LOS ANGELES: When writer and producer Stacy Rukeyser suggested featuring a female venture capitalist looking for a husband on the Lifetime television drama Unreal, network executives asked if she could turn the character into someone with “a much more traditional, demure sense of femininity”.
“I got the request ‘do you think we could change it? Maybe she could be a kindergarten teacher,’” Rukeyser said at a recent Producers Guild of America conference.
She resisted and she prevailed. Like her, an increasing number of women in Hollywood, boosted by the #MeToo movement, are starting to exert influence behind the TV camera and to break on-screen stereotypes.
Nearly a year into the #MeToo movement, networks are mandating women in the director’s chair, studios are running mentoring programs, and actresses are insisting on producing roles to have more control, according to early evidence and interviews with more than a dozen industry players.
“We are amplifying the voices that have never been allowed to soar in our culture,” said Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of the Women and Hollywood blog. “That is going to make our culture, our TV shows, our movies, better and stronger and more relevant.”
#MeToo and the Time’s Up campaign emerged in response to accusations of sexual harassment and abuse by powerful men in Hollywood starting last October. But it also spotlighted the lack of women shaping female characters and storylines.
To help change that, Susanne Daniels — the global head of original programming at Alphabet Inc’s YouTube — told Reuters she requires that all of the platform’s original series employ some female directors each season.
In the past, she had to fight, calling and demanding that producers hire female directors, often meeting resistance. Since the #MeToo movement began, they have been more receptive.
“I’m finding I have to fight a little less hard,” she said.
Producers often argue that there are too few experienced female directors to choose from. Comcast Corp’s NBC moved to increase the talent pool with Female Forward, an initiative that lets women shadow a director of an NBC show and direct at least one episode.
There is early evidence that the gender diversity push is making a difference. Fourteen of 42 drama show pilots ordered by broadcast networks in the spring were directed by women, up from just one last year, according to trade publication Deadline Hollywood.
And producers are seeing interest in more complex female characters, with writers relishing the freedom to depict women outside stereotypes, said Nina Tassler, the former head of CBS Entertainment who started a production company aimed at telling stories from diverse voices.
“Having a great female villain is as interesting and as important as having a heroine,” she said.
A long way to go
Still, the consensus is that Hollywood has a long way to go.
In the 2016-17 TV season, women filled just 28 percent of behind-the-scenes roles such as creators, directors, writers, and producers, according to San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Forty-two percent of speaking roles were female.
Both figures are roughly unchanged from four years earlier. Full data on the upcoming fall season are not yet available.
Actress Alison Brie, who stars on Netflix Inc comedy Glow about a group of women wrestlers, said it is refreshing to work on a show with two female showrunners, several female directors, and a cast of diverse women and multi-dimensional characters.
But when she’s not filming Glow, the Golden Globe-nominated actress finds the range of available roles disappointing.
“A lot of the characters I read are unflawed, really likeable gals, with lots of gumption,” Brie said at a Netflix event. “They really want a man in their lives, and that’s their biggest goal.”
Brie said she is responding by joining future projects early in development and asking to work as a producer, a role that typically affords more creative input.
“In theory, it will empower me to make sure the characters I’m playing are a bit more well-rounded and compelling,” she said.
Rukeyser said Lifetime executives came to embrace her vision for the feminist character on Unreal. A Lifetime representative did not respond to a request for comment.
She also told Reuters that she and others are promoting the social media hashtag #ShowUsYourRoom, in a push to provide visual proof of diversity in writers’ rooms.
Although too early to declare victory, she has seen the beginning of change.
“I have pitched shows in the past where executives will say ‘it’s too female,’” she said. “I don’t know that any one of them would have the guts to say that today.”