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Roseanne, Ken Levine and Sexism (or lack thereof) in Hollywood: Thoughts from a Female Television Writer

By Angelina Burnett | Think Pieces | June 2, 2011 | Comments ()


Roseanne-Barr.jpg

I know better than to get into arguments with people* on the internet. That goes for double when those people are bloggers. And triple times a thousand when they happen to be celebrities.

Inhales deeply. Stretches. Cracks knuckles.

But here's the thing, I didn't go into this with the intention of getting into an argument with Roseanne. Hand to God, it didn't even occur to me she'd respond.

In the land before Tivo, Mom, Sis and I treated "Roseanne" all set in stone-like. We didn't miss an episode. It was funny and smart and rather soulful for a sit-com. Now here I am, 20 years later, staring at this disembodied, irrational, grammatically challenged rhetorical volley from the woman herself about sexism in television.

We should back up.

For those who may have missed it, Roseanne wrote an essay in NYMag a bit ago, supposedly triggered by folks wanting to know her thoughts on the Chuck Lorre/Charlie Sheen debacle. The article itself has little to do with it's impetus. The short version: Though she got screwed out of her "Created By" credit on the show bearing her name and was treated horribly by her sexist/classist/racist collaborators, she managed to go from "crazy bitch" to "genius and eccentric" by the second season. She then "end[ed her] addiction to fame" when the show dropped out of the top ten and she could no longer get a table last minute at The Palm.

(For the record, I've found dining frequently at a restaurant while being kind to the folks who work there will get you a last minute table most every time. No top ten show necessary. And if you're in LA, eat at Gjelina. It kicks The Palm's ass.)

A friend sent me the article, asking if I thought things had changed for women in TV since Roseanne's trials and tribulations. I write television. I have a vagina. I understand why one might think I have some authority to speak on the subject but I was wary to pipe up for the sisterhood on this one. I mightn't be the best yard stick. Roseanne wrote she rarely visited the writers' room due to their excessive cracking of "stinky pussy" jokes. I don't have a problem with "stinky pussy" jokes. As long as they're funny.

With that caveat established, I paid my dues, working my ass off as an assistant for eight years, writing on nights and weekends, hustling and nudging and shoving my work in front of anyone who'd read it until I got that first gig. And then I kept getting gigs. At no point did I ever feel my progress was hindered, slowed or otherwise impeded by my gender. Along the way I met a string of kind, generous, talented people who chose to have my back. They helped me become a better writer. They helped me get jobs. And all but one of them was a dude. So when I read this ...

"Male writers have zero interest in being nice to women, including their own assistants, few of whom are ever promoted to the rank of "writer," even though they do all the work while the guys sit on their asses taking the credit."

...it was like one of those moments on "Mad Men" when you get a twinge of discomfort from a shot that lingers a beat too long on the kid playing with the dry cleaning bag or someone smoking while pregnant or the Drapers dumping their picnic trash all over the grass. It's like, yeah, I get it. Shit was different back then. But not everyone was so perfectly fucking coiffed all the damn time. That's not a world I know. In fact, I'm not sure that's a world that ever existed.

From my observation of and experience in this business, it doesn't matter how successful a person is, somewhere along the way, someone fucked them over. At some point, something they loved died a horrible death. Often after a long and bitter battle for it's existence. Gender has no bearing on this inevitability. But I really loved "Roseanne." The Conners feel like old friends I haven't seen in a while (well, not Becky, I never liked Becky). I wanted to take the article at face value, believing Roseanne contended with rampant sexism and overcame it, paving the way for women such as myself to have it far easier than she ever did. I wanted to believe this in spite of a statement as absurd as, "Male writers have zero interest in being nice to women."

But a couple days ago, during my morning visit to the twitter machine, I found something from Ken Levine about Roseanne's article. Ken's an old school comedy writer ("M.A.S.H," "Cheers"), baseball enthusiast and blogger. Now, I don't know the guy from Maury Povich but I like to think I can ferret out a misogynist after years of reading their thoughts on Larry Gelbert, vacations in Hawaii and "Idol" (which I don't even watch but his rants are that funny). Plus, dude lets his daughter guest blog and she's witty and smart and generally delightful. As far as I'm concerned, Ken gets a sisterhood stamp of approval. So what did he do to be branded "a hater of women" by Roseanne? He called her out for being an asshole which, let's be straight, she totally was. I mean, she fesses up to threatening a woman with scissors because she was pissed about a costume choice. And this is a point of pride. That's a dick move.

As I worked my way through their exchange, two things quickly became clear. First, in Roseanne's lexicon, "sexist" is synonymous with "person who is in any way combative with me" so that pretty well undermines her NYMag article. Second, her editor deserves a raise. Judging by her blog, they must have run that article through the literary equivalent of auto-tune. Overlooking hyperbole and bad behavior was one thing, forgiving bad writing entirely another. I don't care how much I loved her fucking TV show. Slogging through her rant at Ken, which reads as if in English only by accident, monkey with a typewriter-like, I suddenly felt indignant on behalf of all the dudes who've had my back. I decided the comments section needed a polite, respectful rebuttal so that those perusing would see that, not only are there women who don't find the post in question to be sexist, but there are plenty of decent men working in television. Unfortunately, I hadn't yet taken a step back and realized I was in one of those Internet black holes where the laws of reason cease to exist. It was folly wading into that madness. An unwinnable game where the only two outcomes are: 1) Be driven completely insane, or 2) Find enjoyment in making someone else look/feel like an idiot. When I came to my senses, I realized I was interested in neither. I apologized and left. None of it's worth quoting. If you're curious, it's here.

But something has stuck with me about this whole exchange -- employment figures mentioned by one of the writer's on Levine's blog. The latest Hollywood Writers Report came out not long ago. Nothing shocking. The percentage of women and minorities working in film and TV hasn't changed much since the last report. Still dismal. But seeing them in this context struck a chord. Women make up 28 percent of working television writers, 17 percent of working feature writers, and roughly 20 percent of the Writers' Guild as a whole. I don't for a second believe that's because fewer women are interested in screenwriting. So what the fuck is going on here?

When last year's pilot season was deemed a disaster for women, there was an interesting post on Deadline citing a study in which a play was sent to multiple theaters and literary managers with different names on the title page. Men critiqued the play the same, regardless of the gender of the author. Women were tougher on the sisterhood.

"[Female Literary Managers and Artistic Directors] believed the scripts would be less successful out in the world, that top talent would have less interest in them, that they would earn less money and were less likely to be supported by others in the industry. THEREFORE the scripts were deemed to be of lesser value. The female respondents BELIEVE that work by women will be discriminated against and will therefore hurt their own economic standing and or that of their company and so do not promote or produce it in great numbers."

The study sent me thinking back to a discussion I had with some fellow female assistants long ago when working in feature land. We marveled that all the major studios were run by women (Amy Pascal, Mary Parent, Nina Jacobson) and yet it was still an uphill battle to push women for open writing and directing assignments. At the time, I chalked it up to the competitive nature of successful women, thinking we're tougher on each other because we want to be the only chick in the room, showing the boys how it's done. (Note, I now know this was my own shit. I've been working hard to get over it. Successfully, for the most part. At least in the context of my job. Certainly not at the card table. I will always want to be the only chick in the poker game, taking money from the boys and I'm not going to apologize for that.) But the mindset revealed by the study mentioned in the Deadline piece makes far more sense. Re-thinking the issue now, I'm reminded of a TED talk given by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. She speaks specifically about the corporate world but I think sections of her argument hold true for us creative types too.

"Women systematically underestimate their own abilities. ... Men attribute their success to themselves and women attribute it to other external factors. If you ask men why they did a good job, they'll say, 'I'm awesome.' ... If you ask women, they'll say someone helped them out, they got lucky, they worked really hard."

That sounds familiar. That sounds like the line I spout every time I'm asked, "Gee. TV writing. That's a hard gig to get. How'd you do it?"

She's right. The language many of us ladies use to discuss our success betrays a mindset that hamstrings us, subtly. There was a time women in this country were treated unjustly. It was egregious, systemic and happened on a regular basis. You could point at it and call it by name. That time has passed. The source of inequality for modern American women is far less clear. What more can we legislate? How many more programs can be put in place to bolster women's employment in industries in which they're under represented? What more can be done externally? I can't say for sure, but I'd hazard a guess, not a whole hell of a lot.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say sexism is no longer the problem. That's not to say it doesn't exist but, regardless of gender, we all have challenges to overcome. At this point in the evolution of our society, I'd say sexism is about as challenging a hurdle to a gig in Hollywood as is a lack of talent. Which is to say, not a very tall one.

It takes no great strength or insight to recognize injustice. It's everywhere. From some sad sack missing the beginning of his movie while circling a parking lot because some fuck parked kitty corner across two spaces, not wanting his doors dinged to a young girl in Afghanistan who dreams of being a doctor but can't get a decent education because some fucking zealots fired a grenade launcher into her school. I've found, personally, as a woman in this business, the ways in which I've been treated unjustly fall far closer to the "Life Isn't Fair But It's Also Too Short" end of things rather than the "Let's Take to the Streets and Fight This One Out" side. On this vast spectrum, for what are we going to chose to care? More importantly, how are we going to effectively combat what we deem deserving of our focus? Because righteous indignation feels great. But it accomplishes exactly zero. So, what's next?

Though I'm part of that 28 percent and have felt unencumbered by my gender, I can't help but be troubled by the numbers. The lack of female representation in my chosen profession is an injustice about which I care. So what am I going to do about it? I'm open to suggestions. A thoughtful discussion on the subject certainly couldn't hurt. I don't feel I have enough experience to make pronouncements on how to solve the problem but I do have instincts which have served me well thus far. And something tells me this leg of our journey towards equality turns inward. We have to contend with the ways in which we hold ourselves back. We have to unapologetically create and claim a space for ourselves each and every day. We have to be honest about how we're choosing to move through the world, how those choices affect others and come back around to shape our lives and career. We can not allow ourselves to shirk responsibility for furthering our own advancement. By blaming others. By striking an entitled stance. By eschewing basic fucking rules of grammar and dropping a nuclear bomb on the English language in service of a righteously indignant rant against a writer who is decidedly not part of the problem.

I have a job writing television because I am awesome. And now I'm going to shut the fuck up about all this and get back to work on my script.

*and by people, I mean crazy people. I just wanted to get through this entire post with out calling her any variation of unbalanced, which she clearly and admittedly is.


*****

Angelina Burnett is awesome. She is currently writing for "Boss," a new drama starring Kelsey Grammar which premieres in October on Starz. She's super fucking proud of it and thinks you all should watch. You can follow her on Twitter, @angelinaburnett.




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