3:13pm PT by Elisabeth R. Finch
Former 'Vampire Diaries' Writer Details Harassment on Set (Guest Column)
I'm three minutes into a rehearsal on the first day of my episode of The Vampire Diaries when I notice an actor is missing. I immediately know something is wrong. Rehearsals simply don't go on without actors, and this one in particular is never late, never unprepared.
I stand quietly for a moment considering my next move. I'm the writer and on-set producer of this episode, so I know it's up to me to discreetly pull the director aside to carefully try and correct this mistake. I want to tell him straight out: "You forgot to include an actor in this scene. And he has to be here." But I'm a low-level writer. I don't have the experience or guts to be so direct.
Instead, I look at my script, bite my lip and walk a tightrope with every word I choose: "Can we include all the actors in the scene as scripted please? Maybe you have different plans I'm not familiar with, but I worry the plot won't make sense without him. ..." The director's face turns crimson with rage, his eyes dart around the room, quickly assessing how he can use the private space I've put us in to his advantage.
I immediately assume I've made some career-ending mistake, and I try to buy it back by apologizing. But he stares me down, spit forming in the corners of his mouth as he screams: "If I wanted to talk to a nagging cunt, I'd go home to my wife."
My arms instantly go numb; my feet feel nailed to the floor as that sentence hangs between us. Then he smiles, gently brushing his hand down my cheek and pinching it. Hard. He walks away, cool and collected as he asks his assistant to invite the missing actor to set. "Anything for our Finchie," he laughs. And I laugh back.
I laugh for every damn day of that shoot. Laugh through his lewd jokes about actresses' bodies and lingering hugs and clammy hands on the back of my neck, giving me massages I never want but allow anyway. I laugh and allow it because I don't want the reputation of being "that girl," because surely other people have it much worse so I should be able to handle this, because maybe just maybe my plaintive smiles give him permission, because somewhere along the way I internalized the misguided notion that this is "the price you pay" — because of a million reasons that all boil down to: I worked my ass off to get this job. I don't want to lose it. So I keep my mouth shut.
After the very last shot of my episode, I walk off the soundstages, out of earshot, and scream bloody murder into the dark Atlanta sky. Just as I'm done shaking and shouting and allowing myself to feel all the rage I denied myself for two weeks straight, I bump into my boss, Julie Plec. Over the course of my first season, Julie has become more than the showrunner, she's my mentor, my friend. But in that moment, she's the last person I want to see. I try to smile and hurry off to my rental car, but she can tell I'm shaken. She asks how the episode went.
"He was ... not nice. He said some ... not nice things to me. As a woman. But, hey, we got it done. I think we got what we needed." I try to soften it, make it seem like I handled it all. I assume she'll be proud of me.
Instead, she starts yelling. She tells me I was wrong. Wrong to assume that my job is to just suck it up and pretend it's fine. Wrong not to tell her on day one. In that moment, I understand she's not yelling at me. She is not shaming me. She is clear. And unwavering. And wants to be sure I hear every damn word when she says: "It is not your job to take abuse or accept unacceptable behavior because you're young and a woman. That is not your job." There is no judgment or blame in her voice, only strength and certainty. And it's because of that strength and certainty I hear her, I believe her. I nod, thank her perfunctorily. And then I walk away. When my hands put my keys in the ignition, I notice they aren't shaking anymore.
* * * *
There is nothing unique about the harassment itself that I endured. The ever-growing fierce choir that's risen up in the last few months has made it clear: No woman in any industry is immune from sexual harassment and abuse. The long line of #MeToo's that follow every allegation has become so ubiquitous, we're now engaged in a dangerous pattern: A woman accuses a powerful man of harassment or abuse. We feign surprise. And then we sit and wait for the chorus of "MeToo's" to say that man harmed them, too, thereby validating her story. What was unique was that I was listened to the first time. Believed the first time. And, therefore, there was no "next time" for me at this director's hands.
It's no coincidence my "MeToo" was managed so effectively. My boss was a woman. While the Michael Hanekes and Liam Neesons of the world cry "witch hunt" and Terry Gilliam equates the "silly" #MeToo movement to "mob rule," it's women, by and large, who are harnessing their power to hold influential men accountable for offensive, illegal, violent acts in the workplace. It's women who are creating organizations to protect and defend the most vulnerable women — not just the white, cisgender, abled or famous women making headlines.
It's women who launched the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, which creates access to and subsidizes legal support for victims of sexual harassment and abuse in every workforce.
It's African-American women voters (98 percent of them, in fact) who worked tirelessly to prevent an accused pedophile from taking an Alabama Senate seat, despite having their voting power continually taken for granted. It's more than 150 female athletes who gave scathing testimonies to convict their sexually abusive doctor whose "treatments" they endured while chasing their Olympic dreams.
And as infuriating as it is that women are expected to clean up these messes men make, they are creating a generation of women in the workforce who are not only clear on what constitutes abuse, but who also have the agency to fight back. They're taking serious, swift action instead of watching their pain slip silently through the cracks — and they're doing it all while running corporations and governing and cleaning hotel rooms and creating multimillion-dollar episodes of television.
"After the #MeToo wave began, I made it clear in my office that no complaint was too small to be brought to me directly," says Plec. "I opened the proverbial door in hopes that everyone who worked with me could and should feel comfortable approaching me with anything on their mind."
But the solution isn't simply to put more women in charge (as much as I would like it to be). That's not only reductive, it's also not a guarantee. Plec admits, "A young female employee approached me about an incident that happened several years back on my watch that had made her feel uncomfortable. After doing a lot of digging, I learned that she had done everything right in terms of reporting the incident, and yet the team in place had basically done everything wrong in terms of any kind of follow-through. The incident itself (inappropriate comments and flirting from a Power That Was) while barely a memory in anyone else's mind, left her feeling betrayed. Everyone I approached about it said, 'Oh, I thought so-and-so was handling it.' And it never got handled. As it finally got handled, three years later, I made it clear to each person involved where they had failed as leaders or failed as men. It was revelatory for all involved."
Putting more women in positions of power is a start to creating safer, more balanced work environments where everyone has the right and ability to be heard; however, without men's equal commitment to examining their own behaviors, mistakes and failed protocols, how far can we really go? What good is every woman in the world speaking up if men won't listen, believe her and take action? Julie — and every powerful female boss I've had since — doesn't need to be a woman to prioritize the safety of her employees over any one man's ego or financial bottom line. She just has the power — and willingness — to do so.
* * * *
A month after my episode of The Vampire Diaries wraps, Julie emails to invite me back for the next season. At the end she writes: "I promise never to put you in the same room with [that director] ever again." She never did. She didn't know a fraction of the abuse he handed me. She didn't know he called me a cunt on more than one occasion — or about his hand on my thigh while telling me how much better a writer I'd be if I had more "life experience." She didn't need to know it all. Because what I did say was enough. One time was enough. One story was enough.
One woman is enough.
[Editor's note: Finch did not lodge a formal complaint at the time of the incident. The director, whom she declined to name, did not work on The Vampire Diaries again.]
Elisabeth R. Finch is a TV writer whose credits include True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and Grey's Anatomy. She has written guest columns about her experience having an abortion while undergoing chemotherapy, how she was wrongfully diagnosed, how Friday Night Lights helped her fight cancer and how she'll always put health before work, among other topics.