In this episode, we’re trying out a new format. We’re calling it an acoustic panel. Doctoral candidate Megan Genovese sent questions to leading voices in the ongoing debates around diversity in the entertainment industries. Each respondent sent in a recording of their responses and we’ve edited them together to make up a virtual panel.
We asked our expert panelists about the state of the American entertainment industry in light of the 70th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards and a year into the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. The panelists include Marjorie David, television writer and producer and Vice President of the Writer’s Guild of America West; Mo Ryan, a freelance journalist and television critic; and Joelle Monique, cultural critic and writer for Pajiba, Polygon, Mary Sue and other outlets.
Aaron Shapiro: Welcome to Media at Risk. A podcast from the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
On this episode, we’re trying out a new format. We’re calling it an acoustic panel. Doctoral candidate Megan Genovese, sent questions to leading voices in the ongoing debates around diversity in the entertainment industries. Each respondent sent in a recording of their responses. We’ve edited them together, to make up a virtual panel.
The result is a lively if simulated discussion, touching on the industry, its guilds and unions and representation both on screen and off. Hope you enjoy.
Megan Genovese: Hello and welcome to Media at Risk. I’m Megan Genovese, a doctoral candidate and member of the Center for Media at Risk’s steering committee. Today, the topic is Hollywood. I’ll be asking our expert panelists about the state of the American entertainment industry, in light of the 70th annual prime time Emmy Awards, and a year of the #MeToo and #TimesUp Movements.
Marjorie David: Hi. I am Marjorie David. I’m a television writer and producer. I’m also the Vice President of the Writers Guild of America West. I never do social media.
Mo Ryan: Hi, my name is Maureen Ryan, also known as Mo Ryan. I’m a journalist, critic and writer. Most recently, I was the Chief Television Critic at Variety and now I am freelance.
Joelle Monique: Hi guys. I am Joelle Monique. I’m a Pop Culture Critic. I write for Pajiba, Polygon, The Mary Sue and a bunch of other places.
Megan Genovese: I hope you enjoy.
The televised Emmys show the presentation of awards for some programming, acting, directing, and writing categories, but The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences gives out more awards in those categories, as well as dozens in casting, costumes, lighting design, hair and makeup, music, editing, special effects and other technical categories in a separate ceremony.
How does this structure of awarding popular shows and stars on the broadcast—and putting everyone else who works in television offscreen—reflect or impact the way we think about the value of different kinds of labor in this industry?
How could awards-granting bodies and award shows contribute to projects like #TimesUp? And promote equity of pay and treatment, job security and equal opportunity across the industry?
Marjorie David: The Emmys are a television show of general interest, but the award itself has more meaning within the industry than it does outside of it.
Mo Ryan: You find when you’re voting on these things, as I have done with a number of different groups, that the makeup of the group doing the voting influences very heavily who wins. And sometimes, that can lead to a middle of the road effect, where the thing that people can agree on wins, as opposed to the thing that may be the most artistically challenging and relevant and good.
I just think that all awards-giving bodies, including The Television Academy, need to think about who’s giving out the awards, and how that consensus is reached.
Joelle Monique: Matt Damon famously said that to receive a Heineken doesn’t matter, so long as it’s diverse in front of the camera. While I wholeheartedly disagree with that statement, I would think that is the prevalent thinking of most people outside of the industry.
I do believe that if we used award shows as an opportunity to highlight the craft of film and television making that it might sway public opinion. They don’t know that we have all these black female editors suddenly popping up for major motion pictures, because they don’t get a spotlight.
Marjorie David: It’s a thing that has to make money by getting advertisers onboard. You don’t really get advertisers onboard to watch a show where a lot of awards are given out, where people don’t actually know what they’re for. It might be mildly educational, but I don’t think it changes anybody’s life, for the television viewing public to know more about them.
In an odd way, there have been moves to eliminate the writing category. I have a feeling that those moves have been thwarted, because one, television is a writers’ medium and writers originate and run it. And two, because show runners, who are writers, are moving up to the front.
I don’t really think the Academy’s importance, in terms of making progress in the world in any way, is of tremendous value or importance. It is good as a face of everything, but I don’t know that it has anything to do with promoting #TimesUp. It looks good when everybody shows up in black. I think the real work is down in the trenches, changing the culture, changing the power structure, stuff like that. The award shows are just icing on the cake, and nobody’s really eating that particular cake. They watch clips of it.
Mo Ryan: It’s hard honestly for me to advocate for more awards being given in the main ceremony, because quite often the Emmy ceremony is too long. But they should definitely continue to give recognition and notice to people who are production designers and costume designers and all those technical categories.
In a way, if the march of people in those categories across the stage is mostly white people and/or white men, in a way that serves as a little bit of a reminder that we still have some work to do. Because I think one of the biggest problems in Hollywood is that there is attention being paid to who gets cast and things, and the numbers are counted for producers, writers and directors.
Mo Ryan: What’s really largely flown under the radar is the other Guilds and how homogenous they often are. That’s a problem as well.
Joelle Monique: I’m not sure if award shows are comfortable taking political stances. Obviously you want to seem an impartial voting body. However, it would be lovely if many stars who win take an opportunity to step up on their soap box, because they know they’ll have the ears of people across the globe.
If as an industry awards body, they said “We’re working diligently to make our staff 50/50. 50% women, 50% men.” If they gave space to #TimesUp to talk about the numbers. Specifically, when we take out the idea that “Oh it’s the entertainment industry that isn’t diverse,” and we start comparing it to other industries, our numbers are just abysmal.
It would be great if the Emmys took a moment to say, “Hey, we’ve looked around at other industries. Our industry isn’t doing well. We would like to be the forefront leader in starting to correct that change.”
Megan Genovese: Hollywood has a number of well-established unions for workers both on and off screen, but the uncertainty of finding sufficient work in the entertainment industry, especially for people of color, recently made national news after the actor Jeffery Owens was photographed working in a Trader Joe’s.
Unions also have not protected women pushed out of the industry for gaining weight, aging or resisting sexual harassment and abuse.
What can unions do to better protect their members for discriminatory hiring, firing and blacklisting practices? What other organizations and structures could help prevent and address abuses between individuals and between workers and their corporate employers in Hollywood? What role should unions and professional organizations like the Television Academy play in driving change and inclusivity in the industry?
Marjorie David: Well, unions are the thing that I know the most about. You ask what unions can do to better protect their members from discriminatory hiring, firing and blacklisting practices?
First of all, it’s important to realize that unions don’t hire anyone. They protect the interest of their members. We’ve had a change in emphasis in the past few years, at least in the Writers Guild and I believe in the others, the Directors Guild especially: Changing ourselves in the past few years so that we do start looking out for the interest of our members who are in protected groups, who are people of different genders. We’ve done that by having programs.
Marjorie David: There’s a three-pronged effort in terms of first gender bullying and gender discrimination. The union itself is putting together programs, and right now has begun having a series of workshops with writers who find themselves working with either other writers—because we have a high percentage of lower level writers—and assistants who are harassed by their superiors, as you’ve probably seen in the news. It’s for writers to deal with difficult situations in the workplace, how to confront gender bullying, what to do if you’re a bystander. We will in the future also try to include show runner training, ways to manage people so that gender bullying and gender discrimination start to go away.
That’s basically a quick way to talk about what is a culture change. The culture was: they’re a bunch of guys. They pick the person they get along with best in the room. That’s how they’re gonna do a room, and that’s just how it’s gonna be. We’ve made inroads in that as a union.
The other prong that we have to face is agents. We have to make sure that agents are doing their duty. Not only in fiduciary matters, but also in terms of simply not sending clients to hotel rooms, putting forward clients who are not classified as diversity writers or woman writers, but writers.
Mo Ryan: I have a lot of thoughts about the Hollywood unions. I really do. I’ve actually come to the conclusion that they are going to be one of the most effective weapons that people fighting discrimination, and low wages, and harassment and abuse will be able to find. Because in my reporting, covering up for it, enabling powerful people and their ability to make life hell for other people, is really a thing that HR departments do in Hollywood all the time. It’s not just me saying that, it’s a lot of reporting.
I think a lot about the whole Hollywood problem, of all kinds of abuses of power, and you can go to the EEOC. They have a 2016 study about these very issues, (about) what makes an industry or any industry right for abuse.
One of the biggest conditions they site is massive power imbalances. You find that in Silicon Valley, you find it in Washington DC, you find it in Hollywood. Actually, they don’t bring this up in the EEOC report, (but) you also find it in religious institutions.
I would actually say that Hollywood has a Catholic church problem in that abuse gets covered up, swept under the rug, more people get harmed, and if the transgressors are pushed out of one place, they usually turn up in another. This is a real problem.
I think that the Guilds need to make their members aware of resources the Guilds might have, to help members who are encountering difficulties and problems. They are obviously advocating for the members in terms of their income and healthcare. Those are really important, and those have really been job one for the unions for a long time. But if you’re not advocating for the physical safety of your membership, then you’re falling down on the job.
Unions have to make a note of it every time a member of the union comes to them and says, this person has been abusive or harassing or has been a problem in some way. If someone ends up on a Guild’s radar again and again—through an investigation that is judicious and well done and that the membership thinks is fair and agrees on in advance—I think that they should have the ability to pull someone’s union card and say, “You’re no longer in this Guild.”
Joelle Monique: In the same way that we’ve had sexual harassment videos in offices since the ’80s, talking about the correct behavior or the best way to behave in an office. Yet it’s still a huge problem, because at the end of the day a company’s interest is in protecting itself. The same with the union: (it) needs to stand in order to protect other people. I think often times instead of trying to protect the individual, they try to protect themselves.
I think having more women, specifically minority women in positions of power who are open and able to listen, who are not just one person of 20 at the top. We need a lot of people in leadership positions with diverse backgrounds, because otherwise you’re alienated and you’re targeted, and you’re a lone voice. Even if you are “in power,” we’ve seen with plenty of female directors or show runners that their voices don’t count as much as the men’s, despite holding that title.
I think the more diversity we can get in unions, the more likely it is that victims will be heard. The more likely it is that they’ll be able to do their job and protect the victims.
Marjorie David: It flows into the next question, but I just want to say the only way that this place is really gonna change is if there is more diversity in terms of power at the top.
Megan Genovese: One of the hosts of this year’s Emmys, Michael Che, recently defended admitted sexual abuser, Louis C.K.’s return to comedy, without apologizing for or addressing his past behavior.
The last woman to host the Emmys was Jane Lynch in 2011, which was only the sixth time in 70 years, that women hosted without male co-hosts.
How does this keep happening? Why is Hollywood still incapable of elevating women?
Joelle Monique: Men don’t think women are funny. I won’t say all men, but certainly enough men. I honestly just think that there is … They won’t see it as hate, but there is just this belief that men are more capable. They’re less emotional. They are better writers, blah, blah, blah. Whatever. It’s totally false and it’s going to keep happening because there are more men in power, and they can make the decisions.
Hollywood is not incapable of elevating women. They are making a very solid choice. I will continue to call out organizations that I see doing it.
Michael Che is not worried, because Michael Che is still getting paid, because Michael Che believes Michael Che is right. And because Michael Che isn’t going to lose any business opportunities for speaking out. He will lose some fans, but the controversy is only going to boost his profile. More people will know who Michael Che is is because he said something controversial. Will people like him, not like him? It won’t really matter, because we don’t thrive in an industry of moral high ground. We thrive in an industry of controversy and conversation.
I actively take a part in that aspect of the industry. I’m not quite sure how to make that better.
Mo Ryan: Oh boy, Michael Che. Suddenly I have a migraine. Yeah. I think it’s a problem what Michael Che has said about Louis C.K. needing to earn a living. Well, first of all, Louis C.K. is set up for life. He doesn’t need to earn anything. He’s very wealthy.
If Louis C.K. wants to launch a subscription podcast or go make sidewalk art of beach sculptures, I don’t really care. That’s fine. But I do not think that he has earned his way back in.
I think that when men like Michael Che say things like, “Oh, well he should be able to go back and earn a living,” in this particular sphere that he sullied and harmed, honestly, I think that’s just a thing that people say that centers the abusers and not the people who were abused.
I think job one should be: how do we prevent systems, institutions, formal and informal networks, from enabling abusers to continue abusing, hurting, or affecting negatively the people around them? That should be the question. What can I do in my community? How can I advocate for greater inclusion? How can I give a woman a slot at a … Or an equitable number of women and men slots at a stand-up open mic. There are small ways.
These things actually come down to a lot of people making small, medium and large decisions. The large decisions are the ones that might get the most noticed, like executives at Netflix looking at the fact that they hadn’t hired a black woman to do a stand-up special. They addressed that, and they have hired some black women to do comedy specials for them.
That’s a big thing, but there are many small things, day to day things, that people can do to make sure that they are giving space in their community to the people that were harmed, and helping to form systems, and networks formal and informal, that help the people who’ve been harmed, abused, assaulted, or harassed.
Marjorie David: What’s really gonna make a change in Hollywood is having more women in power, more women as heads of studios, more women as heads of these stupid media companies, more women running shows, more women directing movies, all of them. Just change it, change it, change it.
There are more racially diverse people now than there were before, but there’s a long, long way to go.
Mo Ryan: Gotta turn the focus around from this massive auteur theory of art, where it’s the single genius and the garret creating a T.V. show, or crafting a film, or directing a film, and all that kind of stuff.
All of these things are ratified and condoned or not ratified and not condoned by communities. Comedy is a community. The television industry is a community. The film industry is a community. Every profession is its own community in a way. The people within that community decide what the norms are, and they can change.
Megan Genovese: Did this year’s nomination show any substantive progress towards dismantling the industry’s pervasive whiteness? Are organizing bodies, like the Television Academy, doing as much as they could to elevate non-white performers and professionals? Have they played a role in obscuring vital social issues in Hollywood? What could they do differently to promote and award the diversification of voices and perspectives in the industry?
Mo Ryan: The thing that’s tough about the Emmys, or the Oscars, or anything like that is you’ve got to bridge this almost unbridgeable gap between what will make the industry audience in the room laugh and make them feel like you’re gently poking fun at them, but not going too far. And then the people at home, who have a different set of requirements and needs and don’t care actually if you’re a little bit meaner. But then you lose the people in the room, and you can get an icy reception. It’s really tough. I don’t discount that.
But I think that the Emmy hosting gig, this was just a fail this year. I mean, I haven’t even seen the Emmys yet, but this was a poor choice for hosts, and I think I’m not gonna watch.
Joelle Monique: I don’t believe the nomination is an industry wide indication of anything. To be nominated, you have to be exceptional. Any black, brown, minority, outsider, Muslim, however you are labeling yourself that is not white, male, straight, cis gendered understands that you must be exceptional. You have to be so much better than everybody else.
I think what we’re fighting is not for exceptional people to be seen. Exceptional people rise to the top. Frequently they are seen. I’m fighting for the middle.
It’s insane to me that people believe that all writers, who have jobs in the industry, are just the best writers on the planet and the best people for the job got hired, and everyone else is just gonna have to deal. Meritocracy is not what we’re running on. It’s not even just who you know, because I know enough brown people in this industry fighting to get unrepresented people in the room, and it’s not working.
There are so many TV shows being produced right now by so many different networks. The fact that there are still only four percent women directing, or six percent writing, the fact that we still have predominately male writers’ rooms, when women make up 51% of the population, doesn’t make sense.
Marjorie David: My hope for the future (is) that things will change, but when the power structure changes, it’s really going to change. What the Academy can do, I don’t know. I think it just follows along with what’s there. Certainly they could make an affirmative effort to feature more women on the issue of women, but I think that ultimately they will.
Joelle Monique: Should they be doing more? Absolutely. How can they do more? Hire more people, continue to spread the word, highlight great upcoming talent would be another way. When you make the Black List, which is a list created by Franklin Leonard, a black man who saw that there were a number of un-produced scripts, that were so good, that was of such quality, that he couldn’t believe they weren’t being produced, so he made a list to highlight them.
I think continuing to take action like that to say, “Hey, not only are we here, but here is stuff that you could be making money off of.” Keep shoving it in their face and keep reminding them that when they cast the right way, when they put people of color behind the scenes, when they make women’s voice central, they make money.
From Handmaid’s Tale, to Black Panther, to Crazy Rich Asians, The Fast and Furious franchise. All of these spaces, incredibly rich and diverse stories we’ve never heard before, or stories from specific people that we’ve never heard those stories before, which of course gives you a different inflection, a different tonality. We want something new. We want something exciting. Diversity is the easiest way to get it.
Aaron Shapiro: Marjorie David is a television writer and producer and the Vice President of the Writers Guild of America West. Mo Ryan is a freelance journalist and television critic. And Joelle Monique is a cultural critic and writer for Pajiba, Polygon, MarySue and other outlets.
We’d like to thank the panelists, as well as Emily Plowman, Waldo (Head Honcho at the ASC Media Lab) and Barbie Zelizer, Director of the Center for Media at Risk.
More information and a transcript of this episode can be found at www.ascmediarisk.org. Thanks.
Son Lux, “All the Right Things” (theme)
Chet Baker, “Carioca Hills”
Chet Baker, “Summer Samba”
Chet Baker, “Nocturno”
Chet Baker, “Otem a Note”
Chet Baker, “If I Should Lose You”
Khruangbin, “Two Fish and an Elephant” (Outro)
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Marjorie David started her career as a novelist and an academic, but fell in love with film and television, fled graduate school and ended up writing the film Maria’s Lovers for Andrei Konchalovsky in the early ‘80s. This was followed by Konchalovsky’s Shy People, after which she started working in television. In that medium, she has written and ultimately also produced shows in a number of genres, from her first job, a freelance teleplay in the last year of Hill Street Blues to, most recently, as an Executive Producer on the Sci Fi/Fantasy show Shadowhunters and a co-Executive producer of NBC’s Taken. In between, she has run the gamut of staff positions on such shows as Chicago Hope, Millennium, 90210, Wildfire and Life. She is has just completed a screenplay of Azar Nafisi’s best-selling memoir, Reading Lolita In Tehran, for director Eran Riklis. She is Vice President of Writers Guild of America West; a member of the WGAW PAC board; co-chair of the WGAW committee on sexual harassment. She also teaches a seminar on writing the TV pilot at AFI.
Joelle Monique is a cultural critic and writer for Pajiba, Polygon, MarySue and other outlets. Follow her on Twitter @JoelleMonique.
Maureen Ryan was Chief Television Critic at Variety until April 2017. Since then, her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, EW, Vulture and TVGuide.com. Before joining Variety, she was the television critic at Huffington Post and The Chicago Tribune. She served on the jury of the Peabody Awards for six years, and has also served on juries at Cannes’ MIPTV, the AFI Top 10 TV Shows of the Year and the New York Television Festival. She is a board member of the Television Critics Association, has won three awards from the L.A. Press Club, and was named Best TV Writer in America by Complex magazine in 2013. In September 2018, the documentary This Changes Everything, in which she was interviewed about her reporting on gender bias in Hollywood, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. She is a graduate of Washington University and received her Masters degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @moryan.
This episode was produced by Megan Genovese and edited by Aaron Shapiro.