In corporate America, being a black woman can be lonely as fuck, especially once you reach a certain level of power or stature. That same is true of Hollywood, where writing rooms can look more white and male than a frat party circlejerk at a PWI.
Thankfully, there’s a tag-team pair of superheroes ready to save the day! Diversity and Inclusion! Except, well, not really. While Hollywood is patting themselves on the back with diversity programs, the actual writers who fit the description still aren’t experiencing veritably diverse rooms.
As such, Pop Culture Collaborative and Women in Film teamed up to create the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity (TTIE) initiative. Recently, TTIE released a report titled Behind the Scenes: The State of Inclusion and Equity in TV Writing, a deep dive into the issues marginalized writers face in a room where most people don’t look like them, and thus are rarely catered to—or even considered. This report actually marks the first time working TV writers are officially weighing in on the industry’s inclusivity.
Key findings from the report include:
64% of diverse writers reported having experienced bias, discrimination, and/or harassment by members of the writing staff. And less than half report it.
53% have experienced pitching an idea that was rejected by the room, but when a non-diverse writer pitched the same idea a few minutes later, it was accepted.
58% experienced pushback when pitching to the room a non-stereotypical diverse character or diverse storyline, and 58% later experienced microaggressions in the room.
73% of diverse writers reported having to repeat a title at least once. 15% report they took a demotion in order to be on staff.
42% got their first or second job as “diversity slot” hires and there is a wider understanding that, unless diverse writers come at a discount, they’re not given a chance.
One survey respondent said that, after pushing back on the show-runner after his/her third repeated ‘staff writer’ title, the show-runner told them “Why should we promote this diverse writer if we don’t have to?”
It’s important to note here that “diversity” doesn’t simply mean sticking a woman or person of color in the room and washing one’s hands of that pesky inclusion issue. Oh, you got two of them? Still not diverse. Unfortunately, the term has transformed into a buzzword (a routinely inaccurately used one, at that!) with all talk and no real action ... a way to pat oneself on the back for filling that slot.
The sheer numbers are, of course, striking enough on their own, but to add a humanizing layer to the report, I wanted to speak with an actual writer experiencing this. So, I chatted with Angela Harvey, whose television writing credits include Teen Wolf, Salvation and Station 19. She’s also an independent film producer, her most recent projects being Jinn and Max & Me.
As Harvey noted, this report’s release is extra timely, as staffing season is on the horizon. For major network shows, the season typically begins in early spring, to ensure staffing in time for a summer production schedule—which in turn rolls out a product for the fall season/series premiere slate. An alarming 73 percent of writers had to repeat titles season-over-season, with Harvey spending three seasons as a staff writer without a promotion.
Over half of the marginalized writers in the report have experienced some sort of condescension or patronizing behavior, whether it was getting their pitch rejected only to have a non-marginalized (i.e., a straight white male) writer pitch the same idea and get accepted, or other such microaggressions.
“For me, it’s more of a critical mass [...] a daily, ‘We don’t want to make this show political,’” said Harvey. “I do a lot of genre work. Sometimes there are worlds where we just don’t mention race or religion and it makes sense because it’s a magical mystical world. But, when your show is set in reality and you don’t want to portray a black person’s experience accurately—because to you, that’s political—it’s a silencing tactic that I’ve encountered almost daily.”
When you’re the only black or woman writer in the room (let alone, both), it’s usually difficult to get your voice heard or to strike up the gumption to have one at all when you’re trying to establish your career as a novice. To Harvey’s credit, she didn’t waste any time.
“As a baby writer. I did [make sure my voice was heard],” Harvey recalled. “We had a character who passed away in the show and he happened to be a black character. And I really put my foot in that moment that we had to acknowledge that character’s passing and people [were] annoyed with me. And honestly, it didn’t happen. It did not happen in that show but [I fought] the fight and then, the next season, the showrunner apologized to me for it.”
One way writers can find strength in those moments is by having another writer to connect with that identifies with you, whether it is through gender or race.
“It is so liberating,” Harvey exclaimed. “It doesn’t happen often but, even when you get one other black writer in the room, now you can bounce ideas around. I always liken it to only having one writer in the room. Like, if you only had one writer you sitting there by yourself struggling trying to come up with every single piece of story. You can’t do it. That’s why we have rooms. So, if you are the only black person in the room you run into the same thing you might have a point of view or a pitch or story idea that you can’t necessarily build by yourself in the timeframe that we’re allotted as writers to get the things done.”
As we all know, society likes to settle firmly in denial when it comes to the existence of racism and discrimination. Yet, as Harvey noted, anecdotes are one thing, but when you’re faced with statistics, it’s difficult to evade the cold, hard facts. Still, the hardest question is: Where do we go from here? Personally, one of my biggest frustrations with this diversity conversation is that the marginalized are often tasked with fixing the problem they never created. The burden should never be on the writer, but those with hiring power.
“Yeah, I think it really starts with the showrunner training so that showrunners are having this top of mind like, ‘This is going to make my show better or it’s going to make my show reach a broader audience,’” said Harvey, who recommended “anti-bias training” to include with a program she believes should be mandatory. “I think that’s going to be very key. But also, at the end of the day, the studios and the networks really have to key in on this and instead of giving it lip service, really focus in on making sure that those [rooms] are diverse because, at the end of the day, they are the employer.”
“This is the time that we need to acknowledge that we need to do better,” noted Harvey, a proud member of TTIE. “We can do better.”
As for what’s next, Harvey will be serving as co-executive producer on an upcoming show from Marvel Television.
You can read the full report at womeninfilm.org.