A lot of patriarchal bullshit has gone down since I decided that my dream was to write for television.
For one thing, several of my biggest heroes have been accused of sexual assault and/or inappropriate sexual advances on their female employees and coworkers. Bill Cosby, Louie CK, Joss Whedon, Woody Allen, Jim Henson… (Sorry if I’m springing the Jim Henson one on you. The biography by Brian Jay Jones was a genuinely enjoyable read anyway.)
As Hannah Gadsby says in Nannette, I’ve had to do some re-evaluating.
When I graduated film school, I knew full-well my first gig would be to fetch coffee- as is the norm for entry-level work. When a mutual friend happened to be able to convince a producer of one of the most popular shows of all time to have a phone conversation with me, I honestly thought that maybe this was my big break. I’d sent him some of my writing and he seemed enthusiastic about it. I thought he was going to offer me one of those coveted coffee-fetching assistant jobs. But that’s not what happened.
His advice was-
“Girls have to be sneaky. They start with babysitting jobs. They take care of a male writer’s kids. If you’re good at that, you’ll be on his mind when he’s hiring for an assistant job.”
That remark was a slap in the face. I immediately lost my steam and I’ll tell you why:
I had worked plenty of jobs that put me in danger of being alone with my male bosses and coworkers. I knew a trap when I saw one. In fact, at that time, I’d never had a job at which I wasn’t sexually harassed.
I’d never had a job at which I wasn’t sexually harassed.
I had been working as a tour guide in San Francisco to get myself through college. That was an entirely different industry, but those jobs had been hell. I’d moved to a new company every year or so, hoping that one would be safer. But they were all the same.
I’d had to laugh at sexual jokes at my expense, fend off lingering hugs, let coworkers down easy when they asked me out, when they followed me to the bus stop and offered me rides home. I stopped accepting rides entirely after an older male coworker drove me purposefully so far in the opposite direction of my apartment that I thought he was going to kidnap me. I don’t know if he changed his mind or what, but after I demanded several times that he turn around, he did. I had him drop me off a few blocks from my actual home so that he wouldn’t know where I lived.
I’d endured being called “sweetheart” and “bitch”, endured being told I “owed” them for favors — like when one of my coworkers negotiated on my behalf to raise my pay to the same amount my male coworkers were being paid and then asked why he couldn’t “get up inside” me.
I’d been forced to go to breakfast alone with my boss, who didn’t pick up the tab and kept patting my knee the whole time. Another boss fell asleep while I was talking to him multiple times. He was completely out of it on heroin almost every day and everybody knew it. That’s not sexual harassment, obviously, but the fact that that guy was my superior should tell you a bit about the way that company was run.
I had to be very careful about which incidents I reported and to whom I reported them because my last report had been sent around the office like a joke. The guy who harassed me was never punished. He even had the chance to corner me on the way back from the bathroom one day and ask me why I would write that complaint about him. For the record, he had pulled me onto his lap and told everybody I was his birthday present and then spent a whole day catcalling other women as they walked by. I was forced to work alone with him on a tour bus on multiple occasions after that- something I explicitly asked not to have to do in the report I wrote.
Another time, I watched my supervisor take an old picture of me out of the trash, look me in the eye, and put it in his pocket. When I reported him, I was told that he was a good guy and that I must have misunderstood why he needed my discarded picture.
My point is that I thought that graduating and getting a real job in my chosen industry would mean the end of all that worse-than-unprofessional bullshit. But this producer’s comment made me realize that the exact same thing was waiting for me in Hollywood. And his comments were reinforced by things I’d heard before.
I recalled my screenwriting professor in college telling me that I would have to be “scrappy” if I wanted to write for television because they only let one woman into each writers room. He implied more than once that male writers were a bit tired of catching flak for not having someone around who could better represent the female perspective and so they were recently on the look-out for women who could be in the room to check their work.
And as each of my heroes was accused of sexual crimes, the reality of my situation fully set in — I had chosen the wrong industry.
Not only was I attempting to trudge through a male-dominated field, but the first rung of the ladder was supposedly some strange requirement that I submit to a traditional nurturing role in my future boss’s own home in order to prove …what? Not my writing skills, certainly.
I had to come to terms with the fact that, even if I were to surpass everyone’s expectations, survive being alone in a room full of men, and achieve my dream of being mentored by one of my heroes, not one of them would see me as a human being. So then I was faced with a choice.
I could choose to be “scrappy” and go full-force into this battle, or I could re-evaluate what was most important to me in life:
Safety is important.
My mental health is important.
I have a hard time being creative without those things.
What else is important? Finding female heroes.
I’d spent my whole life being told that women were going to be my competition, so I’d rejected them as mentors. What could a woman possibly teach me about a male-dominated field? I used to say things like, “I don’t really get along with other girls” and “Girls are crazy.” The internalized misogyny was deep. Now I was eating my words and actively searching for women to look up to. My new list became —
Incredibly talented women who have risen in the ranks in the years since all of my childhood heroes began to break my heart.
Imagine what they’ve gone through.
Hollywood would have been hell for me and still I regret every day that I didn’t give it a shot. I blame myself all the time. I keep thinking that if I was brave enough, if I was “scrappy” enough, if I hadn’t let some asshole producer scare me, maybe I’d be in a writers room now. Who knows? Maybe I’d have found my way to a production that values women. Maybe there would have been two or three women in the room with me. Maybe my boss would have been a woman. Maybe I could have eventually been the boss (humor me, ok?).
The odds for me wouldn’t have been great, though. In February, more than 70 female TV writers accused their bosses at the BBC of failing to give them opportunities to write for the biggest primetime shows. In the letter, they wrote that “[women writers] do not seem to be ‘graduating’ on to next-level shows where they could develop their skills further and raise their profiles,” Apparently, the BBC’s Silent Witness has only employed five female writers during its 20-year run, and Doctor Who “managed to go five series without an episode written by a woman”.
So I’ve been depressed about my career lately.
Since my tour guide days and that telling phone call, I’ve become a bit of a recluse. I started working for my parents- doing social media, community managing, and administrative work for their medical practice. I’m unbelievably lucky that they had a paid position to offer me while I was healing from all this abuse. Working for them was an eye-opener. They were nurturing, trustworthy, and inspirational, not because they were my parents but because they would treat any employee that way. What a novel concept.
I also recently started doing some freelance online copywriting. It’s a bit harder to be sexually harassed by a boss who’s thousands of miles away.
But my unrealized dream keeps me up at night. What if I hadn’t made assumptions about what it would be like (based on past experience and pretty credible evidence)? What if I had sucked it up and tried anyway? What’s a few more years of fight-or-flight mode compared to following your dreams? Surely, babysitting wasn’t my only option. Now that the #MeToo movement has filtered the waters a little bit, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. What if I jumped back in there now?
It’s embarrassing to talk about this.
The dream was a long shot anyway, I know that, and I don’t want to be seen as making excuses for myself. Every journey worth taking has gatekeepers, that’s Storytelling 101. But in today’s world, not every gatekeeper should be a threat to my safety. And the more sexual assault, harassment, and bias I dealt with, the more the gatekeepers became my own trauma-related anxiety. Together, they piled on.
Like the ex-boyfriend who was so tired of hearing me talk about all this feminist stuff that he pinned me to the bed until I cried, just to prove that he was stronger than me.