It’s no secret that the entertainment industry has a lack of diversity and a lot of inequality, but a new report is shedding light on the representation problems within one rarely-discussed part of Hollywood: TV writing. On Thursday, March 14, the organization Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity (TTIE) released a report, "Behind the Scenes: The State of Inclusion and Equity in TV Writing," that highlights the lack of inclusivity in writers rooms by surveying those working within those rooms. The results are frustrating, disappointing, and all too familiar to some within the business, including TTIE-affiliated writer/producers Angela Harvey, Y. Shireen Razack, and Tawal Panyacosit Jr.
Harvey, a former filmmaker who has written for TV since 2012 on shows including Teen Wolf and Station 19, tells Bustle via phone that the report’s findings — which include, among other things, that 64 percent of diverse writers reported having experienced bias, discrimination, and/or harassment by members of their shows’ writing staff — are "not surprising" for her, because she’s "lived the experience." According to Harvey, she’s part of the 73 percent of diverse writers who reported having to repeat a title at least once; she was a Staff Writer on one show three times before seemingly being pitted against another female writer, who’d been on staff as long as she had, for a promotion. Instead, a new male writer got a three-title bump the following season.
Razack (Shadowhunters, New Amsterdam) who has been a Staff Writer on five shows over the last decade, says that while she always knew of concerns with conclusion, this study revealed the widespread nature. "We knew that there were issues," Razack says, speaking over the phone. "We knew that there were challenges. We knew that there were barriers. But we didn’t realize to what extent."
People’s discoveries of just how large the problem is is what prompted the report in the first place. "It feels like that’s why we needed to do this survey," Harvey says. "That’s why we needed to point out, ‘No, this isn’t an instant. It’s a system. It’s systemic.’ And that’s what I feel like the numbers are showing."
Other startling statistics from the wide-ranging report, which is a project between the Pop Culture Collaborative and Women in Film, include that 65 percent of POC writers reported being the only person of color on a writing staff; 58 percent of diverse writers say they receive pushback when pitching non-stereotypical diverse characters or storylines; and 58 percent of diverse writers claim their agents pitch them to shows only in ways that highlight their "otherness."
The study, which was sent out to writers in summer 2018, is eye-opening. From the findings on misconceptions about diversity hires to writers’ experiences with micro-aggressions, the report tells a disturbing story about the current state of inclusion in writers rooms. Hopefully, the report dropping amidst a season of new TV hiring will inspire some changes.
"A friend of mine often says, ‘With a great platform comes great responsibility,’" Razack says. "And I think one of the things that we need to be mindful of is the messaging that we put out there as TV writers as a TV industry… we are responsible for some of the divisiveness in our society. And I think we can choose to be part of the solution or we can choose to be part of the problem, and one of the reasons that TTIE was formed was to be part of the solution."
In addition to pointing out the problems in writers room inclusivity, the report also highlights the shows and films that, as it says, prove "authentic storytelling is not just good for society; it makes good business sense." Each of these projects utilize diverse talent onscreen and off to economically and culturally successful ends, from black-ish to One Day at a Time to Pose to Black Panther to Crazy Rich Asians.
Many of the writers involved in the study want to enforce the idea that diverse storytellers can be an asset to any story — not only those that directly correlate to one’s own experience. "Diverse writers are often viewed almost always as others and that’s the only thing they have to contribute," says Panyacosit Jr., who has worked in the industry three years. "When you have a black character, or a Chinese character, or a gay character, you need that black person, Chinese person, or gay person. But when you don’t have that, you don’t need them in the room."
Harvey adds that diversifying an industry can only enrich the storytelling come from it. "I think that there’s a trend toward color blindness, which looks diversity but is not. It’s stagnant," she explains. "I would love to see our stories become more accurate to who we are as individuals and more cultural accuracy in our characters onscreen and in the stories that we tell."
"Behind the Scenes" includes actionable recommendations aimed towards increasing the awareness and amplification of diverse voices within the television landscape. Several prominent industry members including Lena Waithe, Jill Soloway, and Joss Whedon have also signed an open letter supporting the study’s message, as problems as widespread as the ones plaguing the TV writing community take allies and collaboration — something members of TTIE are fully embracing. "We really would love to have partners in doing the work so that we can ultimately focus on telling the stories, the authentic stories onscreen," Razack says.
The report will hopefully have a huge impact, or at the very least, start some necessary conversations. After all, the study, says Panyacosit Jr., "was an important story that had to be told, so we’ve done it." And who better to tell their own stories than the writers living them each day?
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