Sexual Harassment Charges Challenge Behavior Standards in Writers Rooms

Sexual Harassment in the Writers Room
Jacob Sanders for Variety

Television writers rooms are not like most workplaces. They’re creative spaces where people — many of whom gravitated toward the field because they blanched at thoughts of working straight jobs — spitball freely and rely on the group to police bad ideas. Intimate personal stories are often shared. Behavior that would not be tolerated elsewhere is given a pass, to the purported benefit of the final product.

That idea is being challenged by the sexual harassment and assault allegations engulfing Hollywood. In November, two seasoned showrunners were fired or suspended from their series after being accused of misconduct by multiple women who worked for them. Among the allegations made against Mark Schwahn in a Variety report about his time on Warner Bros. drama “One Tree Hill” was that he forced a female writer’s head between her knees and balanced a soda can on it while making a joke about her ability to perform oral sex. “Flash” and “Arrow” EP Andrew Kreisberg responded to an allegation made in a Variety story that he asked a female employee to lie on his office floor while he assumed a push-up stance over her, saying, “It is not uncommon in writers rooms that we act out what we want production to film.”

Schwahn was suspended from his current post as showrunner on E! drama “The Royals.” Kreisberg was fired from The CW’s Warner Bros.-produced superhero shows. The moves have intensified questions about how writers work together and whether their standards for workplace behavior should change.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in a writers room turn to everyone and say, ‘Are we comfortable with this sense of humor that we’re doing right now? This might be a rough room. Are you all game? Is there anyone here who is offended and having a hard time being here?’” says “Love” and “Crashing” executive producer Judd Apatow. “Maybe those conversations will happen now.”

In 2006, the California State Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit by a former “Friends” writers assistant who claimed that she had been sexually harassed in the writers room, having been present as male writers discussed vulgar sexual themes regarding the show’s characters. Justice Martin R. Baxter wrote that the state “does not outlaw sexually coarse and vulgar language or conduct that merely offends,” noting that “the ‘Friends’ production was a creative workplace focused on generating scripts for an adult-oriented comedy show featuring sexual themes.”

The ruling remains famous in television-industry circles. Many viewed it as establishing writers rooms as spaces exempt from normal workplace standards.

“Everyone I knew was talking about that ‘Friends’ lawsuit,” says “One Day at a Time” executive producer Gloria Calderon Kellett. “But what was great about that was that there was a conversation about appropriateness.”

“I’ve been around when the boys were being stupid and I’ve just tried to ignore it. But now that I’m in charge, I don’t have to put up with shit.”
Gloria Calderon Kellett

That discussion has been rekindled by recent harassment and assault allegations.

“I think that the conversation that’s happening now is really essential to women being able to say, ‘Here’s what I will stand for and here’s what I won’t stand for’ in a way that was certainly difficult to be able to do, certainly at the beginning of my career,” says Calderon Kellett. Young female writers “are just happy to get the job. You’re one of the few women there. You don’t want to say anything or do anything so that you’re not the woman there any more.”

She adds: “I’ve been around when the boys were being stupid and I’ve just tried to ignore it. But now that I’m in charge, I don’t have to put up with shit.”

As the number of shows on television has increased, so too has the number of female showrunners. But growth in percentage representation for female writers has been slow — and sometimes nonexistent. UCLA’s 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report found the share of female writing credits in cable and broadcast TV up only 3% in the 2014-15 season from two years earlier. But the same study found that the percentage of female cable and broadcast series creators had fallen slightly in 2014-15 from 2011-12.

Holly Sorensen, creator of YouTube Red’s “Step Up: High Water,” says that concern over workplace harassment doesn’t come up in conversations with other female showrunners. But “it comes up with every other TV writer,” she says. “For women who run rooms, it’s not even an issue. But I know a lot of men are nervous right now. And it’s a confusing time.”

“Power” creator Courtney Kemp differentiates between what goes on in the writers room and what happens outside it in the larger production office.

“I think that it’s about the culture of the building and not the room itself,” she says. “The writers room itself should be as anything goes as it can, because it fosters creativity. But when you start to have a campaign against one person or you start to make it so that people feel unsafe, that transcends the actual writers room space — that becomes an office or a cultural thing.”

Kemp warns against trying to change the culture inside writers rooms as Hollywood examines workplace behavior. “I don’t think that writers rooms themselves are going to be able to change without the quality of the work changing too,” she says. “I do think there are plenty of writers rooms in town where people are not abused and people have a good time. I know a lot of people who like their jobs. They can be really fun.” The broader problem, she adds, is the industry’s “culture of abuse” that extends beyond gender and sexuality. “It’s much more pervasive than that. We’re looking at one thing, because it’s salacious.”

But as more women in television step forward with claims of harassment and assault, what passes as acceptable behavior in a writers room is being questioned. And the answers are not yet evident.

“When you’re being creative, you’re unlocking your unconscious mind, and if you want a lot of people to sit in a room throwing out ideas, there’s going to be a
lot of weird stuff that comes out,” Apatow says. “If you’re expecting people to spill like that, it’s not always pretty. So where are the boundaries? That’s a very good question. And certainly there should be some boundaries.”