An Exclusive, Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Groundbreaking Lifetime Digital Series Her America: 50 Women, 50 States
When the editorial team at Lifetime set out to document the response to the 2016 election, they had no idea what form the project would ultimately take. They just knew that there were stories out there that were just waiting to be told, and, as Lifetime's Managing Creative Director Valerie Albanese told POPSUGAR in an exclusive interview in late March, "Women really weren't being heard."
What Lifetime did know was that if a project like this was ever going to happen, it needed to happen now. "There were so many outlets that were talking about doing something like this coming out of the election," said Lea Goldman, editor-in-chief of Lifetime TV. "In the end, there were actually very few examples of this kind of sprawling, nationwide, comprehensive storytelling expedition. I don't think there's an outlet on the planet that could have done it quite like the way we did it — and certainly not solely focused on women."
And that's how Her America: 50 Women, Women States began. But before we get to the lessons learned, let's walk through exactly how Lifetime's groundbreaking digital project came together, as recounted by two women who worked to make it happen.
The Idea Takes Shape and Takes Hold
One of the most crucial aspects of embarking on any form of production is ensuring that a permanent framework is laid down, an end goal which remains the same, regardless of what happens with any of the moving pieces. For Her America, that wound up being the shape of each story itself. Budget constrictions made it so that they were unable to do the whole project on film, so the production team decided to tell each story in the shape it was best suited to, be it video, essay, or podcast format.
"There was respect for the what the best platform or the best medium was to tell the story," Goldman said. "But as we were thinking about who we could partner with, we realized that we would open this up to a new audience if we brought in different partners that wouldn't necessarily traditionally consider themselves Lifetime listeners, or the Lifetime audience — which felt like it opened us to a whole different category of women."
Goldman pointed to the photographers who worked on the project as a strong example of how embracing new formats allowed them to also embrace a new culture — and one that again, broadened their ability to speak to the women of America.
"We took great care to make sure that we reached locals who knew the place, knew the people, knew the characters — and who personally brought with them an audience that wouldn't necessarily align with the Lifetime audience," she noted. "In the end, we ended up with dozens and dozens of ambassadors who could amplify the story that they were telling within their own communities — so it wasn't if you didn't connect with the brand Lifetime you couldn't participate in this film at all. There were many entry points, and I think that governed a lot of the decision-making — but at the same time it really allowed us the flexibility to tell the story that needed to be told."
Reality Comes Knocking — but Is Ultimately Sent Packing
Albanese and Goldman were also up against the same pressure that anyone in a creative field faces in modern media: the question of how the project was ever going to come together, and what success or failure might mean for the legacy brand that they worked for.
"There were a lot of moving parts with this, and it was a challenge to make it happen," Albanese noted. "There were people that didn't want to get it done, that didn't want the project, that did not want us to finish. And we kept everything the way that it was. . . I think it's very emblematic of the where Lifetime is going. The resistance was cultural; people put women in boxes, and people put Lifetime in a box because it meant something different at a different time in our history."
"Like anyone, Lifetime can evolve, and ultimately, this was a very gutsy, ballsy endeavor for a TV network. We're not The New York Times. We're not Slate or Vox. So yes, doing this was incredibly ambitious. It was a big swing for us. And there were stories that I'll tell you, you'd be hard-pressed to find some networks that would even touch some of these stories, in a world where some networks won't even touch certain forms of feminism."
"It was a stretch at the corporate level, for what's expected of a network. But I really think that in the span of one year, we moved the company in a direction that felt very current, very topical, and really of the moment. This was what women were talking about, what women are talking about."
So, with a loose framework in hand and the firm pressure of the media industry radiating from back at home, the team set out on a year-long sojourn across the country to find out just what those women had to say.
Finally, It All Begins to Come Together
"It started with heavy research. A couple of months of going out, of finding these women — we needed them to be authentic, nothing was done through a casting agency," Goldman recalled of the process of realizing the project. "A lot of women that we went out to find, well, sometimes it was the third person that we met through them that we wound up profiling. It started out with a couple of hours of phone interviews, talking to them and getting them to trust us, then asking them to participate in the series."
It was no easy battle. The prevalent belief was that "coastal elites" from major media outlets were not interested in the typical American story, that anyone who started poking around was doing so in order to manipulate or judge them. It was something that the the Lifetime team ultimately decided to confront head-on, by dispelling one of the most disruptive misconceptions in our modern lives.
"One of the biggest missions we had was to upend and deconstruct this myth that you can distill a person by the vote that they cast, that a person is basically the sum of their vote," said Albanese. "In fact, many people told us that it was the root of their distrust, that they had many other issues on their plate than just that one day in November. "
In the end, it was the brand's stellar reputation for representation that propelled them over the line with the individuals they had approached. "A lot of these women had a complete distrust of media, and the reason why they ultimately lowered their guard was because it was for Lifetime," Goldman said.
With talent on board, and the means to fund the project — Lifetime partnered with Ford and P&G, both of whom sponsored stories in the series — Goldman and Albanese amassed a crew of all-female talent and began to truly bring the project to life.
The Women Tell Their Stories, and Lessons Are Learned
Goldman says one of the most powerful takeaways from the months she spent on the road was the realization that beyond our beliefs and our agreements (or disagreements) with others, we can always still connect on a fundamentally human level — and that can change the whole dynamic of a situation.
"You don't necessarily have to agree with somebody in order to like them," she said, laughing. "I think that all of these women, their stories or their opinions — it was all very disarming. So even when they were saying things I totally didn't agree with, like when Lindsay in Montana was like, 'I'm not a feminist, I don't agree with what a feminist is right now' — you still didn't actually dislike her. You just didn't agree, necessarily, with what she was saying. That's the way all the women were. They were all very easy to talk, very real, very honest, and very opinionated. Not angry, but thoughtful. "
"Women across this country bring to the table a variety of different experiences, and they prioritize what's meaningful in different ways, considering what comes first for them," she added. "It was a real eye-opener. There's a frontier mentality that was a very healthy reminder for me in this corner of New York that I sit in, to remember this independence, this fierceness, this outspokenness. Just because on many levels we couldn't be more different, could not be more different — yet we are so alike in so many ways. These are women that remind me of me. Remind me of the people I surround myself with."
In particular, she points to another Montana story, one centered on a mother named Piper who was interviewed at a state fair. Piper's daughter was present for the filming, until the conversation turned to feminism and current events – and it's here that she sent her 8-year-old-daughter away. The director of the segment questioned the decision, and Piper responded that she had done so "To let her make up her own mind."
Goldman says that it triggered a moment of truth for her, a recognition that "Just because I live in a certain area or I look a certain way or dress a certain way, that doesn't mean that I have to fall into these neat little stereotypical boxes where people want to push you."
And that is what the whole project ultimately centered on, in its totality: connecting with other women as women, not as individuals propelled by idealism or a mission. Seeing the opinions formed by women based on reasons, logic, methods (and not by influence) – that's the truest way to see the depths of the American woman in 2018, and of course, the best way to understand what makes them tick.
While the final findings were illuminating in myriad ways, they also added up to form one solid conclusion for both Goldman and Albanese: unlike what they had initially believed, women across the country weren't talking about the election. "They had other things on their mind," Goldman said, "There were many, many top-of-mind issues, important issues, central issues to their lives and their livelihood, which had nothing to do with politics at all."
But that doesn't mean that politics doesn't play a role in what the ultimate takeaways from the project wound up being. Instead, the creators assert, it makes it even more important to listen to the stories of those who don't agree with us, those who have a different perspective on life than we do.
"New York and LA still hold the microphone, even after all the talk of being more representative and listening more postelection. So it was a crucial reminder of the millions and millions and millions of stories and opinions and perspectives out there that don't frankly get enough amplification," Albanese said, of the mission statement that ultimately landed on the final version of Her America. "That's why they're distrustful, why they don't want to tell their stories. They talk among themselves, which brings us back to the point where people are only talking to other like-minded individuals, refusing to reach across the table to find common ground."
"We're in this echo chamber right now, where everyone's yelling at each other," she added. "You state your position, and that's who you talk to, because there's no appetite any more to hear people disagree with each other — because it always ends up in a shouting match. And I think the beauty of this project is that it really requires you to just listen, even if it's just for a few moments. You don't have to agree with someone or like them to hear them. You just have to be patient, let them tell their story, and not be too high-minded about it."
"There's just not enough of that in the world right now," she lamented.
Ultimately, though, what the editorial team behind the project wants people to know is that minds can be changed in Trump's America, one at a time. By reaching across and being willing to hear other side, you can have a very strong impact on your own life as well as the lives of others.
And from where we stand, after listening and watching and reading and looking at all that Her America: 50 Women, 50 States brings to the table, well, we think they did a damn good job of showing just how compelling that conversation with someone across the aisle truly can be.