I started writing professionally in 2017, the year that Harvey Weinstein was fully exposed by the press as a serial abuser and rapist. In the frenzied months that followed that story, we experienced a seismic shift in the entertainment industry and beyond. #MeToo emerged, a worldwide cry for justice against the epidemic of sexual misconduct and abuse that had saturated seemingly every corner of life. Seemingly indomitable figures of power were toppled, from Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly to Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey. We were promised change. Nay, we demanded it, and it felt as though the industry was ready to listen. Almost six years later and I’m more pessimistic about said change than ever. Weinstein is in jail but C.K. is a Grammy winner. Political policy has taken a rightward wing regarding the rights of victims, as well as on issues of reproductive freedom and gender autonomy. Hollywood has barely shifted from its decades-old status quo. It might have gotten worse, thanks to the backlash to #MeToo and the renewed bolstering of anti-feminist rhetoric. The culture war is bad, and it’s tough to overlook how we got here. Just look at Amber Heard, Evan Rachel Wood, Megan Thee Stallion, Kesha…
Maureen Ryan, one of the most dogged and perceptive reporters in the field of entertainment journalism, has long refused to back down on this topic. As the studio heads tried to return to business as usual, she dug deep into stories others overlooked, such as CBS’s continued hiring of showrunner Brad Kern, even as he was being investigated for harassment and misconduct. It is through Ryan’s reporting that we’ve been given some of the most revealing glimpses into the reality of the modern film and TV world, and it isn’t pretty. Now, she’s gone even deeper with her excellent book, appropriately titled Burn It Down: Power: Complicity, and a Call to Change for Hollywood.
Several extracts published online have given an insight into Ryan’s work, tearing apart beloved series to expose the rot of misconduct, abuse, and impunity that has long defined the world behind the cameras. It’s a problem spread across a variety of genres, platforms, and levels of prestige. Nobody is safe. It’s a toxicity found in the bastions of network TV, behind the doors of major producers, and in the harried halls of late-night. There are intense abuses at play, but also quieter biases and stubbornness that have fostered decades’ worth of problems that have permeated the entire field. Series like Sleepy Hollow are rightfully eviscerated for the ways they maligned people of colour on and off-screen, a practice that continues right up to this day. Ryan talks to the Jane Doe who accused former SNL star Horatio Sanz of improper conduct, and uses this as a gateway to discuss the troubling structures of power at the heart of America’s most famous comedy show.
Many of the series she talks about are now off the air, but it remains valuable for Ryan to explain what happened with them because not only are many of the people involved still working in high-profile and high-paying gigs, but those that they harmed are struggling with the damage caused. For those who were willing to talk to Ryan — and a hell of a lot of them said ‘no comment via PR rather than answer — it’s a question of whether or not they’re willing to work on themselves to improve things for the next generation. Frankly, the further you get into the book, the more you wonder if you’ll ever be able to watch TV again without having that sinking feeling in your stomach.
One of the big lies that much of the media sold to us during the height of #MeToo (as well as the ongoing backlash) is the notion that the bad apples could be separated from the rest of the barrel. Lest we forget that the saying tells us how it only takes one to spoil the whole bunch. Said bad apples were seen as minor blips, and really, weren’t some of them not that bad? It became horribly common to see accused abusers and their misdeeds lessened in comparison to the likes of Harvey Weinstein, as if they were somehow more acceptable because they weren’t serial rapists with potentially hundreds of victims. Self-confessed sex criminal Louis C.K. isn’t ‘as bad’ as that, right? And so the cycle continues.
Ryan tears this nonsense to pieces, along with the depressingly enduring myth of the ‘genius’ whose badness is an inevitable side-effect of their creative brilliance. It’s not simply a poor excuse to bolster said people, Ryan argues; it’s bad for business and art as a whole. It makes for shitty TV when you’re on a set of emotional and personal terror. In the chapter dedicated to the disastrous production of Lost, which was excerpted in Vanity Fair, co-showrunner Damon Lindelof, after being confronted with accusations of a severely toxic workplace, says, ‘I would trade every person who told you that I was talented—I would rather they said I was untalented but decent, rather than a talented monster.’ Ryan immediately calls this out as a false binary. If we continue to perpetuate the idea that we can have nice but untalented people or genius monsters then nothing will truly change.
Despite the fiery title, Ryan does have some optimism, as well as tangible ideas for how to improve things in the short and long term. It is not simply a case of fixing the industry but changing our mindset, and that may prove more difficult since it’s clear that there’s still a lot of biases in place stopping any real come-to-Jesus moment. Alas, it’s also extremely profitable in our field to fling mud at victims and reinforce bigoted structures of power, be they along lines of race, gender, sexuality, or otherwise. Ryan thinks we can change, but if you get to the end of Burn it Down with a match in your hand, she won’t blame you either.
Burn It Down: Power: Complicity, and a Call to Change for Hollywood is available to read now!