For Hollywood, It’s Mueller Time (Guest Column)

For Hollywood, It's Mueller Time (Guest
Photos: Shutterstock; Illustration: Variety

There is currently a showrunner on a popular TV series who uses his power to humiliate and harass female writers. These women rarely last more than a season or two. Those who are fired get badmouthed. Those who quit get badmouthed, too.

Happily, I can write this without fearing charges of libel. Unhappily, that’s because this description could apply to any one of many men. Still, I’m thinking of one showrunner in particular who made anti-Semitic remarks to my face and openly sexually harassed a lower-level female writer. And if you don’t believe me, ask other women who’ve worked with him. No, really, ask them.

Studios and networks need to start actively rooting out sexual harassment and misogyny in the TV and movie industry. Waiting for a whistleblower in a business where retaliation is well-documented places an unfair burden on the vulnerable. So let’s stop waiting for a victim — or fifty — to come forward. Studios and networks should hire a Hollywood version of independent counsel Robert Mueller to ask questions about behavior in the writers’ rooms, on the set and in production offices. I’m not calling for “a witch hunt.” I’m calling for a fair and judicious review of witches.

These secret probers need to come from outside the system to protect staffers’ anonymity. It’s time to admit that Human Resources Departments are failing at this. As one beleaguered female writer said to me, “The last place I’d go is HR.” Another friend was on a hit show where harassment was so rampant that HR decided to take action. They sent out a survey. One question asked, “Have you ever experienced retaliation?” My friend checked the “yes” box.   An HR staffer followed up and asked, “Do you want me to pursue this issue?” As my friend put it, “I said ‘no’. . . you know, because of further retaliation.” HR simply dropped the matter.

Sensitivity training is a fine idea, but isn’t taken seriously by those who need it most. Not long ago, I mentioned to my three upper-level male colleagues that we were expected to attend a “supervisor’s seminar on harassment” the next morning before work. One said, “I’m not going to that s–t.” Another said, “Didn’t we already do that?”  And the third, the showrunner, said, “That’s bullshit. You don’t need to go to that f— thing.” 

I attended the seminar alone while the guys slept in, including the one who started pitches for female characters with, “And then the dumb b—h says…” That series failed, in part I believe, because of a pervasive hostile attitude toward women. Beyond legal obligations and moral concerns, the studios and networks should care because the product suffers when female writers and writers of color are mistreated or disregarded. The goal is happier, more successful shows.

Network and studios should start by interviewing employees on their most popular shows because (1) a corporation should protect its most valuable assets; and (2) showrunners with the most power have the most opportunity to abuse that power. And don’t begin by questioning showrunners. No boss will ever admit to bad behavior. He’ll probably even point to one female or minority writer that he’s promoted as proof of his lack of bias. Ignore him. Instead, talk to all the female writers or writers of color who have left the show. If someone is fired, ask why. If someone quits, ask why. A lot of businesses conduct exit interviews. Hollywood should, too.

Other businesses also conduct “360 assessments” where anonymous feedback on an employee’s performance is gathered not just from superiors but from those who work at every level, including assistants. In over thirty years working in TV and movies, I’ve never had an exit interview or contributed to a 360 assessment. 

Next, probers should sit down with writers, production staff and crew of all levels, both male and female, and ask point blank, “Have you ever been sexually harassed or mistreated?” They should also ask, “Have you ever witnessed others being sexually harassed or mistreated?” Root out the “soft harassment” of the showrunner who routinely watches porn on his phone during run-throughs. Or the showrunner who finds reasons to call interns late at night. Or the writer at any level who directs racist jokes at the one person of color on staff. Too often soft harassment is viewed by the industry as an annoyance that the vulnerable must tolerate.

I think a lot about the opening of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon commencement address: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?'”

In our culture, misogyny is water. It’s all around us, so it doesn’t register. The Hollywood system is so corrupted that at least two high-profile producers who have publicly denounced Harvey Weinstein have each been hit with sexual harassment claims in the past. One was fired from a job because of “inappropriate” behavior toward a female colleague; the other settled his claim out of court.

My fear is these recent revelations will actually hurt women in the entertainment industry. Instead of changing their behavior, men will cut women out of the creative process. Before this happens, executives should send a message that reducing harassment is a corporate priority. We need an army of mini-Muellers to collect facts. And if it turns out that some “disgruntled employees” are simply making up “scandalous and scurrilous” claims as O’Reilly has said, let that come out, too.

I’ve worked on over twenty TV staffs and nine out of ten male colleagues are wonderful, inclusive and professional. Still, there’s usually one guy—the Tenth Man—who turns a fun job into a dental appointment. And what’s to stop him? Look at Kevin Spacey and Weinstein. For decades, there were no repercussions for their brazen bad behavior. . . unless you count getting hired over and over.

David Foster Wallace concluded his commencement speech by saying, “It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: ‘This is water, this is water.’”

Misogyny—and racism—are “hidden in plain sight” and the burden of eliminating them should fall on the institutions, not the victims. Any showrunner who acts professionally should welcome his staff answering questions. And for those who bully, harass and abuse, maybe just the possibility of an investigation will create awareness and lead to self-adjustment. Until then, women will keep drowning in water that others don’t even notice.

Nell Scovell is a writer, showrunner, director and author.