'One Tree Hill' Alum Details "Frat House" Vibe in "Misogynistic" Writers Room (Guest Column)
Amid sexual harassment and assault claims circling creator Mark Schwahn, Stacy Rukeyser, now the showrunner of 'UnREAL,' remembers being called names, pleading to stop the installation of a hot tub and a lunch trip to Hooters while she was the only female writer for the show.
Bad behavior exists on a continuum. Now that we're finally talking about it, it's important to remember that rape is not the same as demanding sex in exchange for a job, is not the same as creating a hostile work environment in which women feel undervalued, afraid to speak up or in any other way disempowered because of their gender. And yet, at some point, all of this needs to be addressed, including work environments that are hostile in ways that have nothing to do with one's gender, and everything to do with a megalomaniac at the top and the outrageous behavior with which he or she is allowed to get away.
Showrunners wield an inordinate amount of power because they hold in their hands the hopes and aspirations of everyone who works for them. Most of us in this business have dreamt of a career in Hollywood all our lives — we would give or do anything to make that dream come true. And therein lies the danger — the empowered, malevolent individuals who will demand that you do things that are so beyond the pale. And if you refuse, if you make a fuss — there is a line around the block of willing souls who will gladly "suck it up" and take your place. This is a town built on relationships and reputation, and for women, it seems particularly easy to get a bad one.
I worked as a writer on One Tree Hill for two seasons. In my first, I was one of two female writers on staff. In my second, I was the only woman on staff with 11 men. This is a notable imbalance on any show, but it is particularly egregious on a show about and for teenage girls. To say it was an uncomfortable work environment would be an understatement. Showrunner Mark Schwahn created, from the top down, a writers room that I described at the time, perhaps naively, as a frat house — and that I now see as a misogynistic quagmire.
There were a few writers with whom I could commiserate, but all of us felt powerless to change the culture. I was so bothered by it that I subsequently wrote a pilot, a thinly veiled account of my time there. In the pilot, even the female friends of the protagonist warn her not to make a stink — not to be "that girl" who can't take a joke, can't hack the male-dominated culture. They admonish her to suck it up and make her way up the ladder so that she can at last come to a point where she can change that culture. That is what I have endeavored to do in my career. And yet, I often wonder, should I — could I — have done more? Especially when I think of the women who came after me, who seem to have had it much worse.
Despite my ability to "hang with the guys" and make it through two years on One Tree Hill, I was still perceived as somewhat of a buzzkill. I fought for truth in the female characters' storylines, and for a less oppressive level of discourse in the writers room. When the other writers decided on Hooters for lunch, I was faced with a daunting decision — do I "suck it up" and go along, so as not to miss out on any "work bonding," or simply laugh it off and let them go without me? I went with option C, and told them it made me uncomfortable (they went anyway, of course — "they have the best wings in town!"). I was ridiculed, harangued and called names. I was also the one who had to plead with Mark to stop one of our EPs from bringing over the hot tub that he was excitedly planning to install out back behind the writers' office. I'm sure Mark would say now, "It was a joke!" But at the time, I had to explain to these two baffled men how, particularly as the only woman, I might feel uncomfortable having to strip down to a bathing suit in order to break story.
As even a cursory glance at IMDb will tell you, no female writer lasted very long at the show. In my case, I broke my three-year contract after two years in order to get away. I burned a lot of bridges by breaking that contract. I also burned a lot of bridges by writing that pilot. Actions have their consequences.
But the bottom line is, I left. I kept writing. I found other mentors — male and female — who have been incredibly supportive. And now, I'm trying to do more.
What are the solutions? Hire women. Mentor women. Help them rise up to positions of power. And get rid of the idea that doing so will somehow diminish the fun you're able to have along the way. As any writer on UnREAL would tell you, it is quite possible to have a bawdy, R-rated, even outrageous level of discourse with smart, strong women in the room.
How can we make those smart, strong women less frightening to many of the men in America? By telling their stories. Letting viewers into their hearts and minds. Participating in the diversity of voices that are now, increasingly, being invited to the party. Change-making also exists on a continuum. And the truth is, it's time for us all to do more.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.