we know #tvwriterssowhite— here are the receipts
March 13, 2019
At this stage of the game, we can all agree that anyone not showing up to the conversation on representation in Hollywood, simply isn’t interested in having it. We can wax poetic about the successes of true representation in film and television, but the reality is that if there’s a massive fight behind the scenes, the decision-makers are only barely trying to undo the status quo — if at all. This moment in Hollywood representation could be as fleeting as the ones that came before it; but now marginalized voices understand that taking the fight behind the scenes — and lifting the veil of the industry’s front-facing diversity — is the only way that the culture of exclusion changes for good.
Studies like the “Hollywood Diversity Report 2018” and Color of Change’s “Race in the Writers’ Room” have done immense work to unveil the mountains that writers of color have to climb to reach TV and film’s writing rooms. The Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity (TTIE), a project of the Pop Culture Collaborative and Women in Film, just released a diversity report detailing the challenges faced by working writers from a wide spectrum of groups who had been left out of writing room — and thus the narratives we that are fed to us. The aim of the report, titled “Behind The Scenes,” is to “further the findings of previous studies by collecting data across a spectrum of diverse working writer groups (Female/ Non-Binary individuals, People of Color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and People with Disabilities).”
The report surveyed working writers in the industry to map out a system of isolation, micro-aggressions and diversity-pandering that we have become familiar, with writers rooms become less of a private club but still at the behest of those seeking to keep them very white and male. The findings provide even more receipts of the ongoing discussion, but the report also looks to spark actionable steps to undo the very foundation of hiring and promotion practices.
The survey outlined three major areas that need to be addressed that would diversify the group of writers working in Hollywood, make their working environment a safer space, which would enable them to broaden the scope of narratives that inform the zeitgeist.
- Writers from marginalized communities are currently isolated to lower-level positions that give them little power to influence the direction of storytelling because they are often “token hires” used to comply with the bare minimum of diversity standards.
- Owing to these writers often being “diversity hires,” there is little or no opportunity for upward mobility, mentoring or advancement, leaving these writers in a stagnating career trajectory.
- Writers from marginalized communities have to endure being the “lone voice” in the room to represent their communities, leaving them vulnerable to micro-aggressions, bias and harassment that they have little power to call out in fear of losing their job.
This seamless, deliberate system of frustrating diverse writers out of the writers rooms has resulted in 73% of these writers having to repeat a job title at least once when starting a new job. This is because decision-makers only consider them to be “diversity hires,” rather than equals who may be empowered with resources or advanced to a bigger role. The survey also states that 64% of these writers have experienced bias, discrimination and/or harassment from their fellow writing staff.
The barriers to entry begin long before the writing room. The cost of education or internship opportunities which help grant access to these spaces, tends to exclude marginalized voices because, well, capitalism systemic racism. Writing programs and fellowships that serve as funnels for fresh talent into writing rooms are an integral part of opening doors to the industry. Over half the respondents participated in fellowships with writers and on programs, and 60% got staffed on a show while 58% got professional representation. These numbers are significant but they also show that a considerable amount of participating writers are left with no opportunities after these programs. These programs are helping but they’re definitely not a cure, since almost half of the writers secure their initial jobs as “diversity hires,” a title the survey confirms doesn’t lead to advancement.
According to one of the writers who participated in the survey,“Though the year I was hired was my second job and therefore my second full season as a staff writer, I was still made to repeat staff writer for a third season on this show.” When the showrunner pushed back, the writer was told, “‘Why should we promote this diverse writer if we don’t have to?’”
Diverse writers are the colorful sprinkles on the looming whiteness of TV writers rooms, and the only way they’re even getting in the door is to leverage their identity, which no self-respecting writer wants to do. The Black person can’t speak for all Black people, just as the disabled person can’t speak for all people with disabilities. Diverse writers are often hired for their point-of-view though, resulting in 51% of the writers in the survey never working on a show with non-diverse (meaning white and likely male) main characters. This is because decision-makers only view them as diversity litmus tests, instead of as skilled and abled storytellers that contribute to a wide range of identities and issues outside of their identity.
When Donald Glover told The New Yorker about how Tina Fey admired his talent but funds from NBC’s Diversity Initiative “made him free”, the shock wasn’t in the revelation, but in the matter-of-fact candor of the statement. Had Glover stayed on, would he ever get to be a producer? If a talent like Glover is “free,” then are Executive Producers like Fey incentivized to promote talent when that would mean having to start paying them more — making them not free? The numbers say, “Hell no!” This is why 26% of agents sell their clients as “writers that come at discount”, which is disheartening, and, quite frankly, disgusting.
As a person from a marginalized community and specifically as a person of color, I am no stranger to being the “only” person from my community in a room. The person who has to represent that entire community by answering asinine questions, posed on the bigoted assumption that your community is a monolith. Like many of the writers in these reports, I’ve experienced my ideas being regurgitated back to me and the isolation that cripples to one’s confidence. In the eyes of the people who populate these rooms, we are reduced to the factors that that kept us out: we are our race, gender, sexuality, gender-identity and disability — nothing more. The price of pushing back is an often-toxic environment that seeks to push you out instead of dealing with its ingrained toxicity. We don’t have the power or the numbers, so no one is held to account. Nothing really changes.
For diverse writers, writers rooms can feel less like a door opening and more like one that is revolving. Getting in the room doesn’t mean much for your future prospects and opportunities if it’s make-up is already homogenous. The action plans put forth in the report to curb and eventually end this culture, entail the consistent tracking of hiring and advancement trends (through independent organizations), so we don’t become complacent to a sluggish rate of transformation. The elimination of bias-hiring and the increase of a diverse set of voices in leadership positions will also help curb the culture of antagonism towards diverse voices. The report offers numerous recommendations that can be applied by the showrunners, as well as how diverse writers should navigate these spaces, ensure they are not being taken advantage of. Because it’s no use knowing something is wrong if nothing is being done about it.
Bigoted decision-makers cannot hide in their homogenous writers rooms forever and that is what this report and those like it aim to achieve — to expose the practices that keep stories focused on certain demographics. That sort of thinking should be taboo and damn near outlawed; but till then, we have the receipts and the will to do something with them. Don’t be afraid to share the knowledge.
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