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Sexism and the City

If you’ve seen The Devil Wears Prada, starring Meryl Streep as magazine editor Miranda Priestly, you’ll almost certainly be reminded of that character when first encountering Diana Trout, played by Miriam Shor (BFA ’93, theatre) on TV Land’s hit series Younger. Both women are imperious, glamorous, ambitious, accomplished, and profoundly dismissive and demanding of their underlings.

The big difference is that Shor’s Diana is hilarious, with much of the comedy achieved silently-a raised eyebrow of disdain, a steely stare of exasperation, and a walk of ramrod-straight purposefulness.

“If people want to compare me to Meryl Streep, go right ahead, I’m cool with that,” said Shor. “Her ability to make Miranda so horrible and so human was astonishing. That performance is the template; it’s the one you hold up and reach for.”

The effort has paid off. Shor is a scene stealer in Younger, as the uptight marketing director of a Manhattan book publishing company who hires an assistant her own age-real-life friend Sutton Foster, as Liza-believing her to be many years younger. Liza, divorced and reentering the workforce at 40, after many years as a stay-at-home mom, is only able to land a job by pretending to be 26. The outlandish premise, based on a novel of the same name, allows for a clever look at sexism and ageism in the workplace and the world.

“It’s a delightful confection that is so unbelievably watchable and so fun, but it offers the opportunity to talk about things that the feminist in me is excited to bring up,” said Shor. “I mean, yeah, it’s just a TV show, but it’s touching on something that really matters to everyone-ageism and sexism-that you can’t get away from. I think that’s why so many people are responding to it.”

Younger has indeed found a loyal audience, on a cable network not known for original programming. Produced by Darren Star, creator of Sex and the City, Younger’s third season begins filming in June. Having a lead role in a Star-produced show with a wonderful cast, excellent writers, a premise that blends social commentary with comedy, and is shot in New York-where Shor lives with her husband and two young children-makes her feel like the luckiest actress alive.

But luck is only part of the equation. Shor paid her dues over the years, starting at SMTD. Failing to get into the musical theatre program (twice, she’s quick to remind you), Shor enrolled at U-M as an English major (she also holds a BA), but in her first year, the BFA theatre degree program was launched. Determined to be an actor, Shor auditioned and was accepted, and was ultimately grateful for the way things worked out, since she was able to study with the department’s celebrated faculty. And, she was finally able to participate in musical theatre when department chair Brent Wagner invited her to take some classes.

Moving to New York City immediately after graduation, Shor landed a remarkable project early on: Hedwig and the Angry Inch by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask. “Hedwig changed everything for me,” she said, “and it changed my perspective of what theatre can be.”

Shor was cast as Yitzak during workshops, before Mitchell and Trask knew exactly what the role would be; they only knew they wanted to further subvert the theme of gender identity by casting a woman as a male roadie. Yitzak slowly evolved into a leading role as Hedwig’s assistant, backup singer, and husband, thanks in large part to Shor’s ability to do all that was asked of her. Following the show’s smash success Off Broadway in 1998, Shor revived the role in the 2001 film.

But as her first professional job in New York, Hedwig set an impossibly high bar: it was an intoxicating mix of genre-exploding theatre, brilliant creativity, and great success. “What are you gonna do after that?” asked Shor. “In my case you do a string of crappy sitcoms.”

In reality, her sitcoms weren’t crappy, as she readily attests (they included Big Day, Swingtown, and GCB), they just suffered the common fate of not finding an audience. Shor jokes that she kills every show she’s landed, but she’s enjoyed recurring roles on many top series, such as The Good Wife and Damages, and had a major role in HBO’s miniseries Mildred Pierce, with Kate Winslet. She’s also continued making films, most recently 5 Flights Up with Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman.

Immediately after Hedwig, Shor appeared in a number of plays, but theatre is largely on hold now because she doesn’t want to give up nights with her children. An exception was a one-week staged concert version of The Wild Party by Andrew Lippa (BM ’87), starring Sutton Foster, which took place last summer at New York City Center.

But with Younger, the pattern of failed TV series has been broken, day work is the norm, and Shor is joyfully engaged in a meaningful project. She loves shining a light on sexism and ageism, something that is especially acute for actresses.

“I’ve had auditions where the character is 42 years old, and they’ll say, ‘we will not see women older than 35.’ I mean: blatant!” said Shor. “Whereas in the rest of the world, it’s much more nefarious, in a way, because you’re being told that you have every opportunity in the world-equal opportunity-so if you’re failing, it must be because of something you’re doing.”

Bemoaning Hollywood’s traditional demand that women look young and beautiful, Shor says she recognized the standard as ridiculous from the start, but is continually frustrated by it. “There’s literally only one way to not age and I would prefer to continue to breathe oxygen,” she said, “so I am going to stay here and just age as gracefully as I can, and eventually I’ll be the only woman left who looks like an old woman so I’ll get all those roles. That’s my m.o.”

Still, Shor is confident that the industry is changing, partly because more women are in positions of power, but also because women-particularly middle-aged women-are finally being recognized as a valuable audience. She imagines the revelation had by the “head honchos in Hollywoodland”: ‘Women are consumers? And like to watch stories on television? Shocking! And women of a certain age…with money? No way!” She laughs at the absurdity. “I mean, c’mon. You couldn’t do better than having women in their 40s and 50s as your audience. So it is slowly changing, and that changes the demographics of what you see on television.”

Adding to this positive trajectory are the multiple platforms now available, including the ever-expanding sea of both cable channels and web outlets like Netflix and Hulu. Shor says the focus is now on creative people who are able to tell compelling stories-in the satisfying serial format of television, which allows for in-depth story and character development-without answering to “people in suits.”

Shor sees this as being especially beneficial to women, who are “starting to feel ownership of their creativity,” and this delights her. Her main advice for young actors is to create their own opportunities instead of waiting for others to create them. “If you can take that risk and create your own art, you have a leg up on a lot of people,” she said, adding that it’s gratifying to see so many young women doing just that. “They take their place at the table and they don’t apologize.”

That, in fact, is something she admires about Younger’s Diana Trout. “She is unapologetic about her beliefs in her own abilities. She made her way to a position where she’s in power in a world where a lot of men tend to be in power, and holds her own.” Like many younger women today, Diana does something that Shor applauds: she steps up and says, “I have something to say, and you should listen to me.” Now if only she would work on being a nicer boss.

 

By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.