In the nine months since the #MeToo movement truly began, many in the industry have spoken out about the belief that if more women were in positions of power, sexual harassment and assault in the workplace would not occur. And while the women who are in charge are working hard on the next step of the movement — ensuring their staffs feel empowered and safe — sexual harassment is not the only thing against which they are fighting.
“Even though, at the beginning of every season, legal sends somebody to…talk to production, I and the other executive producers on both of the shows that I’ve been working on, we just started making phone calls and calling people into our offices and talking to every single department head,” Sera Gamble, executive producer of “The Magicians” on Syfy and the upcoming “You” for Lifetime, said during an “all female showrunner panel” held at YouTube Space Los Angeles Tuesday.
“We talked to everyone on staff, we talked to everyone in post. We said, ‘We just want to reiterate that if something feels weird, we want you to tell us. It would be our worst fear that something would happen and people would be afraid.'”
Gamble shared that because of the openness from those who were in power, a few people on staff did want to start a dialogue about professional workplace behavior.
“A lot of it was questions, like ‘Does this rise to the level of what they’re talking about when they say harassment?’ And sometimes the answer was yes and sometimes the answer was no, but we can’t do anything about it if we don’t know about it,” she said. “And all of the people in positions of power are in terror that the people that work for them are being mistreated, and so really it’s about making sure that everyone understands the channels are open.”
“Counterpart” executive producer Amy Berg added that it is important for anyone who feels they have experienced harassment in a writers’ room to find an ally in that room.
“Talk it out and make sure…you’re in a protected position because someone else already has your back,” she said. “It sucks that people don’t just believe you right off the bat, but one of the keys is if you’ve got this ally, they’re also looking out for it. And if they see it, then you’ve got two people — you’ve got your word and you’ve got theirs — and then you have a case.”
In addition to Gamble and Berg, the panel consisted of Gillian Horvath (“Beauty and the Beast”), Monica Owusu-Breen (“Midnight, Texas”), Lauren LeFranc (“Impulse”), Willow Polson (Chronokinesis Ent.), Kimberly Jesika (KidPire TV) and moderator Felicia Day.
Horvath noted that many of the toxic environments that have come to light in recent headlines were created because those in charge came up in environments that weren’t as intolerant of inappropriate behavior. “They replicate the rooms they were brought up in,” she said. “Some rooms are toxic because the person in charge was brought up that way and doesn’t know any other way to do it.”
Such behaviors are often so ingrained, the person acting that way doesn’t even realize what they are doing is wrong. Similarly, Horvath shared that many studio and network executives still “expect women to write women exclusively.” She often gets calls from her agent saying that there is interest in a show with a female lead, so they want to hear what she has to pitch, but she likes writing both male and female characters and doesn’t want to be trapped by antiquated notions that you have to stick to writing what you know.
Owusu-Breen pointed out that with research and openness, writers from any walk of life are easily able to write stories that are not their own.
LeFranc shared that she was usually one of only one or two women in the rooms she worked in and had only worked with one female director before she created “Impulse.” For her, success as a showrunner is in the safe space she created.
“If you work for someone who wants you to have a fully formed pitch every time you open your mouth…I don’t think you’re going to get great ideas out of people,” she said. “It’s about figuring out your voice — not only your creative voice…but also your voice as a manager, as a person who you’d want to work for. [It’s about] giving back and empowering other people who make your room more diverse — how to mentor and to make other people feel like they can create something. [The show] is as much theirs as it is yours.”
Representing the independent side of the business as well as the digital space, both Polson and Jesika said they have had to fight their way up “through the male-verse” in unique ways. For Polson, it was in great part about learning that there is often less monetary investment in female-centric projects, while Jesika had to take the true grass roots approach to reaching out and forming partnerships with those in more traditional spaces to build “the numbers” that were better understood than outside of the box content.
“I had to get used to hearing no. [But] just because you hear no, it doesn’t mean never,” she said.
But while Gamble pointed out that “the systemic injustices” of things like sexual harassment or underlying misogyny that so often kept women relegated to only one spot in a writers’ room “are important to work on,” she also admitted that for her own sanity, she doesn’t focus too much time or energy on the elements she can’t control. After all, she said, she “can’t separate being a woman from the rest of the package of the art and the craft I want to make.”
“The world is incredibly unfair and it’s unfair based on your gender, it’s unfair based on the color of your skin, it’s unfair based on whether you’re able in your body — but those things that are unfair are also where art comes from,” she said. “If what you want to do is make a certain kind of art then do what you have to do to squeeze yourself in there.”