HUMANITAS Woolfpack Member Veena Sud Calls for Systemic Change to Increase Diversity in the Industry
When I started writing TV in 2002, I was mentored by a good man and later hired by a great woman, neither of whom viewed this woman of color as a charity case but as a writer, plain and simple. I was wildly lucky. Fellow writers coming up at the same time were not as fortunate. In just one example, a friend of a friend—in an all white male writers’ room—found herself, one afternoon, the target of a curious parlor game called “F*ck, Marry, Kill”. Each of her colleagues took turns deciding which activity he’d do to her, were he to have the opportunity. She kept her mouth shut, as we all did. To have done anything else would cost a job, quite likely a career. Our fears were not unfounded, proven by the many torpedoed careers in Harvey Weinstein’s wake. Thanks to those brave women who put it all on the line so that others may speak their truths. It’s about damned time.
Before resting on any laurels, however, let’s be clear: our industry is still in the Stone Age. Writers’ rooms are still mostly white and mostly male: 80% of showrunners are men and an appalling 91% are white, making our industry look more like some alt-righter’s wet dream of a MAGA Fatherland than the real America.
Contrast that with the real America, where in less than a generation, so-called minorities will constitute the majority of this country, and women will continue to outnumber men. Our industry has failed miserably to reflect the real world, both in front of and behind the camera. We remain mired in old ideas and old ways, fueled by the lack of representation not only in the rooms, but in the executive ranks, in the studios, in the agencies, in the media that covers our industry, in the entire ecosystem of Hollywood. Writers can pitch a show but unless it’s greenlit, unless it’s packaged, unless it’s recognized, unless it’s given the same fair shake as shows featuring white male protagonists, it dies on the vine.
What #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo demands is not only an end to sexual assault in all its forms and the blatant disregard of artistic achievements of people of color, but much larger, systematic and foundational changes. Weinstein’s abuses are but one fungus incubated in a petri dish where other less colorful, but no less rank, organisms teem.
The dismal number of women directors helming shows is one such example. Almost like clockwork, a “report” will surface that a certain female director I am considering is “difficult”. Upon further investigation, the qualities that make her “difficult”—headstrong, mono-focused, commanding—are qualities that are 1) expected of directors and 2) admired in her male counterparts. Further inquiry reveals that her episode turned out fine, “great” in most cases. So what’s the f*cking problem? Yet still it takes a Herculean battle to make these hires stick.
Kudos to Ava DuVernay, Melissa Rosenberg, John Ridley and others who fight passionately to make women directors and directors of color a real presence on their shows. It remains the exception to a still customary rule.
This is why diversity is an imperative. Not a luxury, not a fad, not the banal task of “eating your vegetables”. It is the necessary act of leveling the playing field, considering those who are truly the best and brightest. It is simply opening the window to everything this world has to offer. There are over 118 million of these windows in living rooms across America. TV has that power to show who we are and who we hope to be. It’s time to push aside those musty drapes and let in some light upon the great and varied expanse of humanity. All those untold stories, all those unsung heroes.
Know this from the success of Black Panther: we are hungry—starved—to see, at long last, ourselves, our neighbors, our friends, our heretofore underrepresented fellow citizens as the protagonist, the hero, the point of the story and not the relish. The white male hero thing’s been done, ad nauseum. Surely some geniuses in the history of the human race were women, were brown, were black? Surely other people, besides white men, were impacted in the theaters of World War II? And how is it that falling in love is the near-exclusive province of white straight folks? We can do better than the one movie, the one series, or more often not even that. We must do better, and our audiences are demanding it.
Now, more than ever, our industry cannot tolerate bullsh*t (hats off to ABC for their recent cancellation of Roseanne, but what’s up with censoring Black-ish? Air the episode already). We must stand for something. I became a writer to grapple with the redemptive nature of love and justice, to illustrate the agony and the beauty of the everyday, and to laugh and weep and know, as I sit in my living room and look out that window which so many share, that none of us are actually alone.
I suspect many of you came to this town hoping for the same. What we do matters profoundly, especially now—which projects we create, greenlight, celebrate; whose faces and bodies and lived experiences we put up on our screens. Art matters in a way it hasn’t for a long time.
#MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite were the beginning. Let’s not let this powerful moment be a mere footnote in the history of our industry, of our time. Archie Bunker had his day. Today belongs to Lena and Issa and Donald and Gloria and Ava and Nahnatchka and the list goes on. Let’s make sure it gets longer.
We owe it to the women and men who weathered those writers’ rooms before us, who took the punches and never gave up, who never stopped writing, and never stopped insisting on their right to be there. They sat in those rooms so that one day, the rest of us could lead them.