“GLOW,”“Supergirl” writer talks screenwriting, sexism and her upbringing in Omaha

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Kamrin Baker
EDITOR IN CHIEF

Photo courtesy of Rachel Shukert

In “Supergirl,” Kara Danvers writes for her city’s newspaper by day and saves the world in a cape by night.

In “GLOW,” Ruth Wilder and Debbie Eagan heal a complicated friendship by day and brawl in a wrestling ring by night.

In real life, Rachel Shukert writes the stories of complex female characters by day, and by night, well, her shows are on TV, and she’s tucking her two-year-old into bed.

Shukert is an Omaha native (Central High School grad!) who traded in her childhood calling of acting at the Bluebarn Theatre for a screenwriting career at networks like CBS and alongside folks like Jenji Kohan at Netflix.

Shukert was part of the writing team on the first season of DC Comics’ “Supergirl,” is set to be showrunner for the upcoming Baby-Sitter’s Club series and currently dominates the details of Alison Brie’s character (among other things) in “GLOW,” a Netflix original about women’s wrestling in the 80’s, now in its third season.

Ruth, Brie’s flawed and fantastic character in “GLOW,” was originally written to be an Omaha native by creators Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive. Shukert is friends with Mensch and Flahive, but her connections only got her in the door. She proved herself worthy of a job when she became the Omaha point person for the character.

“I remember saying: ‘I’m sure you will meet with people who are as good or better writers as I am. But I do not think you will meet with anybody that has more specific working knowledge of the Omaha community theater scene in the 1980’s,’” Shukert said.

After leaving the Big O for the Big Apple when it came time to go to college (Shukert is a New York University alum, who started out hoping to become an actress and later turned to writing), she realized how uniquely Midwestern her upbringing truly was.

“Omaha’s a great place to be from,” Shukert said. “The thing that I always loved about Omaha is that even though it’s small, it’s a very complete city. You can live a sweet life in this manageable place. It’s almost like the kind of city they live in on TV. It’s a small town where everyone knows each other, but there’s also a ballet company.”

Shukert now lives in Hollywood. She’s friends with Lin-Manuel Miranda. She works for one of the world’s most valuable and recognized brands. But, she’s also from Omaha, so she’s successful and inspiring—and down to earth.

“There will always be a little part of me that can’t believe that this happened,” Shukert said. “Growing up in Omaha, I didn’t have a template. I didn’t know anyone who does what I do. But, everybody’s here [in Hollywood] because they genuinely love stories and movies and TV shows and characters, like there’s this undercurrent of shared humanity in it.”

The shared humanity is the special sauce for Shukert. To the naked eye, it seems like she’s hell bent on writing strong female leads. What’s wrong with a world full of women of steel, right?

“I am a strong female character,” Shukert said. “So when I think about stories, I imagine the protagonist as a woman.”

But it’s in the intricate oddities of each character that Shukert falls further in love with her craft.

“It’s not so much strong female characters but complex female characters,” Shukert said. “It’s easy to write someone who never screws up and never makes a mistake—the network shorthand—a woman who is ‘a great mom and great at her job.’ That’s not interesting to me. In a way, it’s its own kind of sexism because it distrusts the idea that anyone will still like a woman if she has a flaw.”

That’s why Supergirl has an awkward alter ego, why beautiful blonde bombshell Betty Gilpin is also a big weirdo when she plays Debbie in “GLOW.”

“Women are always told ‘you’re supposed to be this’ and ‘you’re supposed to be that,’” Shukert said. “The space between who we are and who we think we should be is very interesting. That’s the story.”

The story Shukert tells with “GLOW” is one of “incredible creative freedom,” thanks to the Netflix way of life.

Shukert said: “I don’t think we’ve ever gotten a note that’s like ‘this character has to be more likeable or more relatable,’ which is a total fallacy to me. There’s no ‘being relatable.’ The thing people relate to is the specificity. That weird thing you thought nobody else thought but you. It’s ironic, I feel, the less relatable, the more these characters are liked. I love leaning in to how quirky and interesting and odd a lot of these women are, and that’s what makes them so loveable.”

Shukert is her own character, in a way—an alter ego who gets to play god (or goddess) with these lifelike—or larger than life—stories. But, at the same time, her story writes itself between the lines. She’s a Midwestern gal whose first memory is seeing “The Miracle Worker” on stage. She watches “Fleabag” and “Schitt’s Creek” and is still figuring out if she’s going to fly home to Omaha for Thanksgiving—because flying with a toddler is the worst.

She can brawl—and cry, feel, slip up, rise again and be human—better than the best of them, and for that alone, we should all be watching to the very last scene.

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