Ms. in the Biz


photo1Originally posted at Ms. in the Biz

It’s staffing season for television, and many of us are playing close attention to gender and race of writers getting hired. A report from the Writer’s Guild of America revealed that in the 2011-2012 season, female writers made up only 30.5% of TV staffs. Racial minorities fared even worse, comprising only 15.6%. (A UCLA study based on publicly available data put the number for women at 32.8% in broadcast television and 27.1% in cable. That study found that only 7.4% of cable writers are minorities while only 10% of broadcast writers are.)

A number of causes collude to keep staffs primarily white and male, with one of the big ones being cumulative advantage. Originally an economic theory, cumulative advantage posits that “once a social agent gains a small advantage over other agents, that advantage will compound over time into an increasingly larger advantage.” In other words, the rich get richer. As social theory, cumulative advantage is what creates white, male privilege. When young white boys are encouraged by their parents, teachers, and communities to aim high while girls are told to focus on marriage and minorities on service-industry jobs, when white boys are praised over their lifetime for whatever they do while the hard work of the girls and minorities around them goes unnoticed, and when they are put in leadership positions more readily than girls and minorities, they begin their careers as grown men with the advantage of an impressive resume and an unparalleled sense of confidence. Women and minorities with the same levels of experience and confidence have inevitably had to work twice as hard with half the support.

In television writing, white male advantage continues to accumulate as they find themselves more easily staffed, more quickly promoted, and more readily offered opportunities to develop new shows than women and minorities. Though diversity programs have begun to open doors for new writers, the best known of which provides a financial incentive to shows to staff a diverse writer by paying that writer’s salary, these programs rely on the idea that the opportunity will be the beginning of an accumulation of advantage for that writer. In a recent interview, Director of Diversity at the WGA, Kimberly Myers, told me that success of these programs depends on the extent to which showrunners and producers support diversity hires:

You have to get everybody at the network level and the development level out of the mindset that diverse writers are only staff writers. It’s great to have a way in, but once they are in the ranks, are you developing pilots with them, and if not why not? It only works if the writers are properly integrated into the staff and not marginalized and supported—it’s a mentoring business, that’s how the business works.

Another reason more women and minorities don’t get staffed and promoted at the same rates as white men is the idea of “fit.” When a show is hiring, they’re looking for someone who fits into the culture of their writer’s room. In a recent article on how this phenomenon works in newsrooms, writer Aboubacar Ndiaye put it this way:

Fit is the unquantifiable variable which makes you think that you will be able to gchat stupid gifs with someone, or drink craft brewed beer/fair trade coffee/single terroir wine with them, or bemoan the sorry state of the local sports franchise with them. It is the bro/homegirl quality, the affability borne out of similar backgrounds and similar experiences. The truth is that we organize our lives around this feeling. We seek spaces that provide the maximum amount of conviviality, from the right kind of city, to the right kind of neighborhood, to the right kind of friends and romantic partners. But when this ethos is transferred into the workplace, it leads not just to a comfortable environment, but to an exclusionary one and a moribund one.

Even once a woman or minority writer has met the “good fit” requirement, actually being in the room requires that they continue to prove their fit daily. In an article on The XX Factor/Slate, Dan Harmon (Community) said that in his experience, female staffers “do more dick jokes than anybody, because they’ve had to survive, they have to prove, coming in the door, that they’re not dainty.” Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under) shared that, “When I used to be in writers’ rooms with men, I would always try to be the most inappropriate person in the room, to tell the dirtiest jokes. It was a way of communicating that I could play with the boys. It made it harder for them to count me out.”

But this approach can backfire. Whereas men who are crass are seen as funny, crass women and minorities can be dismissed as inappropriate. Men who speak up about and defend their ideas are seen as visionary, whereas women and minorities who do the same thing are often seen as pushy or, when it’s a woman, bitchy. Being the only woman or minority in the room puts a person in the position of having to choose between a rock and hard place: S/he can conform to fit in or be themselves, but either way, s/he will face resistance from someone.

Imagine if all the energy these writers have to spend fitting in could be spent on, you know, writing. Imagine how much less time these writers would have to spend navigating sex and race if they weren’t the only ones of their kind in the room. Imagine how much better television would be.

Unfortunately, the continued lack of diversity in writer’s rooms makes me think too many people lack the ability to imagine that. So next time you find yourself in conversation with a showrunner or producer who just doesn’t see why having a diverse writer’s room is important, here’s a few reasons that may speak to them on their level.

 10 Reasons Your Show Should Staff a Diverse Writer

10. Because they generally earn less than white men, they can save you a lot of money.

9. Women will inevitably bring moderate to major room-odor improvements.

8. When viewers of color get pissed that the one character you wrote that represents them is an offensive stereotype, your minority writer can explain why they’re so angry. Better yet, s/he may be able to keep you from making that mistake in the first place.

7. When women viewers get pissed because all of your characters are defined entirely as mothers, wives, nurses, or sluts, women staffers can explain why that sucks. Better yet, she may be able to keep you from making that mistake in the first place.

6. Chicks dig dudes who hire chicks.

5. Being able to say, “Some of my best writers are minorities,” upon committing a racial faux pas can get you out of some sticky binds.

4. Prostate exam jokes: Cliché. Gynecological exam jokes on the other hand …

3. White dudes making jokes about people of other races: Not cool. People of color making jokes about white people: Hilarious.

2. Even some zombies are women and minorities.

1. Women and minorities represent a paltry percentage of writing staffers but are far and away the majority of the viewing audience, and their jokes, stories, and perspectives make for damn good television.

Holly DerrOriginally posted at Ms. in the Biz

Got your B or MFA from a theater program? Congratulations! Looking at 30 years of consolidated loan payments even as you get further and further away from the training you’re still paying for? Take heart! Your training matters, even in Hollywood. Just ask Winona Ryder, Felicity Huffman, Alison Brie, Holly Hunter, and Laura Linney — all of whom have theater degrees.

In many ways, the worlds of film, television, and web series seem like water to theater’s oil – they only mix when you really shake things up. But even though you may never have to call upon your ability to perfectly execute an historically accurate Restoration curtsy, many of the skills you learned and practiced in theater school can be of use. Here are a few of the things that set trained actors apart in Hollywood:

1. Dialects.

Being able to walk in to a first audition and perfectly execute a specific dialect is not a skill that every actor has, yet that very skill is in high demand. You can be ready at a moment’s notice to perform the wide variety of accents employed in The Walking Dead, which vary both by geography and class; you are ready for any of the increasingly popular genre TV shows set in mythical lands where everyone speaks with some version of an accent from the British Empire, like Game of Thrones and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland; and you’re perfect for geographically and culturally specific dramas like Justified (set in Kentucky) and Nashville. Sure, those productions can afford to hire a dialect coach, but the ability to nail it in the audition gives you a decided edge. It also makes you especially appealing for smaller-budget productions. So rest assured, those hours spent learning IPA (no, I’m not talking about beer) may come in handy yet.

2. The Method of Physical Actions.

Often confused with American “method acting,” Stanislavsky’s Method of Physical Actions is actually a way of creating character and telling story through movement. Stanislavsky’s system – though rarely practiced in its complete form – creates a carefully designed physical script that an actor can replicate exactly, night after night. What does this have to do with film? An actor who has trained in the System can hit her mark on every single take while also varying the inner emotional experience, providing editors and directors with a million different pieces that can be fit together perfectly without anyone having to worry about continuity. Looking to refresh your memory of the process? Check out the new, improved translations of Stanislavsky’s acting bible An Actor’s Work.

3. The Method.

Derived from the Russian Method of Physical Actions, the American Method focuses on the actor’s internal experience. Though onstage it all too often leads to an overwrought, self-indulgent performance, on film, it can be a powerful tool for generating the kind of inner intensity that the camera craves. If you studied the Method, you are ready for your close up.

4. Script analysis.

The actor’s job, whether on stage or screen, is to realize her specific character in as much detail as possible. Too often for screen actors, this means coming in, executing your role (often without the other actors in the scene even being there), and getting out of the way. Theater actors have a distinct advantage here: Years of scene study means that you can realize not only your character, but also realize your character’s function in the whole story. Trained to take the text as a whole into account, even when appearing in only one scene, you can make sure your performance integrates seamlessly into the whole. The key? Do your own dramaturgy.

5. Collaboration.

Remember how, after spending two to three years shut up together in a dark room, you and your classmates had to perform a thesis or final project? And you had to do it like professionals, even when playing opposite the person who broke your heart last year who’s now dating your best friend/costar in a production directed by the professor of whom you’re terrified? Compared to this, the fact that in Hollywood we often have to work with people we don’t like, many of whom are narcissists with incredible power to make or break you, is small beans.

6. Vocal training.

Looking for a place to use the training you got from one of the top voice teachers in the country and practiced doing the likes of Shakespeare and Moliere? Look to the voice-over world. Some films and television shows can get away with Mumbly Joe as an actor because the close up on the person’s lips makes them understandable. But without a body, all you have is your voice, so use your training to make a few bucks from corporate America doing voice overs, or put some effort into breaking in to animation. And don’t forget to warm up. All together now: Red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather…..

7. THE LOS ANGELES THEATER COMMUNITY IS THE BOMB.

No, you can’t make a living in it. But you can make a living as a commercial/tv/film/web actor while also performing live in classics, new plays, experimental theater, and international festivals. If you haven’t looked into yet, do it. Many Los Angeles theaters have figured out a way to work around the schedules of working actors to mount productions of artistic integrity and intellectual and/or political value. You can not only practice the expensive skills you paid for in your theater program, you can also connect with other actors, directors, and producers invested in doing both.

I’m not saying that the day you pay your final installment on your loan you won’t have trouble remembering what exactly you did during that all-too-brief period in your twenties. You probably will. But you will also undoubtedly have used what you learned, whether in a career in the theater, in film and television or as a well-rounded human being capable of understanding the connections between all of the liberal arts and of factoring those understandings into the way you live your life as a friend, a citizen, and a human being.

photo1

Originally published by Ms. in the Biz

When Beyoncé’s latest album dropped, feminists went nuts. This is not the first time they’ve gone nuts over Beyoncé: When Ms. Magazine put her on its cover earlier this year, its readers erupted in outrage that a woman who “writhes around,” scantily clad “for the benefit of men” could be considered a feminist. Millions of other women came to her defense, arguing that feminism is about allowing women to be whoever they want to be. The editors of Ms. stood by their choice, but the disagreement hasn’t faded, and the new album has only added fuel to the fire. The combination of lyrics sampled from a Ted Talk given by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We teach girls to shrink themselves
To make themselves smaller
We say to girls
‘You can have ambition
But not too much
You should aim to be successful
But not too successful
Otherwise you will threaten the man.’

– and those contributed by Beyoncé’s husband referring to himself as Ike Turner, casting her as Tina, and referencing a well-known episode of domestic abuse between them, debate once again flared as to the validity of Beyoncé’s claim to feminism.

Such controversies may not do much to further the cause of feminism, but they sure do generate page views. Not surprisingly, therefore, in the last few years, Hollywood reporters have taken every opportunity to ask stars, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” While women like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and even Susan Sarandon have eschewed the term, others have boldly taken up the mantle and declared their commitment to changing the status quo for women in Hollywood.

photo2In an interview with the Guardian, Ellen Page spoke freely about her support for reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights and her appreciation for feminism:

I don’t know why people are so reluctant to say they’re feminists. Maybe some women just don’t care. But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word? Feminism always gets associated with being a radical movement – good. It should be. A lot of what the radical feminists [in the 1970s] were saying, I don’t disagree with it.

Regarding projects she is writing and directing, she shared, “Of course, if you just write a script in which the woman has control over her destiny and love isn’t the main thing in the film, that’s seen as super feminist. [But] it’s hard to get stuff made, especially if it’s about women. Everything’s about international bankability.”

Geena Davis has thrown the weight of her name, her resume, and her money behind the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a research-based organization working to “engage, educate, and influence the need for gender balance, reducing stereotyping and creating a wide variety of female portrayals for children’s entertainment.” The Institute found that the ratio of male to female roles in family films – three to one – has not changed since 1946. In a recent guest article in The Hollywood Reporter, she offered some great advice on solving the problem:

Step 1: Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?

Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don’t gather, I don’t know.

By Jerry Avenaim [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Jada Pinkett-Smith, who questioned the feminist policing of Beyoncé by asking “Whose body is this anyway?” on Facebook, also used the social network to defend her daughter, Willow, when she became subject to vitriolic criticism over a haircut: “This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don’t belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are her domain.”

Pinkett-Smith further defined her brand of feminism with a Facebook post on how sexism harms men as well as women: “There is a deep sadness when I witness a man that can’t recognize the emptiness he feels when he objectifies himself as a bank and truly believes he can buy love with things and status. It is painful to witness the betrayal when a woman takes him up on that offer.” She has also become a spokesperson for the anti-human-trafficking movement through her organization “Don’t Sell Bodies.”

The list goes on and on. Jennifer Lawrence has used her press junket for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire to advocate against women calling each other fat and for more reasonable representations of women’s bodies on screen. Evan Rachel Wood loudly protested the MPAA excision of a cunnilingus scene from her film Charlie Countryman. Natalie Portman called representations of women who are vulnerable just as feminist as those of women kicking ass. Amy Poehler told a reporter her feminism is “just who I am, in the same way that I’m a woman, or I’m 5’2″ or whatever.”

The controversy over Beyonce’s feminism shows no sign of fading, but though the singer was “terrified” before the album’s release, she says now she feels liberated, and the dispute certainly hasn’t hurt album sales. If these women aren’t shying away from calling themselves feminist – and haven’t suffered any repercussions to their careers for it – why should anybody else?

So when reporters ask you, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?”, what will your answer be?