Creative necessity

Dana Goodyear at the New Yorker takes a look at “the purge” so far.

I’m calling it the Purge,” a friend who works in Hollywood told me, a few days into the post-Weinstein era. Off the top of his head, he listed half a dozen men in the entertainment business whose behavior, he hoped, would no longer be condoned. In the weeks to come, they started toppling, joined by others, in a seemingly never-ending cascade, the world’s longest domino trick. The morning-news anchor, the worldly talk-show host, the animation genius with the awful shirts, “feminist” men, liberals, tortured artists, moguls, icons, “bad boys,” funny guys, even the folksy curmudgeon from public radio: they are being fired; stepping down; awkwardly apologizing, engendering ridicule and pique; or defending themselves and inviting rage.

The self-important literary editor is another worth mentioning.

Goodyear tells a very interesting story about a writers’ assistant on “Friends,” Amaani Lyle.

The daughter of a touring jazz musician, she had grown up in a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles and attended progressive private schools, before studying film at Emerson College, in Boston. She was used to being the only woman of color in the room. “Friends,” then in its sixth season on NBC, was one of the most watched shows on television; being in the writers’ room meant a potential credit that would propel her career.

Lyle’s job was to write down what the writers talked about. According to testimony she gave later, several of them talked about anal sex, oral sex, “fucking,” “pussies,” “schlongs,” what color hair they preferred women to have, what size breasts, and how one of the writers had missed his chance with one of the show’s stars. They referred to a lead actress as “having dried branches in her vagina”; one writer “frequently brought up his fantasy about an episode of the show in which one of the male characters enters the bathroom while a female character is showering and rapes her.” They doodled offensive anatomical drawings, vocalized pleasure while pretending to masturbate, altered a calendar in the writers’ room so that it read “pert tits” instead of “persistence” and “penis” instead of “happiness.”

“I can’t even say I was offended,” Lyle told me recently. “That’s how steeped in the culture I was. It was such a ubiquitous thing that it would’ve seemed off to have them not do that stuff.” She didn’t want to change the dynamic of the writers’ room; she wanted to diversify the show’s all-white cast. At the time, NBC was openly referred to as “No Black Characters.” Lyle, whose previous job had been at “Kenan & Kel,” on Nickelodeon, pitched a story line involving an African-American love interest for Joey, the character played by Matt LeBlanc.

After four months, Lyle was fired, ostensibly for typing too slowly.

She sued for wrongful termination and racial discrimination and lost, but her lawyer went on pursuing a sexual harassment claim.

The writers didn’t generally dispute the behavior Lyle had described; instead, they made a novel argument, on First Amendment grounds, that their behavior was a “creative necessity,” indispensable to the making of a show about a group of unmarried adult friends. The raunchy patter, so long as it wasn’t directed at Lyle, was part of their job. An amicus brief, signed by Steven Bochco, David Milch, Norman Lear, Diane English, and a hundred and twenty-seven other writers, argued that “the process creators go through to capture the necessary magic is inexact, counterintuitive, nonlinear, often painful—and above all, delicate.” Self-censorship could damage their productivity.

That’s an interesting idea. But is it true? Is it credible? Is it really the case that one can’t write a good screenplay without musing about rape scenes for the female characters? Does that apply to everything? Do writers also need to talk without inhibition about fantasies of torture, genocide, lynching, enslavement, in order to write a good screenplay? How do we know they wouldn’t have been better writers if they had inhibited themselves that way?

A dissenting amicus brief, filed by a group of legal scholars, argued that the habits of the writers’ room “effectively maintained an exclusionary culture that systematically, if unintentionally, marginalizes female writers and writers’ assistants.” A First Amendment exception to sexual-harassment rules would “essentially sanction this form of exclusion in the entire television writing sector.” In 2006, the California Supreme Court sided with the writers. After that, the female television writer told me, Warner Bros. began triumphantly including Lyle’s affidavit in mandatory sexual-harassment training sessions: “It was used as proof that anything goes in a writers’ room, and there’s not really such a thing as sexual harassment in that context, because to be creative you have to be able to say whatever comes to mind.”

Some women do what it takes to avoid being fired, but they’re not all happy about doing it.

One female television writer in her thirties, who has worked in a number of mostly male writers’ rooms, said, “I’ve been told I’m very staffable because I’m fun. I can take a lot of abuse and still crack a joke.” When she started out, her representatives told her that, as a woman, she would need to climb the ladder rung by rung; she understood that, if she ever wanted her own series, she could not get fired along the way. On a show where the female creator had been fired for being “crazy” and “difficult,” she developed methods of self-preservation, inuring herself to the indignities—such as an executive saying, as he listened to her pitch a sex scene, that he was “getting hard already,” and her male colleagues telling her to take it as a compliment. She regrets passing her methods down, teaching other women how not to ruffle the men in charge. “I had a friend who was interviewing for a staff writing job,” she told me. “I gave her the advice to have thick skin and a light heart. I felt like such a betrayer of my feminist values. What I was saying was, You have to seem fun while being abused. Everyone wants to have a good time while at work.”

Other women just get out. That of course is one reason there are so few women making movies so it’s one reason movies are so male-centric.

Kim Masters is an investigative journalist at the Hollywood Reporter.

Hollywood, Masters says, has long operated like a men-only club. “This town is shot through with a culture of intimidation, boys having fun, going to Las Vegas, hiring hookers. They don’t want female colleagues anywhere near them. Women are not invited and not promoted. I remember Dawn Steel saying, ‘If only I could go whoring with these guys my life would be so much easier.’ ”

Still, Masters has been shocked to see how pervasive sexual harassment is, particularly at certain studios and agencies. “It’s not just one or two people,” she said. “It’s woven into the fucking fabric.”

Many of the perps still have no clue.

“My experience of coaching these people is that they really don’t see why what they did was wrong,” she said. “It’s a failure of empathy or of introspection. Or they’re just sociopaths, or they’re really stupid. There’s a range. I sit down with these guys one on one. I start by saying, ‘Why are we here?’ Some say things like ‘I was set up.’ ‘It was a witch hunt.’ ‘You should have seen what the other guys did.’ ‘She participated.’ ‘I’m a Christian.’ All these deflective things people say. They just don’t get it. The workplace is a sandbox where they play out their social stuff and their family stuff.”

Change is slow.

Wary of appearing unenlightened, companies are scrambling to put women in leadership roles. Amazon is reportedly looking at a number of female candidates to replace Roy Price. But, while it’s one thing to celebrate women moving into a few positions vacated by disgraced men, actual progress will require a change in policy at the studios and at the networks. Katherine Pope, a television executive in her forties, who insists on interviewing women and people of color when she hires directors, said that the situation is dire. Even at companies where women hold impressive titles, there are layers of white men with veto power above them.

White men who didn’t have to put up with years of bullying to get there.

8 Responses to “Creative necessity”