If you identify as a woman and have ever entered a public ladies’ room, chances are, at some point you have bonded with a stranger and made a fast friend. Perhaps the bond was due to an overly enthusiastic outfit compliment—or a borrowed tampon. This fast friend may be temporary and you may never see her again. But, the point is, you’ve established an unmatched bond that can’t occur anywhere else. The girls’ room is special. The girls’ room is sanctified. The girls’ room is a safe space.
Cue Girls Room, a 5-part series brought to us by Dove’s Self-Esteem Project in partnership with ATTN: and Emmy award-winning writer, producer and actor Lena Waithe. Per the press release provided by Dove:
The series is based around those moments spent in bathrooms – the ‘Girls Room’ – an everyday space, a space where we experiment with our appearance and shape our sense of self but also a place of vulnerability, where we come face to face with the mirror, the weigh scales and our insecurities. The series follows each character from the school bathroom back home to their individual bathrooms where they confront barriers to self-esteem that teen girls are facing every day, from the pressures of social media, teasing and bullying to dealing with body dissatisfaction. The content is based on the Dove Self-Esteem Project’s academically validated research into body image and was co-created with academic experts from the Centre of Appearance Research at the University of the West of England, to ensure educational impact – and brought to life by the voice of Lena Waithe. Girls Room is produced by Dove, Unilever Entertainment, and ATTN: in partnership with Hillman Grad, Lena Waithe’s production company, and is directed by Tiffany Johnson. BBH, a leading creative agency, co-created the idea for the series and serve as Executive Producers.
However, shortly after the promo dropped, screenwriter and actor Nina Lee became aware of what she calls “uncanny similarities” to her 2017 series, The Girls Room.
A sea of critiques followed the promotional video, including some Twitter users pointing out the fact that the characters were named Gloria, Melba, Minnie, Thelma and Carlotta, after the Little Rock Nine. Author and actor Dominique Christina claimed her aunt is Carlotta Walls Lanier and wondered if the series would make note of the historical relevance behind the characters’ names. However, the main focus was the allegations of concept theft. Particularly, Lee’s concern reached far beyond the title and similar concept (as it has been noted that the idea of girls and women bonding in the ladies’ room isn’t wholly unique) and zeroed in on the eerily similar lighting and overall cinematic tone.
For context on the pre-production stage of a film or series, the director of photography (DP) or cinematographer often works with the production’s director to put together a mood board, which is a series of images that highlight the color palette, visual tone and style of the project. Typically, the DP and director pull from previously known projects to get a feel for that “mood,” so to speak.
“I wrote The Girls Room in 2015,” Lee told The Root via email on Tuesday evening. “At that time, [I] wrote [the project] for fun and had no expectations for the project. But when a former friend was telling me how great it was—the concept [and] the characters—I decided we could move forward with making the series. It all happened so fast, but we had excellent art directors; Paula and Ro. They were so good at making my vision come to life. Everything we put out got tons of likes and [retweets] and support. I don’t remember which industry people reached out, specifically; it was so much going on because I was the writer and star of the show so I was really focused on excelling at that. But it was a huge moment all over social, but due to lack of resources we were not able to continue.”
Lee expounded on those “lack of resources,” chronicling a stressful rollercoaster of events that occurred after the promo went viral on social media, including the series’ DP being robbed of their laptop and hard drive that contained all of the series’ footage, ultimately leading up to the dissolution of the project, according to an interview with Okayplayer. In a footnote, Okayplayer also noted, “In a previous version of this article, Nina Lee alleged that she signed a contract by her former friend that she later found out gave her rights to The Girls Room. The previous article also noted that Lee had a lawyer get involved with the paperwork, but this, unfortunately, didn’t solve the copyright issues she was experiencing.”
Okayplayer updated the article, noting:
On February 25, Lee reached back out to Okayplayer and noted that she had a lawyer read through the paperwork she signed previously. The paperwork which she previously believed signed over her rights to The Girls Room is no longer valid.
Shortly following the social media kerfuffle over the weekend, The Root reached out to all involved parties on Monday: Nina Lee, Lena Waithe, Dove and ATTN:. We will now break down what happened over the next couple of days. But, before we get into the eventful timeline, it is important to note that the complexity of branded content involving large and established corporations means that while it may appear the parties aren’t taking this matter seriously or responding as quickly as desired, they are most likely in the background scrambling to formulate an effective plan of action—a plan of action that would affect all parties. The delayed timing may be due to internal meetings and phone calls with a goal to establish the best course of action. Who makes the first statement? What is the hierarchy? Is it Dove because this content is sponsored? Or is it Waithe because she is the “famous face” behind the project? Should all parties on the accused side make a joint statement? These are all things to consider.
“I am just a young black creator who wants my credit,” Lee told The Root on Tuesday.
“Dove started working on Girls Room with our partners in early 2017, and we’re proud to have teamed up with ATTN: and Lena Waithe to bring the vision to life,” a Dove spokesperson told The Root in a statement on Tuesday morning. “The name of the series was developed before Lena or ATTN: were added to the project and was selected because our scenes mainly take place in the “Girls Room,” any similarity to other creative projects is entirely unintentional.”
The next day, Waithe issued a statement of her own.
“There has been an accusation floating around that I want to address. In 2019, I partnered with Dove for their project Girls Room,” Waithe told The Root in a statement on Wednesday morning. “Prior to my joining the project, in 2017 a Dove partner came up with the title and the concept from which my scripts were based. I was brought on to write the scripts and produce the content. I have never seen Nina Lee’s work nor would I ever steal another artist’s work. As a fellow creator myself, I can only imagine how she must be feeling and I look to #Dove to give us more clarity on the situation. Now that I’m aware of Nina Lee, I look forward to seeing her art.”
Following Waithe posting her statement publicly on Twitter, Dove added an additional comment on Wednesday afternoon, noting, “Lena, we’re with you. Girls Room is a unique series, and we don’t want misinformation about our project to overshadow its important message.”
“Lena and the director of the project did call me [on Wednesday] morning,” Lee told The Root. “The phone call just consisted of them telling me the differences in the two shows and how they would not steal from a black woman. They went on to say that I may have a case with Dove and they look forward to seeing what happens with my career.”
Lee confirmed with The Root that two reps reached out to her on behalf of Waithe on Tuesday evening and engaged in a short phone call, with her godsister (a lawyer) on the line. A Waithe rep corroborated that reps for Waithe did, in fact, reach out to Nina Tuesday evening. The rep also confirmed Waithe and Johnson further reached out to Nina Wednesday morning.
On Wednesday night, Lee posted an extended statement on Twitter, referencing a pattern where “black artists have historically struggled with having our work taken from us against our will and without our permission.”
“And while Lena was brought on after Dove created the show in 2017 (the same year my promo was released)—I think we can all acknowledge this while still recognizing a multi-billion dollar corporation and a director with an established personal brand and platform are benefitting from an idea that has uncanny similarities to my own.”
“I reiterate this all to say that as an independent filmmaker who is scraping by on extremely limited resources, this hurts,” Lee wrote. “I don’t blame Lena or Dove, I just hope my transparency can prevent another situation like this from happening again.”
As for what Lee has learned throughout her journey in this business, Lee told The Root:
”I have learned that it is very hard as a black woman creator. It’s just so hard, so many people dismiss your voice unless you have a certain status. I have the talent, but I do not have an agent or a platform—shit, even getting people to help me create shows on an independent level is hard when you can’t pay. And I can’t even be mad at people who have not wanted to help me because they have to eat, too,” she said.
“Filmmaking revolves around money and access and when you don’t have those things, it makes things hard; especially when you have the talent, people begin lurking and would rather use you than pull you up to success,” Lee continued. “And this is not about Lena Waithe, just other instances that have happened to me. Being a screenwriter has been such a rough journey for me. I substitute teach and use what I can to pour back into my films, but even that is not enough.
“In this industry, help is so important and there are people who can help—not just me, but other blossoming filmmakers, as well,” she added. “Every month, I try to give 25-75 dollars to independent black filmmakers. I don’t really have the money, but I want people to know I see them and their voice deserves to be heard.”
While we may not be closer to the ultimate resolution in this particular controversy, I did ask Lee how we could support and boost her now, as a burgeoning black creator.
“I have a completed project called Sorry About That—it [consists of] 7-minute episodes about an actor who moves from an all-white town in Ohio to Atlanta to pursue acting...it’s funny as fuck,” Lee, who is also crowdfunding for her upcoming short film, Artistic, told The Root. “We are still looking for funding for finishing touches.”
ATTN: has not yet responded to The Root’s request for comment. Episode 1 of Girls Room is currently available on IGTV.