I went to my first Atlanta Radio Theatre Company rehearsal in January 2004, to offer the group my skills and service. I thought, naturally, I would make my mark as a voice actress, and to some degree I have. But once I got a look at my first script for radio drama, I decided I would write for the company. That very week I started work on my first ARTC script, which became, in time, The House Across the Way.
The first draft had problems galore. I’d included a folksy narrator whose frequent interjections slowed the story’s pace to a crawl. Yet Bill Ritch, our leader, and other members of the company heard enough potential in it to encourage me. They helped me see I didn’t need the narrator at all. They coached me in writing instructions for sound effects and gave me suggestions I could use to sharpen my characterizations. Thanks to their guidance, the script grew better bit by bit, and the day I heard it performed was the proudest moment of my life up to that point. I knew I’d given the company something of value, and also that they’d helped me every step of the way to make the script the best it could possibly be.
I’ve had many such proud moments since then, all the culmination of the same process: I’ve brought an imperfect first draft to a rehearsal, the actors have read through it, Bill and others have helped me see where it’s strongest and where it most needs improvement, and I’ve worked on it until it’s just right. Each time I’ve gone through this process, I’ve been bolstered by their faith in my work. Their nurturing has helped me evolve into a better writer. Bill even helped put me in contact with Nancy Knight, who would become my agent and later my publisher.
I thrived at ARTC because I was welcomed and valued there. At no point was I ever made to feel I had nothing worthwhile to contribute. In my eyes, ARTC is what a creative community ought to be — an organization of mutually supportive individuals who respect and are respected by each other. To that vast, corrupt creative community of Hollywood, I find myself shaking my fist and shouting, “Why the hell can’t you be more like the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company?”
This past DragonCon I heard the story of how and why Gates McFadden, who played Dr. Beverly Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, was fired after its first season. It seems she went to her bosses to suggest that the show’s female characters could be better served by the storytelling, and rather than addressing her concerns, the bosses chose to ignore them. After I learned that, I couldn’t get one question out of my head: what if, instead of replacing her with Diana Muldaur (which ended up not working out), the men in charge had listened to her? What sorts of intriguing storylines might have showcased the female characters in ways that might have made them fan favorites? What memorable, powerful moments might they have been given?
We’ll never know. Her complaint was silenced. And since then, I’ve learned that this incident with McFadden was just one instance, a comparatively innocuous one at that, of a far-ranging system-wide silencing of women’s voices. Hollywood, it turns out, has an abundance of ways of letting women know that their concerns are not valid and their contributions are not appreciated. For skeevy producer Harvey Weinstein and his ilk, it involves treating the women who work with them as if they were living blow-up dolls, present solely for their gratification. For others it’s more passive — continuing to give work and even accolades to actors and directors with a history of undervaluing if not downright mistreating women (e.g. Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Mel Gibson, Casey Affleck). And for others, it means directly limiting the opportunities given to women: Cartoon Network Adult Swim’s head honcho keeping women out of the writing room because apparently we create conflict rather than comedy; DC Comics keeping known harasser Eddie Berganza on their payroll and “solving” the problem by not assigning female writers and artists to the departments of which he is in charge (he’s been fired at last — too little, too late); Matt Damon, on Project Greenlight, responding to a suggestion that a a woman and a man of color might be assigned to direct a certain project with the assertion that the place for diversity is in front of the camera, not behind it. How can aspiring female writers, artists, and directors fail to get the message?
What this means effectively is that, outstanding exceptions like Kathryn Bigelow, Ava du Vernay, and Patty Jenkins notwithstanding, control over Hollywood’s narratives — which stories are told, and how they are told — rests largely in the hands of men. Of course, quite a few men can tell women’s stories well and create fully actualized female characters, but those aren’t likely to be the kind of men who would participate consciously in a system that denies women a role in the crafting, not just the performance, of stories. Not long ago, I asked in this blog, “Why can’t more movies pander to me?” This was before the Weinstein story broke, and similar stories followed. Now, not only do I know why most movies don’t pander to me, but I find myself surprised that it happens at all.
In many ways, the current shake-up in the entertainment industry is the best thing that could happen to it. The curtain hiding the corruption has been lifted, and women who have been victimized and exploited by the system and the men within it are at last being listened to. In the long run, we may see considerable positive change. But systems that have been in place for decades don’t collapse overnight. We’ll see more darkness before the light breaks through. For now, men still control Hollywood’s narratives, and I find myself contemplating a boycott of movies starting next year. (This year, I admit, I still want to see Star Wars VIII, The Shape of Water, and The Breadwinner, and possibly Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.) I might come out for a well-reviewed movie with a female creative team, but otherwise I doubt that Hollywood as it stands now has much, if anything, to say to me.
And as with Gates McFadden’s situation, I can’t help wondering how much might have been different if brilliant women with stories to tell had been made to feel welcome by Hollywood, as I was by ARTC. Might we have seen both more and better woman-centered movies? Might the lines between “chick flick” and “guy flick” have over time become so blurred that they lost all meaning?
Might we have seen well-made, intelligent historical dramas detailing the lives of such women as Irena Sendler, Nancy Wake, “Stagecoach Mary” Fields, Mary Lou Williams, Sybil Ludington, Marie Marvingt, Katie Sandwina, and Isabella Bird?
Might we have seen top-notch big screen adaptations of Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Wild Seed and Sarah Zettel’s Fool’s War? Might the work of Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, as well as Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch and Zahrah the Windseeker, have been made into high-quality family films?
Might every year have brought a wealth of movies that pandered to me, along with every other movie buff eager to see girls in women in more important, complex, and varied roles?
Maybe not. Perhaps male-driven stories would still have dominated the big screen. But we’ll never know, will we?