'Grey's Anatomy' Showrunner on Harassment in Hollywood: "It's Not Just Harvey" (Guest Column)
"This entire culture is complicit," writes Krista Vernoff, who co-runs the ABC drama with Shonda Rhimes. "If we make this all about Harvey, we've already lost."
Several years ago I was trying to cast a pilot. I brought two actresses to screen-test at the network. One was radically better than the other. But the other had a "build" the male network president found "sexier." The difference in the quality of the auditions was so extreme, that his top female executive couldn't bite her tongue. She said, "That's not how it's supposed to work. Actress number one hit it out of the park. It's not supposed to go to number two because she's the one you are more personally attracted to." This network president fancied himself one of the good guys, and she'd embarrassed him. He conceded and let me have the actress who'd earned the part, but that powerful female executive was fired without explanation within a couple of weeks.
There's a feeding frenzy in social media right now. People wanting to point fingers at those who have been "complicit" with Harvey Weinstein over the years. They are angry, understandably, and looking for specific targets. There are also those — as there always are — who want to point fingers at Harvey's female victims for not speaking up sooner. As if by sacrificing their lives and careers, they could have single-handedly turned the tide of systemic misogyny upon which this town is built. "Gwyneth has so much power! She should've spoken up sooner," they say, in the painfully naive belief that had Gwyneth spoken up sooner, she would ever have gotten so much power.
The sad and painful truth is that pretty much everyone in this town knew who Harvey was. I have had long talks with my most liberal friends this week. Did we know he was a rapist? We didn't. But did we know that for decades he has been offering actresses big careers in exchange for sexual favors? Yes, we did — and make no mistake, that is its own kind of rape. And did we all — or did any of us — refuse to do business with him on moral grounds? No. We ALL STAYED IN BUSINESS WITH HIM. I have never done business with Harvey but I can tell you with certainty that I would have — because I was recently approached by a film festival he sponsors. They asked me to submit my short film for their consideration and I did it without thinking twice. I am a dyed-in-the-wool feminist and a vocal one at that. And I have a nice career. I don't need my little homemade movie in his festival — it's not gonna make or break me. So why didn't I think twice? Because this entire town is built on the ugly principals that Harvey takes to a horrific extreme. If I didn't work with people whose behavior I find reprehensible, I wouldn't have a career.
The first time I interviewed for a writing job, I was 28 years old. I wore a dress I'd bought at Old Navy and I smiled with all the enthusiasm I was feeling at having gotten into the room. The male showrunner looked me over from head to toe for a long minute, then he said, "I liked your script. Did someone help you write it?" It was sickening. Profoundly offensive. Did I call him out? Did I leave? No, I laughed. I stayed. I interviewed for the job. Because that's what we do.
My second year working in television, I was standing in front of the dry erase board pitching a story to the room when my male showrunner asked me — in front of six male colleagues and one senior female colleague — if I'm good in bed. Everyone laughed — some uncomfortably. What did I do? I smiled, I made a joke, I shook, I pushed through, I pitched my story. The female colleague came to my office later and apologized. She said she wished she'd spoken up for me. She's the only one who came. And of course, because I had joked about it, I had "made it OK" for my showrunner. So he made several more suggestive remarks over the coming weeks. I finally "joked" that those were lawsuit comments he was making. I said it with a smile. He received it angrily and our work relationship was never quite the same. Because we pay when we speak up — even when we do it with a smile.
And these examples are minutia in this culture we work in, in this most liberal of towns. Every woman I know, every female colleague I have, has stories like these and worse. And we work within this culture so that we can amass some power so that we can have a voice. And those who don't do that — those who shout and scream "this is not OK" when they feel threatened or belittled (those women who DID speak out against Harvey BEFORE the New York Times piece) — they largely live on the fringes of this town. They don't get the power. They don't get the platform that the mainstream provides. Which is why it's particularly rattling when people point fingers at the powerful women who are now using their voices. "She's just trying to get her name in the headlines, jumping on the bandwagon" is misogyny at work because it ignores what these powerful women survived in order to get that power. And it ignores the fact that 45 is still in the White House despite the fact that a whole lot of women accused him of assault.
I get to put overtly feminist messages on a major network television program every week and tell my female-centric stories because I have largely played by Harvey's rules — the rules we all play by. The rules where we laugh off misogyny. The rules where Casey Affleck wins an Oscar despite the allegations. The rules where Woody Allen gets to marry his stepdaughter and still have a career. The rules where Bill Cosby doesn't get convicted and most of Hollywood stays silent. The rules where mediocre male directors get to fail up, but female directors get one shot (if they're lucky). The rules where actresses are required to be paper-thin and hungry all the time, and then get called crazy when they complain about anything. The rules where women aren't allowed to age in television or in movies, but men get to have lines in their faces and grey hair and "dad bods" and they are admired for it. And if you think I am conflating gender bias and sexual harassment — I AM, because it is the culture of misogyny that allows for both. A culture which openly pays women markedly less than their male counterparts supports the notion that women are literally worth less. That thinking quite easily leads to the idea that women can be taken against their will in hotel rooms like playthings, like property.
I hire a lot of women now. I stand up in the face of abuse now. I refuse to ask actresses to lose weight now. I have amassed just enough status that I get to insist that lists of approved directors submitted to me by studios are 50 percent female now. And I do these things in the hope that the next generation of women in this town won't all have stories like mine.
This entire culture is complicit. And I'm so grateful that we are finally having this conversation. I am so hopeful that this is a tipping point and that there is a chance for real change. Because at a dinner party last month, I met a smart and funny female writer who'd just had to quit a job she loved because a high-powered executive who's very close to Harvey — and making a lot of "shocked and pained" noise this week in the hopes of protecting his company — wouldn't stop cornering her in rooms and propositioning her. And everyone knows. Just because the Times didn't write an exposé on him, doesn't make it not true. If we make this all about Harvey, we've already lost.