, however, she conceded that “early television was a little like going through the Donner Pass…. There were no maps because nobody had ever been there before.”

While the first television writers rarely if ever resorted to cannibalism, Pugh’s comparison conveys just how novel television writing was as a form when she first started. Her peers, most of whom came from radio, developed their craft in real time alongside the burgeoning medium of television. For women writers, this was especially true, as they had to adapt not only to new genre conventions, but also a male-dominated workspace and industry.

But despite the many gender-based obstacles they faced, female television writers possessed unique power during the postwar era. Television infiltrated American culture with incredible speed — in 1946, there were around 6,000 television sets in homes across the United States; by 1951, the year I Love Lucy premiered, there were 12 million. The majority of this enormous audience was comprised of housewives, who soon became daytime television’s most valuable viewers. Even as institutional sexism persisted, efforts to cater to female viewerships proved to be a boon for women writers like Pugh. Women writers and viewers built the medium, as well as their own places behind the camera and in front of the screen.

In Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television, Annie Berke explores this first Golden Age of television through the contributions of women writers, whom she convincingly argues have been grossly overlooked. Of particular interest to Berke is how women writers negotiated and demonstrated their value, both onscreen and off, in “an industry that sought to capitalize on female viewership while keeping executive power largely in men’s hands.” 

Though sexism permeated every aspect of television production, Berke writes that “the imperative to reach and retain female viewers meant that shows, networks, and agencies had to make room for women’s voices and perspectives.” To demonstrate this uneasy alliance, she foregrounds the lives and work of writers Lucille Kallen, of Your Show of Shows; Gertrude Berg, of The Goldbergs; Peg Lynch of Ethel and Albert; Joan Harrison of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; and Irna Phillips, of Guiding Light, As the World Turns, and Another World. (Though she appears sporadically, Pugh unfortunately does not get the same case-study treatment as her aforementioned peers.)

Berke studies each writer through both the scripts they wrote and the personas they fashioned for themselves, as she sees their creative work and public identities as interconnected texts with equal cultural value. The stories they told onscreen and the stories they told about themselves offscreen were in fact “mutually sustained narratives,” she argues, that subtly spoke to executives and viewers alike who were dubious of women who ventured out of the home and into the writers’ room.

The title of Their Own Best Creations comes from a comment about Irna Phillips, who innovated the modern soap opera. “Irna was her own best creation,” All My Children and One Life to Live creator Agnes Nixon said, implying that Philips’ self-mythology was as consciously constructed as the intricate mythologies of her soaps. This kind of self-fashioning by women showrunners is nothing new — Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Shonda Rhimes’s Year of Yes are prime contemporary examples. But in the postwar era, during which women television writers were paradoxically valued and marginalized by their industry, reputation management was especially important. 

Considering so much of it is about the construction of personas like these, Their Own Best Creations contains little in the way of biography. Berke’s research subjects never become fully fleshed-out characters. Unlike such thematically comparable books as Michelle Dean’s Sharp or Kathleen Courtenay Stone’s They Called Us Girls, Their Best Creations examines only the portions of its subjects’ lives — i.e. their time working in television — that can support its thesis. For that reason, the book is best read as the history of an industry, rather than a group biography of individual artists. 

If the biographical details are sparse, Berke’s literary analysis, on the other hand, is robust and rigorous. She close-reads scripts through what she calls a “self-ethnographic” lens, combing for parallels between writers’ industry experiences and the exploits of their fictional onscreen counterparts. Women television writers, she concludes, “tactically made space in their scripts to argue for their own relevance to the television industry, ventriloquizing their arguments through fictionalized characters and premises.” Because the scripts serve as commentary and context for their writers, these primary texts come to unusual life in Berke’s hands.

Accepting Berke’s argument about writers’ stealthy ventriloquism requires blurring the lines between authorial intention and authorial effect. At times, I felt it difficult to assess for certain how “tactical” these women writers were about embedding topical arguments into their scripts. But in probing my uncertainty I recalled a line I’d read many years ago, in Thomas C. Forster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor: “We have to bring our imaginations to bear on a story if we are to see all its possibilities; otherwise it’s just about somebody who did something.” Applied to these selected television scripts, Berke’s imagination — bolstered by insight, expertise, and scholarship — reveals stunning depths. Authors’ intent may be unknowable, but critical interpretations are their own kind of creative work. Berke’s interpretations are generative and convincing accounts of the way that art and artists can come to reflect each other.

While television’s first Golden Age is often associated with retrograde shows like Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, or The Honeymooners, Their Own Best Creations spotlights the multiple women-penned series, many of them largely forgotten, that embraced and explored “the complicated, often ambivalent, gender politics of television and of postwar culture.” For instance, the way postwar women writers treated domesticity, Berke argues, “primed” suburban women to wrestle with Betty Friedan’s problem with no name or trickle into consciousness raising groups. She finds several scripts from the era to be surprisingly — through subtly — feminist. In the work of Gertrude Berg and Peg Lynch, of The Goldbergs and Ethel and Albert, respectively, is a “female-centered realism” that challenged beauty standards and advocated for gender equity in the home. In a 1953 episode of The Goldbergs, in which matriarch Molly feels pressured to get a makeover, Berg wisely has a male character, Uncle David (Eli Mintz), deliver an incisive yet palatable indictment of sexism:

“I don’t know what you expect from women these days. I don’t know, to be a good housekeeper, to be a good cook, a good mother good mother-in-law read books, have culture and also to look like motion picture stars.… Who would want to be a woman in this time and age? I don’t know who—not me!”

But most women writers’ scripted social commentary was not so explicit. In Peg Lynch’s script for the 1953 Ethel and Albert episode “Fixing Up the Den for Albert,” Berke sees a satire about “the difference between male authorship and female ingenuity” — that is, an allegory for the utility of the woman writer herself. The episode begins with Albert (Alan Bunce), dissatisfied with his office job, complaining to his wife Ethel (Margaret Kerry) that he wants to take up writing but feels their cramped home is not hospitable to his literary aspirations. Ethel fashions him a tasteful study in the couple’s den for him to write, to no avail. It turns out Albert, not his workspace, is deficient. “While Albert wishes he were a profound, misunderstood artist type,” Berke writes, “…[i]t is Ethel, with her flair for interior design, who is the creative one in the family, as is Lynch, the show’s semi-stealth author.” Berke also sees meta-commentary in Lynch’s harpooning of Albert, who is all bark and no bite. “A masculine preoccupation with the process and romance of writing is antithetical to literary or aesthetic authenticity,” she notes in her analysis of the episode. “The woman writer may not have the time or cultural permission to meditate on craft, but she does the work just as well, if not better, than a man caught up in his own self-image.”

This reading of “Fixing Up the Den for Albert” dovetails with Their Own Best Creations’s most compelling argument: that women of the era occupied the role of “writer” differently than men, espousing practicality and good sense where male writers luxuriated in their own brooding. Lynch, Berg, and others were careful to establish themselves in the public eye not as artists or craftsmen, but as down-to-earth workers and women. Lynch professed her writing instincts to be “a product of clear-eyed competence, not tortured genius,” while Berg repeatedly “disavowed the language of craft, opting instead for a humble, maternal rhetoric” that framed her attention to detail as “a gesture of love, not ambition.” By the late 1950s, the matronly woman writer went somewhat out of fashion and suddenly needed to not only demonstrate a sense of drive, but to also make that drive look glamorous. Case in point: the always-stylish Joan Harrison, whose impeccable dress and flashy hairstyles established her feminine persona, which softened the vast creative and executive power she possessed.

Above all, Lynch, Berg, and their contemporaries held a writerly philosophy that “prized a paradoxically artless craft and feminine commitment to authenticity that has no room or time for creative posturing.” Berke contrasts this perspective with that of such writers as Paddy Chayefsky, who framed television writing as a counter-cultural craft, proclaiming, by way of self-mythologization, that, “a true lone wolf talent never surrenders his art to commercial imperatives.” Both approaches yielded inspired written works, despite their difference in bluster. But Berke notes that women writers of the era “labored under different cultural restraints and expectations” than their male peers — they could not afford to be seen as audacious or righteous, lest they be deemed difficult to work with. It was hard, it seems, to be both a rebel genius and a woman at the same time.

The plight of Lucile Kallen, a writer for Your Show of Shows, demonstrates how women negotiated their existence in male-dominated workspaces. How to be assertive but not nettlesome, cooperative but not obsequious, honest but not harsh? In a writers room dominated by such “lone wolf talents” as Mel Brooks and Neil Simon, Kallen had her work cut out for her. “I was torn between preserving my femininity and preserving my career at the same time,” Kallen recalled of her tenure at Your Show of Shows. “It was difficult… to be forceful enough to get through… They were loud, they were noisy, they were ruthless.” She was appointed by the show’s star, Sid Caesar, as the room’s “scribe,” transcribing ideas as writers shouted them chaotically across the room.

When she did manage to make her thoughts heard — through a haze of cigar smoke, piles of takeout, and jockstraps dangling overhead (the writers room doubled as the dancers’ changing room) — Kallen proved indispensable. Through Caesar’s costar Imogene Coca, Kallen channeled an authentic and subjective female point of view. Coca was “an ideal muse and instrument for Kallen’s expressive and creative powers,” Berke writes, and Kallen often used her character to critique postwar femininity. After Your Show of Shows ended, Coca and Caesar each starred in their own shows, and writers could choose which new project to work on. Kallen opted for The Imogene Coca Show because she “felt a little bit put upon by the predominance of male points of view. The men thought of Coca as inferior, too.” 

During her time at Your Show of Shows, Kallen’s colleagues called her the “girl-writer.” She later said of the sobriquet, “‘Girl’ put you — fondly — in your place.” She wasn’t the only woman to earn the title of “girl-writer”: I Love Lucy’s Madelyn Pugh had the nickname emblazoned on her directors chair. “Comedy shows… were usually written about by groups of men who were known as ‘The Boys,’” Pugh said, “as in ‘Get The Boys to fix that joke.’” Girl-writers as they were, Kallen and Pugh held significant power over their respective programs, using their onscreen representatives — Imogene Coca and Lucille Ball, respectively — to voice the female perspectives that were regularly talked over in the writers room. In doing so, they proved that these perspectives were, as Berke writes, “not a mere novelty for television but a necessity.” 

The cultural contributions of Pugh, who died in 2011, were recently revisited in Aaron Sorkin’s film Being the Ricardos. In one scene, Madelyn (Alia Shawkat) and Lucille (Nicole Kidman) discuss the script for an upcoming taping. “I won’t say who wrote what,” Madelyn says, “but I can tell you that I’m the lady in there trying to make Lucy smarter.” She adds that she wants to bring to the writers room “a female perspective from another generation.”

Though this conversation likely never happened in such explicit terms, Pugh nevertheless wrote scripts that reflected her experiences as a woman — and in doing so the experiences of millions of women tuning in. In her memoir, Pugh recalls writing an episode in which Lucy “likes having a career, but finds it keeps her from spending time with her son so she quits,” and quips, “I wonder where that idea came from.” She never claimed political intentions, but the empowering effect of her work, so often drawn from her own life, endures regardless. A decade after I Love Lucy ended, second-wave feminists would adopt the rallying cry, “The personal is political.”