So, the big news is that Lena Dunham is creating a comedy about second-wave feminism in New York in the ’60s. Obviously, this show, called Max, has the potential to be terrible, super-white, and clueless — or, if we’re being really optimistic, it could be amazing, funny, and educational. As the recent documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry and books like Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed show us, the feminist movement (or movements) that arose out of civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements was much more multifaceted, playful, creative, and even forward-thinking than history — both mainstream history and the internal history of feminism — would have us believe.
Grassroots activism, with its factions, purists, narcissists, and internal debates about process, is so inherently worthy of comic treatment that it cries out to be satirized well. Recently, sites like Reductress have shown that you can take a poke at feminism without being cruel or buying into stereotypes. So we have (some) hope. But we thought we’d help things along.
If Dunham is looking at the resurgence of feminism in New York during the heyday of ’60s activism, there are some historical figures we’d like to see pop in, either as themselves or as inspiration for her characters. Not only are they fascinating women, but they’d help keep the show from becoming Girls: ’60s Edition.
The feminist, civil rights activist, and radical who was a fugitive and then stood trial at the very end of the ’60s would be an obvious candidate for both a supporting role and a plot catalyst (Tessa Thompson might be a great choice to play her). It would be amazing to have Davis be a figure in the series, and have the characters following her very dramatic story as it unfolds. “Free Angela” buttons would be a necessary accessory, of course.
Gloria Steinem and Flo Kennedy
It sounds like Dunham’s protagonist, Maxine, will have certain biographical elements in common with Steinem, who began as a journalist before getting caught up in the women’s movement that she covered. The media’s obsession with Steinem’s bombshell-like appearance and dating life, and the friction this caused in the movement, are definitely worth mining for humor and the kind of awkward tension Dunham does so well.
But please, let’s not forget Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, Steinem’s longtime speaking partner, who loved to wear a cowboy outfit and coined many of the pithy phrases that have since been credited to Steinem. Take her quote about marriage, which shows that including her as a character would mean built-in humor: “Why would you lock yourself in the bathroom just because you have to go three times a day?”
One of the most radical and troubled of early feminists, “Shulie” was described this way by Susan Faludi in the New Yorker.
Few were as radical, or as audacious, as Shulamith Firestone. Just over five feet tall, with a mane of black hair down to her waist, and piercing dark eyes behind Yoko Ono glasses, Firestone was referred to within the movement as “the firebrand” and “the fireball.” “She was aflame, incandescent,” Ann Snitow, the director of the gender-studies program at the New School and a member of the early radical cadre, told me. “It was thrilling to be in her company.”
Andy Warhol’s would-be assassin has already showed up as the subject of the film I Shot Andy Warhol, but it would be delicious to get a glimpse of the writer of the SCUM Manifesto, whose act of anti-Warholian violence caused further divisions in the feminist ranks (interesting fact: Florynce Kennedy defended Solanas in court).
Rich, the famous poet and activist, spent the late ’60s — she was a professor at Columba — getting so political and hosting so many radical gatherings that her husband became convinced she was losing her mind (he later killed himself). Vivacious and bold, she’d also be a fascinating character for Dunham herself to portray.
Lorde, a poet who palled around with Rich and Alice Walker, among others, was an early and strong critic of white feminism’s inattentiveness to race. In the ’60s, she was writing in New York, so she’d be well situated for an appearance on the show. Furthermore, Lorde was a mistress of words, making her one of the most frequently quoted activist figures around. Adapting her writing and sayings for a TV show would be a screenwriter’s dream and challenge.
Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug
What would a comedy about ’60s feminism be without the pugnacious, brave elder stateswomen who vacillated between occasionally fractious disagreement with more radical voices in the movement and going all-in for change? These women were pioneers, if imperfect in their views. And since intergenerational conflict is a staple of sitcoms: bring it on!