Aminatou Sow (host of the podcast "Call Your Girlfriend"): I am so very excited to discuss this with both of you because you're smart and probably watch as much TV as me, which is embarrassing but delightful. I hadn't read this book since my baby feminist days in college, and this most recent read left me feeling less impressed than I was in college. I think it's the weakest chapter in the book. It makes even her good points feel a bit untrustworthy, because she cherry-picks facts to fit her argument. But I'm 29, and you can't trust anything I say!

Lena Dunham (writer and filmmaker): This was actually my first encounter with this book—it's odd because my mom was a feminist working hard at feminism and bringing me to Women's Action Coalition meetings at exactly this time (1991), but it wasn't something she and her friends were reading. I was only familiar with Susan because of her Shulamith Firestone article in The New Yorker (and from Michiko Kakutani eating her for brekky because of her 9/11 book).

Emily Nussbaum (TV critic of The New Yorker): I read the book back when it came out and it made a big impression on me, just after I graduated from college. I found it useful in taking apart some of the BS that accompanied my adolescence, like that "more likely to be killed by a terrorist" stat. This chapter is definitely a mixed bag, though. I thought the analysis of the shows was oddly tone-deaf: it gives short shrift to shows that contradict her thesis and it's so focused on the image of the working mother that it leaves out many other feminist issues. It's also just wrong on a few points: How is Clair Huxtable a repetition of old-school Ozzie & Harriet type moms? That said, there's a lot of fantastic reporting, which still holds together. It's very illuminating about behind-the-scenes discussions, especially about Cagney & Lacey and thirtysomething.

LD: Full disclosure: I only read the intro and this chapter. I tend to be attracted to a more personal and less academic kind of feminist text. That's my safe space as a reader. I know from reading the internet that Faludi bemoans highfalutin (sorry I had to touch on this vague pun) academic speak inserted into feminist dialogue, though, and I liked her take on making feminism less opaque.

EN: A lot of this just has to do with what each of us brings to the book. For me, it was an illuminating read but also one that was slightly confusing, because the '80s seemed, from my perspective, like a very feminist period. Both in high school and in college, I was exposed to feminist writers, none of them in the mainstream press, but not obscure, either — at least to the people I knew. I was your basic Susie Bright/On Our Backs third-waver, to put it cartoonishly.

LD: I really hear that, Emily—I was a tiny person, but the 1980s for me were my mom and her friends in Romeo Gigli power suits making strong moves to the basket and being applauded for it. That's a huge part of my personal narrative.

Cagney & Lacey (CBS Photo Archive)

AS: The Cagney & Lacey analysis is great, and the sexism at play is infuriating. TV executives it seems are cartoonishly sexist. I loved that so many women wrote in to the network to keep the show on the air. I rewatched a few episodes recently and it's mind-blowing to think of something so explicitly feminist on TV these days. Legend has it producer Barney Rosenzweig told the network he wouldn't make the show unless the women were allowed to make a menstruation joke. I especially want to talk about thirtysomething, because I think the women became a very complex set of characters over the course of the show and Susan Faludi doesn't seem to acknowledge that.

EN: I agree about thirtysomething — although the first season, which I just re-watched not long ago, really IS anti-feminist, or maybe that's too strong: Basically, it seems intended to send negative messages about working women and single women. You can feel the actresses resisting those themes, but they're baked into the text. At one point, Ellyn dates a "male feminist" and it's supposed to be a laugh-riot what a total pussy this guy is.

That said, when I watched it at the time it was on, I had my own distorted way of viewing it, since from my perspective the show might as well have been called Melissa, Her Boring Married Friends, and Her Hot Friend Ellyn in the Shorts. Melissa — and Melanie Mayron, and her backwards-suspendered fashion — was HUGE to me. She was Jewish, she wore glasses, she was an artist. The farther the show went on, the more it shifted, until it felt like it was on her side, and saw through her eyes instead of pitying her.

LD: I watched thirtysomething in college and was completely rapt. I think the female characters are actually stronger than the men on the show. Melanie Mayron is an object of fascination for me, not least of all because she directed The Baby-sitters Club movie. thirtysomething addressed the figure of the working mother in a way that felt honest and truthful (albeit neatly composed for prime time).

EN: For me, it didn't respond so well to the idea of working mothers, in the way the book expresses: Hope and Nancy are set in contrast to these cartoonish yuppie women. But Faludi does leave out many, many aspects of the show, like the fact that Hope does go back to work and later on becomes pretty alienated from Michael and falls into an emotional affair. Also, I'm one of a small subset of rare and contrarian viewers: the Susannah fan. Yes, she was cold, but you could really see that smug crowd from her perspective, if you felt like it!

LD: Girlfriends, the 1978 film by Claudia Weill, is probably the biggest emotional predecessor to Girls despite the fact that I saw it after writing our pilot. It stars Melanie Mayron aka Melissa aka Emily Nussbaum's hair twin and is shot over time so you see her go from quite mousy to seriously glamorous, losing weight and "fixing" her nose. Seeing her both as an antidote to Hollywood AND a victim of it is very intense. Her body and face changed as she entered the mainstream and she was still playing a "quirky" character, an outcast in some sense, artist, Jew.

EN: The performances themselves definitely worked against any of that cartoonish intention. Plus, you can't really talk about TV without talking about audience response: I never saw Hope as a role model. I liked that Melissa was neurotic, she seemed liked a rich and interesting person — not just an object of pity. It's the part that doesn't come across in Faludi's portrayal, that an interesting character is more valuable than someone that women can see simply as a model for an ideal life.

AS: I'm not the core audience for anything about "working moms." It's almost an alien world to me. Also, I am so pleased we're all #TeamMelissa. She was Ally McBeal before Ally McBeal — the kind of career woman who's more interested in being interesting than getting hitched.

EN: Ha — I hated Ally McBeal, but that's a whole other, '90s story.

AS: Meanwhile everyone hates Hope! Watching her, all I could think of was "Nope, don't want your life, but I know 2,826,362,920 women who will grow up to be like you." The conflict between childbearing and working is so real for her, but she is so boring. Definitely wouldn't choose like she did, but in retrospect, I appreciated a lot of the way it was set up. Emily, thank you so much for bringing up the fact that she does go back to work, and all of the conflict that comes with that. Moms with jobs. SO COMPLICATED.

The interesting thing is that Mel Harris was a WORKING MOM and she defended her character in so many interviews with the cringe worthy "feminism is all about choices" sentiment. The ol' "I choose my choice" feminism. Um, not it's exactly that, Mel, but I see why you believe that.

EN: Even in this conversation, it's clear why the show was such a sensation: Everyone took it as a referendum on their own life. Now that I have kids, I get a little more what was going on in the Hope plots, which were a mystery to me too.

AS: The writers were very aware of the larger conversation around their show, and it's so apparent with the "guilty party" episode where Hope walks into a fantasy sequence of a Woman's Studies class and confronts the professor about her choices. She's so upset and tells the prof, "You are teaching us to be exactly like the men we supposedly despised" LOL. Basically Betty Friedan could have written that.

LD: I was definitely struck, upon reading the chapter, by the fact that even though female-driven television wasn't dominating at that point, the shows that did exist (Roseanne, Golden Girls, Designing Women) have such lasting influence. Like those are cultural references my baby sister can connect to because she watched reruns every night—those shows had reach.

EN: Amina, that's so interesting about the Hope class scene. The show had so many dream sequences: It was practically Dream On in there, during the first season. It calmed down later on and became the foundation for the whole Genre That Has No Name, the wonderful one that extends through My So-Called Life, Once & Again, Relatively, FNL, Parenthood, and so on.

LD: The Genre That Has No Name! Shall we call it Sensitive Dramedic Depictions of Middle Class Ennui? Too long? Also, seeing Polly Draper in Obvious Child as Jenny Slate's mom was a slice of heaven.

AS: Haaaaa. I told Emily earlier that I had a dream we made Susan Faludi watch Parenthood and she loved it.

EN: It was a pretty interesting moment because there were these two smash-hit contrasting sitcoms: Cosby and Roseanne. Cosby was a very old-school sitcom, except that it put a black buppie family in place of the old-school Father Knows Best idea — but in the scripts, Cosby lectured the boys a ton about feminism (or, really, respecting women.)Whereas the show didn't actually talk explicitly about race. A Different World was wilder politically and I just loved that show — I feel like it's hugely underestimated and it had such great, genuinely diverse female characters, with women who looked different from anyone else on television. Faludi doesn't really get into the details on those shows, because they don't fit into her focus on working women.

By the way, about A Different World, one of my favorite episodes of that show came out the same year as Backlash. Have you ever seen the dream sequence when Dwayne Wayne imagines that he is a gender-switched "Hillary Blinton"? And there's also a Rose Perot? It is madness and genius.


EN: Every once in a while, when I'm in a bad mood, I watch that clip on YouTube.

AS: I completely agree and I am honestly baffled by how she just casually brushes it off. It doesn't seem deliberate, but she is so meticulous and rigorous it seems like a HUGE OMISSION.

EN: Meanwhile, Roseanne blew everything wide open, as a working-class working mother who was fat and angry and explicitly political and just raw and impolite. The show had such a different tone from Cosby, but the two shows were linchpins that upended the question of who could be at the center of a network series. Faludi talks about the backlash to Roseanne, which was real (and really reminds me of the backlash to Lena and Girls), but then again, it was also a genuine hit.

AS: I still vividly remember this Terry Gross interview where Roseanne matter of factly says "It's a show about class and women." We could have an entire side convo about this and I would die happy. But back to Designing Women for a sec. She just doesn't really dive into it!

EN: I did think it was weird that she didn't talk more about Designing Women. That was another super-preachy but really enjoyable feminist show driven by women. I mean, the '80s were the age of the Very Special Episode, and progressive messages were on every network show, delivered very bluntly.

AS: Ha, well, it just led me to conclude that Designing Women didn't fit with the narrative she was pushing. The men on all of these shows were very one-dimensional, so it's striking she didn't note the complexity of the female characters.

LD: Fully re: special message eps—even the '90s. My So-Called Life was a perfect show and still had an episode that addressed homelessness with a ghost Angel played by Juliana Hatfield.

EN: Ah, the Only Bad Episode of My So-Called Life. "Walk in my shoes" indeed.

LD: But in a way it was so healthy — to see these shows step outside themselves to address real issues. Subtlety is so valued in auteurist television, and as a creator I sometimes want to reject that hard.

EN: That's interesting to hear, and I do get that. But at the same time, it really was the old-school idea of television: that it was an educational tool, there to TEACH people or, alternately, harm them with violence or bad messages. I'm just more interested in shows that have ambiguity, and it's part of what makes Roseanne so great — because she was so angry, it was a wild show, not a tame one.

LD: The New Yorker profile of Roseanne from 1995 is an amazing read. She is described as wearing a beret and a massive T-shirt that says "You Have a Case of Venus Envy" and she is so mad, justifiably, about her treatment as the highest-ranking star in television. She's at the top and totally alone.

EN: That's true. But. If you talk to annnnnnybody who worked in that writer's room, they don't have good stories to tell — and I'm not talking about anti-feminists. Roseanne is one of the most important shows on television, but it imploded in part because it was an insane place to work. That said, I love to rewatch it, it's so salty — including the mess of a final season. Amazing finale, too.

LD: Yes, Roseanne was complex and certainly not a clear-cut victim. in many ways she rejected her haters before they could reject her with a very isolating radicalism. But my respect is boundless.

EN: I just don't want to turn her into a saint. You know, for me, the big deal with Roseanne was also not just about her: People don't remember how bad teen girl characters on TV were, pre-Roseanne. Darlene was a real breakthrough. She was depressed for a YEAR. It was crazy. Early serialized storytelling.

Going back to the chapter as a whole, the thing that I found refreshing was that Faludi managed to get these incredibly damning quotes from executives and writers. It's what's cool about the book overall, the way she digs into the process, not just the product.

AS: You're right about her investigative process. It's what makes it so hard to dismiss her pop culture views entirely. She is adamant that TV and big media are important for feminism. Mikki Halpin brought up an interesting point last week discussing the chapter on media: "What bothers me is that Faludi takes 'the media' to task for not covering what she says is really happening in women's lives and in the women's movement, yet she too ignores important discussions and crucial '80s texts and issues that took up feminist energy while the 'backlash' was happening." And that really struck me because it applies here as well. I'm sorry I keep going back to Designing Women and my strong feeling that Faludi dismissed the show's lasting legacy, but I think that's what's happening here.

LD: I was totally impressed with her reporting in her amazing Shulamith piece, and this was no different. I was also struck, as I always am upon rereading feminist thought from the past (like Trashing, by Joreen, the piece that started Amina's and my friendship) by how little has changed. So many of these issues still exist for female-driven shows, a sense that there ain't room in this town for the both of us.

EN: I don't think she deliberately dismissed these shows because she wanted to push her narrative, exactly, more that she had a blinkered focus on certain issues — economic independence and working mothers being guilted into staying home. She didn't see the radicalism of all-female shows like Designing Women and Golden Girls, which enabled women to take many different parts. She wasn't interested in art and emotion so much as she was in "positive messaging." It does seem strange to me that Faludi doesn't understand what a big deal the Huxtables were, for multiple audiences: a married black professional couple with kids, who loved one another and split the child care — and they were the main characters. Sorry to obsess over this, but it was the one thing that really freaked me out in the chapter, that she didn't recognize the rarity in that.

AS: The Cosby Show and Clair Huxtable are basically the reason I learned to speak English and moved to America, from Guinea in West Africa. Everyone knows how transformative the Cosby was and on so many levels. Even little African girls like me wanted to be Clair and everything she embodied. In high school, I watched Daria and Friends religiously and repeated every word so I could get my accent just right.

LD: The idea of you perfecting your accent to the sweet strains of Rachel Green makes my heart tickle.

AS: I liked Rachel, but I LOVED Monica. She made me feel you could be perfect and funny and have OCD about cleaning and still be a lady with great friends.

LD: Re: Rachel Green, I feel that was literally my education on how adult women behave: a combination of ditzy and strong willed, childish and sexy, sharply funny and totally un self aware. She had an amazing evolution, going from dependent daughter to single mother.

ED: Come back to television, Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Aniston! Still, Faludi's approach makes sense, since in 1992 people did see TV itself in a different way, because it WAS different: it was all network, it was all mass, it was in a very commercial, preachy stage. There was no Tivo or DVR, and the storytelling just had a different feel, which I think comes across in reruns, except for outliers like Roseanne. Also, while certain problems definitely repeat, right now I feel like it's a crazy renaissance era for female characters and, even better, in recent years, for female creators. It's thrilling.

AS: This whole thing also reminds me so much of the current moment we are having in "online feminism" (ugh I hate that phrase). I have a feeling that if this book were written now the, ahem, backlash from other feminists would have been brutal.

LD: I thought the same thing! This HAD to be written in a pre-web time. Otherwise it would just be a series of much-contested tweets. Also, it is wild to me to imagine this current period in television history being analyzed like this. So, a question for the group: I know we could technically ask her, but what do you think Faludi would make of our moment in TV?

The Fosters (ABC Family)

EN: Well, Faludi's not dead, so we could just ask her. Me personally, I can't get over how huge the range of female representation is on TV currently, on both cable and network — although some of it is on shows people pay little attention to, like The Fosters, because that show doesn't fit into the class-inflected category of "prestige cable television." Susan Faludi, come over and watch Inside Amy Schumer with me.

LD: ☺☺ image of you and Faludi watching Schumer's O'Nutters sketch ☺ ☺

AS: The Fosters is the most transgressive show on TV for me right now. I mean, an interracial lesbian couple who are raising their biological son and a gaggle of the most diverse kids adopted from foster care. Oh and one mom is a cop who rides along in the same police car as her ex-husband! And the black mom has a mom who is darker-skinned than her and they discuss black hair politics! They throw a quinceañera for their Latina daughter! Well done, Executive Producer J.Lo.

EN: Let's think about other neglected but awesome shows that Susan Faludi will love, like The Middle.

AS: Shows Susan will love…

I think she will hate Friday Night Lights, but still tear up at some parts because why not!

LD: If we are recommending TV to Faludi, HELLO PRIME SUSPECT.

EN: Broad City, Scandal, Call the Midwife — seriously, this would work much better if we could just get Susan onto Skype.

AS: God I hope you're right! Hi Susan, if you're reading this TELL US WHAT YOU'RE WATCHING.

Lots of ways to read along and join in: Post your own Backlash response on Medium, tweet at @readmatter with #BacklashBookClub, or comment on We'll be featuring some of your posts and tweets as we go.

Chapter 1 with Irin Carmon
Chapter 2 with Donna Shalala, Roxane Gay, and Rebecca Traister
Chapter 3 with Richard Yeselson, Joan Walsh, and Richard Kim
Chapter 4 with Leslie Bennetts, Anna Holmes, and Mikki Halpin
Chapter 5 with Sady Doyle, Stacia Brown, and Amanda Hess

Illustrations by Hannah K. Lee