The path to parity in television has been a slow one. Women comprised only 27% of key decision-making behind-the-scenes roles, from show creators to directors, writers, producers, editors and directors of photography, for the 2017-18 season, according to the Boxed In report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University. And that was actually down one percentage point from the previous year.
ReFrame, a coalition of industry pros founded by Women in Film and the Sundance Institute that advocates for equal representation in the entertainment industry, is hoping to change the conversation with its new “stamp for television,” recognizing shows that hire women, and especially women of color, above and below the line. While female-focused storytelling and lead acting roles are key criteria, additional weight is put on behind-the-scenes jobs — from writers, producers and directors to department heads and crew members.
“The intention is not to dictate content. It is to encourage a process that is rooted in conscious inclusion,” says producer and ReFrame ambassador Nina Jacobson.
Although there were almost 500 scripted series on TV during the eligibility window of June 1, 2017, to May 31, 2018, only 364 submitted during an open call put out in September. ReFrame and its partner on the stamp, IMDbPro, selected just 62 of those series, including Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Showtime’s “SMILF” and all five of Shonda Rhimes’ ABC dramas.
“I think people think we’ve come further than we have,” says music supervisor Michelle Johnson, who works on “Grace and Frankie.” “It’s my mission as a music supervisor to always get to work on shows that tell a positive story about women, and this is accountability in the public’s eye.”
The hope for many stamp recipients, such as Gloria Calderon Kellett, who co-created, writes, executive produces and directs “One Day at a Time” for Netflix, is that the number of shows that have earned the designation will double next year. In order to achieve that, Kellett says, it’s up to those who are already hiring inclusively to make recommendations for those who need assistance finding new talent. Kellett walked that walk earlier this year when “Magnum P.I.” producers reached out to inquire about Latinx writers.
“If you’re an executive producer, you can do some extra work,” says Kellett. “On my hiatus, I’m reading new people, always.”
Equity in hiring isn’t just about numbers or earning accolades but also making work environments safer, she adds. “I went to a sexual harassment seminar, and they said, ‘What can we do?’ and I said, ‘Equity,’ because the moment I wasn’t the only woman in the room, [harassment] stops,” she recounts. “Equity solves the problem.”
While as an actress, Amanda Brugel (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) isn’t in a position to hire other women, she has made a conscious effort to only take roles of educated female characters. Early in her career, the normal narrative of her auditions were “gangbangers, drug addicts, uneducated, belligerent women,” she says, but “I’m doing a disservice to my own people if that’s all they see.” Now, when she finds a more positive role that interests her, she asks how many women are in power positions in that production. “Are the female roles just in hair and makeup and costumes? If they are, then I turn the roles down,” she says.
The 2018-19 broadcast season made strides in many areas: 42% of 88 lead and co-lead roles were female (42% were people of color), and 34% of the executive producers of new series at time of pick-up were women. But the buck can’t stop with only the positions that are visible to the public, says Frankie Shaw, creator, writer, director and star of “SMILF.”
“I sent an email out to my department heads and I said … ‘You can be a male DP or assistant director, but 50% of your department must be female or diverse, and it’s not an option — it’s a rule,” Shaw says. “It changes the vibe on set.”
“The moment I wasn’t the only woman in the room, [harassment] stops. Equity solves the problem.”
Gloria Calderon Kellett, producer-writer-director
Some fields, such as Teamsters, are still so traditionally male-dominated that making such requirements of a production staff results in a very narrow applicant pool. When “SMILF” was picked up, Shaw had never even been on a tech scout, let alone asked to lead one. Thankfully, she had worked with director Scott Winant on “Good Girls Revolt”; he told her to call him if she ever had any questions.
Adds Zoë White, a director of photography on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Seeing people reflect the same attitude that I have myself, it gives me more confidence. It makes me feel like I’m allowed to push myself and be bold and have ideas, and that makes the work better.”
Similarly, “How to Get Away With Murder” stunt coordinator Julie Michaels says that being mentored for 25 years helped her get where she was. She started as an actress but met and married a stuntman who encouraged her to move into that field. Now she pays it forward by making sure to mentor others. “I have a lot of people who say, ‘Hey, can I come shadow you for a day?’ And I’ll say no — shadow me for the whole episode,” she says. “A little bit of something doesn’t make the pot.”
Both Kellett and Tina Mabry, who works on “Queen Sugar” and “Insecure,” among other series, point out that since so many gatekeepers at networks and studios are still men, having them as allies in the continued push toward equality is imperative.
“It’s not a competition; if one [woman] is successful, we’re all successful,” Mabry says. “But we need the guys that are on the top to understand the plight and the injustices that we’ve faced and to be an advocate. The civil rights movement, the gay and lesbian rights movement — you’ve always needed people who aren’t just in that particular group to pull that out.”
“Diversity and inclusion is not about doing a good deed — it’s about good business,” Jacobson says. For instance, “This Is Us,” which earned the stamp, ranks in the top 10 highest-rated broadcast series and draws an average of more than 9 million live-plus-same-day viewers per episode. Adds Jacobson of diversity: “If it’s a priority for us, we need to open doors.”