How Underrepresented TV Writers Have Faced More Inequities During The Pandemic

A new survey of underrepresented TV writers found that last summer’s racial reckoning may have led to more opportunities — but not necessarily better ones.
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The COVID-19 pandemic and last summer’s racial uprisings created further challenges and complications for TV writers from historically underrepresented backgrounds, and progress has been incremental at best, according to a new survey from the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity, a coalition of underrepresented TV writers.

For the third consecutive year, the group conducted a wide-ranging survey of underrepresented TV writers in Hollywood, in response to a lack of comprehensive data about the challenges they face when trying to move up in the industry. This year’s edition of the survey also aimed to assess what effects the pandemic and last summer’s racial reckoning had on the work of underrepresented TV writers.

Overall, the survey, which included 1,226 working TV writers, found that most TV writers’ rooms now include more women and BIPOC writers. But disabled writers, LGBTQ writers and lower-level writers over the age of 50 remain severely underrepresented.

And across the board, underrepresented writers remain concentrated at the bottom, the survey found, indicating that Hollywood might be prioritizing “diversity,” but is not yet prioritizing “inclusion.” Most writers in the survey said that the people leading their shows did not come from underrepresented groups. This suggests that despite some signs of progress in the industry, not enough underrepresented writers are advancing in their careers or reaching positions of power where they can shape how stories are told and change the culture of the industry.

“This is a mountain, and we’re still at base camp,” TV writer and TTIE co-founder Angela Harvey said at a virtual event Tuesday introducing the survey’s findings.

Underrepresented writers also continue to face discrimination, microaggressions and a disproportionate share of career consequences for raising issues in the workplace, according to the survey. They were about twice as likely to be reprimanded or fired after speaking out against problematic content on their shows, compared to overrepresented writers.

Underrepresented writers were also nearly twice as likely “to have pitched ideas that were rejected, only to have another writer pitch the same idea and be accepted.” And more than a quarter of underrepresented writers in the survey said they “were ‘always or often’ talked over or interrupted” in the writers’ room.

The Effects Of The Pandemic

The pandemic and the subsequent shift to remote work and virtual meetings have created additional barriers for underrepresented TV writers, according to the survey.

Many writers reported feeling overworked and burned out but not being able to speak up about it. They also said they felt less heard in meetings and brainstorming sessions conducted over video conference.

In the entertainment industry, many job opportunities come from in-person networking, which largely stopped with the onset of the pandemic. According to the survey, “almost 40% of underrepresented writers attribute their first jobs to spontaneous social interaction and water cooler conversations,” so the lack of in-person networking opportunities could create setbacks for TV writers, especially those just starting their careers.

Finally, consistent with previous surveys, many underrepresented writers reported being sexually harassed or bullied in the workplace. TTIE’s report warns that “while overt sexual harassment may be harder to get away with following #MeToo and #TimesUpHollywood, covert forms of harassment and bullying are still prevalent in the workplace, especially with the shift to virtual rooms.”

Last Summer’s Racial Reckoning Led To ‘More’ But Not Necessarily ‘Better’ Opportunities

The survey’s findings also show that while last summer’s nationwide reckoning over race may have put renewed pressure on Hollywood leaders to build a more inclusive industry, the actual experiences of TV writers of color have been much slower to change.

Harvey said she has had more meetings with executives. However, she has found that they want stories about communities of color that “fit into a certain box” and rely on familiar narratives and tropes. TTIE’s report notes that “some writers feared that a push for inclusion over the past year has led to more underrepresented characters and storylines, but not necessarily ones that are more nuanced, complex, and better representations.”

Several survey respondents expressed caution and skepticism about the degree to which last summer’s racial reckoning will push the industry forward.

“Advocating for certain types of stories, for characters to have agency and more real estate, with directors, I’ve gotten a lot of lip service about telling certain stories,” one respondent said. “It doesn’t feel as progressive as I would have hoped. Or as genuine. Or like it’s going to continue.”

“You’re being told that stories about racial injustice... [were] really welcomed,” a respondent who identified as a woman of color said in the survey. “But then, when those stories were pitched or put on the board, they were kind of dismissed as being too racial or too on-the-nose.”

Another survey respondent said that when they tried to write a Black character for their show, their supervisors “were trying to ask me to make him more Black, meaning more stereotypically Black, without saying as much... I wrote him as a real Black kid, not a stereotype.”

TTIE’s founders said the survey’s findings demonstrate that hiring underrepresented writers will never be enough if the culture around them isn’t changing.

“Even if the numbers are improving, objectively, there hasn’t been enough work to change the culture and context,” said TTIE co-founder Tawal Panyacosit Jr. “Thus, we’re bringing underrepresented writers into a broken system.”

And the work of building a more inclusive Hollywood has to be intentional, not merely performative, they said.

“Writers’ rooms do very intentional research when it comes to things like, if you’re on a law show, you do tons of research on the law. If you’re on a medical show, you do tons of research on medical. But there needs to be that same intentionality in terms of research on culture and communities, and that’s not happening,” TTIE co-founder Shireen Razack said. “If we keep perpetuating the same stereotypes that we’ve learned from media, then nothing’s going to change.”

Read TTIE’s full report here.

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