Hollywood's Diversity & Inclusion In TV Is An Illusion
A response to Brittani Nichols' thread about WGA TV writers working at MBA minimum and how that impacts writers of color, and a reflection on Hollywood's "Golden Age" in TV.
Brittani Nichols, writer on Abbott Elementary, tweeted this on March 16. Read the entire thread. On full display here: the concrete ceiling for People of Color and other marginalized folks, and how white supremacy is upheld by economic discrimination.
A Golden Age of TV, this is not.
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I keep being told over and over that if I want to succeed in the entertainment industry that I should be in TV, as a staff writer or as a director. They argue that even though maybe it’s not the most interesting job, at least I’d have a good pay check for a few months. It’s the Golden Age of TV, after all!
Notably, the people who tell me this are usually men who are well established and are beyond the producer level on that WGA breakdown. I tell them, nah, I’m good. I’m good over here doing my own thing, writing, directing and producing in the indie feature film space, not living in LA (not even the US most of the time), doing what I need to live life - and happily so. Amusingly, my disinterest usually takes them aback.
The Concrete Ceiling
Through my work with Women of Color Unite, alongside the inimitable Cheryl L. Bedford, as Vice President and Co-founder of #Startwith8, the largest networking and career development program in Hollywood history, I am so keenly aware of how bad it is for People of Color and especially Women of Color working in the entertainment industry. Through statistical analysis we did ourselves with our 5000+ membership group in early 2022, we know that 44% of WOC working in the film industry leave after 10 years. Just over 10% of our members are in a union, and just to stipulate, being in a union means that you get access to health care plans and pensions. If you want to live, that’s where you need to be. Only 10% - let that sink in for a second.
Yet, even getting into a union doesn’t solve the economic disparity.
Brittani Nichols’ thread is the perfect anecdote of how this works. You finally get the (union) job, you get paid WGA MBA minimum wage with the vague promise of a promotion in the future. Three jobs later, you’re still being paid minimum wage. Meanwhile you are paying your representatives, you are paying Los Angeles rent, you’re miserable and can’t make ends meet, having to work a second job or give up on the job altogether.
And let’s also acknowledge how the ensuing frustration, desperation, competition and politics may lead to an incredibly toxic emotional landscape and workplace environment.
How To Make It in Hollywood as a Person of Color
It’s no different for TV directors. In the past, when it was mostly men in TV, when you got hired on a TV show as a non-union director, you would shadow once and you’d get paid for it. Next you’d get your own episode, get into the DGA, and you’d be off and running.
Shadowing today is nothing like it was like back then. I think the stand-out story I’ve heard is a Woman of Color director who shadowed 17 times - for years on end, and all of it unpaid. And shadowing “programs” are presented as wonderful opportunities! It’s like a pat on the head.
I’d also like to point out that I’ve had numerous generals with execs and producers who tell me I should participate in screenwriting contests, because if my scripts are good enough they will surely win, apparently obliviously believing that these contests are somehow meritocratic.
Except, so many screenwriting contests have been accused of having biased and inexperienced readers, giving racist, sexist, homophobic and ableist notes - and that’s just talking about the big, established contests, not the thousands of straight up scam contests out there. Thankfully, thanks to the efforts of Dani Milton, Julia Morizawa, and Via Bia, this is changing. But let’s be real, the majority of these contests’ main priority is raking in your hard-earned $$$.
Depressingly, it’s pretty much the same thing for “diversity programs” - if you’re one of the exalted ones that is selected for a program like this (8-25 a year out of an average of 4000-5000 applicants), most of these participants do not find a job with that company after the program has come to an end.
Diversity, equity & inclusion programs have become a good source of income for the industry and they have become an excellent tool for keeping people out. “Oh, you are a Black woman with a TV pitch? Why don’t you speak with our DEI officer!” (Whose department we don’t fund and does not have any greenlighting power, but we have a great internship/pipeline program!) Welcome to the dead end that are DEI departments.
When I have conversations with studio execs in DEI and corporate responsibility departments for WOCU about #Startwith8 (which, by the way, is free and has catered to nearly 1700 WOC in just two years), they ask me: where is the education element? I get that question even after I establish that the women that participate in #Startwith8 in some instances have 5-10 years of experience and are ready to just be hired. It’s an organic relationship building program, and we’ve had massive success. We trust our participants.
#Startwith8 is opening again for its 2023 cycle on Juneteenth. Join us, and help take barriers out of the way for marginalized people.
In one particularly offensive conversation, just last week, a white female corporate responsibility exec at a major studio was especially concerned about our lack of education, and that they focus more on the pipeline, suggesting that these experienced women should try to apply to their internship program. Yeah.
Language of Harm
Let’s take a moment to reflect how deeply steeped in colonialism the use of the word “pipeline” is. Dr. Joely Proudfit, a WOCU Native American/Indigenous Advocate frequently argues that we need to change our language, and has advised that, if it must be put this way, a better word to use might be “braid”: to braid marginalized people into a system that has traditionally left us out.
Similarly steeped in colonialism is the use of the phrase “Golden Age”: much like colonial expansion, it means riches for the few and oppression of the many - and you only need to look at the distribution of wages on that WGA breakdown if you think that’s a stretch.
The language Hollywood elite uses is often deeply colonialist and militaristic, both otherizing and dehumanizing in nature, and is particularly violent to people who are already otherized by society: marginalized folks.
The Infinite Ladder
Climbing the ladder like you’re supposed to does not work for us because they keep adding rungs. The assumption is always that we’re not educated enough, not experienced enough, not… whatever they’ll come up with enough, to fully participate and to be paid equally. And so, economic disparities are maintained, marginalized people have to leave the industry, and people “in charge” clamor they really want to combat the lack of diversity, but they can’t find anyone!
We are being made to fight each other like crabs in a barrel. We believe in their good intentions, that surely they want things to change too (because it’s what they tell us to our faces), but those WGA numbers, Brittani’s anecdote and all the other anecdotes, they prove one thing: upholding white supremacy through economic discrimination is the modus operandi.
If people are not consciously participating in upholding white supremacy, they are unconsciously contributing - they are an accessory. And it requires a lot of work on their part to undo that.
#BlackLivesMatter… But only when it’s convenient
And all of this is why I stick to the indie feature film side of things. Sure, it’s scary and unpredictable, but I have a lot more control over my own and my film’s destiny. There are similar pitfalls, but it’s a far more welcoming space. There are options and opportunities. You can find the players who share your mission and attitude and carve out your own corner.
When I see more and more of my peers wave their newly minted WGA cards on Twitter after being employed in writers rooms for the first time, I’d be the first to admit that it does make me doubt my stance on all this. It does look great, and I truly wish them all the best. After all, that WGA card does symbolize that you’ve made it, it symbolizes being set for life - supposedly. It’s an incredibly exclusive club, and it’s in human nature to want to belong. I’m not immune to that either.
But, I’m realizing that it’s far less glamorous to share, after having told the world that you’ve made it, that you are being paid WGA MBA minimum wage, have to give away a quarter of that to reps, and that you’re struggling to make rent. I’m not knocking anyone for wanting to be a part of that dream, and don’t want to discourage people from pursuing TV jobs if that’s what you want, I’m just acknowledging that things may not be as pretty in reality, as evidenced by those WGA numbers. And I also want to acknowledge and sympathize that it may be really disillusioning that the dream isn’t as pretty as we were made to believe.
So yeah… I’m good over here, until the game is changed for real. In the meantime, I’ll keep doing my part.
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Grim Reeper Diaries is written by Manon de Reeper.
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Thank you for writing this and outlining the problem of diversity initiatives in Hollywood so eloquently. I especially the idea of a “braid,” as well as your pushback on the idea that every diversity initiative has to be educational.