(Editor’s note: This article by Lovia Gyarkye ’12 appeared in the Spring issue of Quad, the alumni magazine).
When Meryl Poster ’82 was a senior at Riverdale, one of the most popular shows on primetime television was “Dallas,” a series about the tensions within a wealthy Texas family. The show was created by a man. And most of its episodes were written and directed by men. But Poster, who is the executive producer of the Bravo drama “The Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce” and president of the production company Superb Entertainment, wasn’t thinking about that at the time. Instead, she was enjoying her classes in Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS), which was in its second year, and managing the boys lacrosse team. She was taking advantage of the opportunities Riverdale gave her to express herself and cultivating a sense of independence that would prove critical to her career. “Riverdale gave me confidence in so much of my endeavors,” she said.
Poster’s career began at the talent agency William Morris where she worked in the mailroom for two months before she became second assistant to Lee Stevens, the president at the time, and then assistant to the head of talent for Motion Picture and Television. “There weren’t any women who were TV agents then,” she said. “But I didn’t really think of it that way. I always followed my own path.”
Television has changed a lot since Poster’s career began and even more so since she was a senior at Riverdale. Think about the most popular, not to mention most critically acclaimed, shows in the last couple of years alone: We are living in the age of shows like Issa Rae’s “Insecure” and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag.” There have never been more women in television — both on the screen and off. According to Boxed In, an annual report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, San Diego State University, the percentage of women characters in speaking roles was 45 percent last year, a historic high. Women made up 45 percent of major characters on shows across all platforms (broadcast network, cable, and streaming programs) and accounted for a record 31 percent of the people working as creators, directors, producers, and other key roles behind the scenes. The story of Poster’s career coupled with those of two other Riverdale alumnae — Jessica Queller ’87, an executive producer of CW’s “Supergirl,” and Carly Mensch ’01, a co-creator of Netflix’s “GLOW” — reflect a small part of how women have made and continue to make extraordinary strides in this industry.
Jessica Queller was only five years behind Poster at Riverdale, but her career trajectory was radically different. “I acted in all the school plays at Riverdale; theater was my thing,” Queller said. At the time, Jeanine Tesori, whose play “Fun Home” won a Tony Award for Best Musical and marked the first time an all-female duo won the prize, and Keith Levenson ’78 were directing the school’s productions. “My dream was to be on Broadway and win Tony Awards,” Queller said.
Queller stuck with that plan until she was about 29. At that age she realized that what she actually wanted to do was write. “It took me through my twenties, working as an actor and dating writers, to realize that I didn’t want to marry an alcoholic, manic-depressive writer; I just wanted to be one,” she said. “But I didn’t have the confidence to think I could be an Arthur Miller.”
She was already in Los Angeles, where she had moved a few years earlier to audition for roles in film and television, and had no idea where to start. After a friend was cast in Fox’s legal drama “Ally McBeal,” Queller started hanging out on set and learning about the process. That’s when “it dawned on me that there was such a thing as a television writing profession,” she said. Queller’s first job — writing for a never-aired television show for Fox — brought her back to New York, which led her to land her second job in the writers’ room of the WB’s “Felicity.”
The show gave Queller the start that she needed as well as experience in a particular corner of the industry. Looking back, she recalls “very condescending, but specific” advice that she received early in her career from a male literary agent. She wanted to write a legal drama and showed him a spec script for such. He told her to rebrand. “He said, ‘Why are you writing a law show? You’re not a lawyer,’” she recalled. “‘You’re a young woman who grew up in New York. If I were you, I would market myself as the WB girl. [The WB is now known as the CW.] Write about what it’s like being a young woman.’”
The agent was referring to shows like “Felicity” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Gilmore Girls,” which focused on the experiences of a specific kind of woman — usually white, often charming — navigating real-life problems. Queller did just that and, while she is grateful for the career she’s had, she often wonders what it could have looked like had she stopped to think about the implications of his advice: “In retrospect, I think what an ass. Why couldn’t I have written the legal show? My father is an attorney. I’m an intelligent human being, and I could have gone to law school.”
But she found success and, as a result of working on shows like “Gilmore Girls” and “Gossip Girl,” she was often in writers’ rooms with many women. “I happened to be in rooms that were always at least 50 percent women, which was very unusual,” she said. “So I didn’t feel terribly challenged because of my gender.”
Almost two decades later, Carly Mensch, would have a similar writing room experience. Except that the women at the center of television shows were slightly different.
At the start of Mensch’s career, prestige networks like Showtime were putting serious money behind shows with different kinds of female roles. They were still not quite the ethnically and sexually diverse women of today’s television, but they were often anti-heroes — darker and more complicated.
Mensch’s first industry gig was as a staff writer for Jenji Kohan’s show “Weeds” on Showtime. “I have been spoiled,” Mensch said. “I started working for a woman and have been breathing rarefied air since.”
Mensch, who graduated from Riverdale in 2001, had no real intention of going into the arts when she was a student. On campus, she was a three-season athlete (“I played soccer, lacrosse, and then winter track just to keep in shape”) and Madame Hoffman’s Advanced Placement French class was the closest she got to thinking seriously about language. At Dartmouth, Mensch flirted with political science and took a creative-writing class, but she came back to French, ultimately choosing to major in it.
Her first brush with drama was a happy accident. Dartmouth was holding a playwriting competition in which participants were expected to write, cast, and produce a play within 24 hours. Mensch’s friend asked her to be her partner specifically because she lacked experience. She thought “it would make it interesting,” Mensch recalls. “It was almost like a dare and, I will say, writing that play was eye opening for me.”
But at that point it was too late for Mensch to switch her major to drama, so she took some elective classes instead — one a dramaturgy class focused on Tony Kushner and the other a playwriting 101 class. In the latter, she wrote a play that she considers “a full rip-off” of one of her favorite plays: Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties.” Her play won a school award and she found the experience of putting it on at the end of her time at Dartmouth exhilarating. It made her wonder, “Can you make a living being a playwright?”
Mensch describes her post-Dartmouth years as a continuation of her slow drifts into the arts. She got a job at Playwrights Horizons, where she earned a theater education in the reverse. Instead of Shakespeare and Chekhov, her canon featured new voices and styles that inspired her to apply to graduate school. Mensch looks back at her time at Juilliard as equal parts informative and difficult. She now considers her time in the program — in her 20s — as too soon. “I really did not yet know my voice, I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about,” she said. “I know everyone seems to have imposter syndrome but I really felt like what am I doing here?”
On “Weeds,” Kohan treated each writer she hired like a future showrunner and ran the writers’ room with a culture of respect. “It didn’t even occur to me not to speak up,” Mensch said. “It felt like a true democracy; if you were at the table, they wanted to hear from you.” And if an episode you wrote aired, you would be present for every part of the process: from sitting on set to editing the footage. That attitude set the tone for the rest of Mensch’s career. Her next job was writing for “Nurse Jackie,” another Showtime drama, which is where she met Liz Flahive, with whom she would later partner to create “GLOW.”
“GLOW,” which is about the women who perform in a wrestling competition in 1980s Los Angeles, points to the future of television. Born in the era of streaming, it’s a smart show about women, grapples with interesting themes, and features an ethnically diverse cast. Behind the scenes, Mensch and her co-creator think critically about the tone they want to set. They are thoughtful about carrying forward the best of what they have learned from their own experiences. “There was a generation of women who struggled before so that I could be where I am today,” Mensch said. “Now that I have been in television a while, I’m very aware of how that was revolutionary.”
Lovia Gyarkye ’12 is an associate editor at the New York Times Magazine Labs and a writer based in New York. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and The New Republic.
Carly Mensch ’01 is co-creator of the Emmy Award-nominated Netflix wrestling comedy “GLOW,” which she currently writes and produces. Her past credits include “Orange Is the New Black,” “Nurse Jackie,” and “Weeds,” in addition to a number of plays she developed and produced in NYC.
Meryl Poster ’82 is president and founder of Superb Entertainment. Previously, she served as president of television at The Weinstein Company where she oversaw all television development and production for shows like “Project Runway All Stars” and “Mob Wives.” She currently serves as an executive producer of the Bravo drama “The Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce.“
Jessica Queller ’87 is a writer and executive producer of the CW hit show, “Supergirl.” Jessica went on to write for many of the most iconic dramedies on television, including “Felicity,” “Ed,” “One Tree Hill,” “Gilmore Girls,” “The Carrie Diaries,” and “Gossip Girl.”