It was Thanksgiving 2015. We were home for a much-appreciated break from trying to break into Hollywood; so far we had amassed a successful YouTube channel and the possibility of a lot more. While out shopping with our respective moms in New York and Florida, Gaby saw the news first. She immediately texted: “Our show is dead.”
Had the network passed? Had an executive been fired? Nope. It’s a different type of classic Hollywood story. Porn star James Deen had just been accused of rape on Twitter by his ex-girlfriend, Stoya. Porn star James Deen was also the third lead in our scripted half-hour pilot that was about to be green-lit for series. It was testing well with audiences. Execs assured us it was in the bag. We were cautiously, but extremely, on track to having our own show.
The news was devastating in multiple ways. We felt for this woman and the other women who would ultimately come forward with harassment claims against Deen. We also felt confused and hurt on a personal level; Deen wasn’t just a co-star to us, he was a friend.
And, of course, it was also devastating because we knew these accusations would have a domino effect on the people who worked with Deen—people like us.
We want to make this very clear: Losing a show is nothing compared to the agony of sexual assault or harassment. What we experienced is not even in the same category as the many brave women who came forward about Deen, and the women (and men) who have come forward in the past month.
That said, it’s a bizarre, painful thing for your career to be the collateral damage of someone else’s wrongful acts.
Here we were, two young, female creators about to star in our own show that we had written and produced. Within a few weeks, that opportunity had been ripped away from us with barely a second thought. Not because the network wanted to take a stand against sexual assault (the show wasn’t yet public) but because, we inferred, they wanted to avoid unnecessary drama and backlash.
We tried to fight back. Why not recast him? No one knew about his involvement in the show. We had our own following from YouTube—the show was really about us, anyway. “No,” they said. “The show is tainted. We no longer have the hook of showcasing a porn star’s crossover into mainstream.” It’s all about the headline, and a show starring two female best friends wasn’t enough. (Because you can apparently only have one of those on the air at a time, we’ve learned from many general meetings. And Broad City beat us to it.)
Within months, Deen’s career was back on track. There was initial backlash, but none of it stuck. He continued to make money and win awards. But we were back to the drawing board. The network refused to give us the rights to the show and wouldn’t let anyone watch the already-shot pilot. After two years, we are still not legally allowed to show it to anyone. Despite having sold three other shows since then, we have yet to have any make it to air or even into production. Sometimes it feels like we had our shot, and someone else blew it.
But don’t worry about us. We will have many more shots. Worry about the actual victims. And then worry about the hundreds of other women who are about to lose their jobs because their bosses, co-stars, and colleagues are sexual predators. Worry about Tig Notaro and Pamela Adlon, who don’t deserve to lose One Mississippi and Better Things because Louis C.K. forced women to watch him jerk off. Worry about Robin Wright Penn’s Claire Underwood—the true protagonist of House of Cards—who shouldn’t have to die with the stained legacy of Kevin Spacey.
Worry about women who work behind the scenes as line producers, sound mixers, assistant directors, and coffee-and-lunch-grabbing production assistants, who’ve had job security on long-running shows and who just want to come in, do their jobs, and get back to their families at night. Worry about the over-worked assistants who could become unemployed now that agents might finally get in trouble for harassing interns. Worry about all the productions that are about to be shut down because actual consequences for bad behavior are having a moment in the sun. (For now, this reckoning seems to be limited to Hollywood. We can only hope it one day reaches the White House.)
It’s complicated. Should these men lose their jobs and be stripped of their clout and dignity? Absolutely—sexual assault and harassment creates a hostile working environment, even if you’re not the direct target. And some of these men don’t just deserve to be fired, they deserve jail time. But how do we pull out the weeds without destroying the entire garden? Especially when many of these gardens are maintained and tended to by women who have never exposed themselves to a stranger?
This industry makes it nearly impossible for most women to make it without the help of men. We need someone powerful to vouch for us. (See: Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow.) We beg them to add their impressive name to our impressive work so it can get made. (See: Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore.) Just this year, our half-hour comedy procedural at YouTube Red failed to make it to series because we were unable to attach a famous executive producer. Our friend, a fellow female YouTuber, got to make her show because Mark Gordon was attached to it.
This is not groundbreaking news. This is how the industry works.
Hollywood has always been a Catch-22: We can’t trust powerful men, but we can’t move forward in our careers without them. We can try to exclusively work with women, but it’s an uneven scale and we’re set up to fail. There are maybe 10 women whose names hold the same weight as dozens of men. The entire system needs to be shut down and rebooted.
So what do we do in the meantime? The best answer we can think of is surprisingly simple: Let’s treat women with kindness and support. And not just the women who have spoken out, but the women who are learning, maybe for the first time, that someone in their lives is a predator.
James Deen was Gaby’s close friend for years, so she was especially shocked by the allegations against him. She had to reconcile the man she thought she knew with the man other women experienced. When the news broke, many of our fans turned on her, outraged that she had associated with an accused rapist. Months later there were still condemnatory comments about him on our YouTube channel even though we had deleted any trace of him from our social media. Gaby, a survivor of sexual assault herself, wasn’t just mourning the loss of a show and a dear friend; she was mourning the loss of her fans’ trust, even though she had done nothing wrong. We were guilty simply by association.
The same thing is happening now: In the New York Times piece exposing C.K., Notaro, his longtime collaborator, said she did not know about the allegations when they sold One Mississippi. When she found out, she said she felt “trapped” by her association with him.
Unlike our experience, many of these recent scandals were open secrets. Famous actors feigning shock are simply acting famously. But some accusations have taken us all by surprise. And no one yet knows where the trail will lead. People are finally listening, so it’s crucial for people to keep talking. But we all need to agree on where to draw the line.
We don’t have to burn down every project these predators touched because it’s the simplest solution. Instead, we should work together to reimagine them, recast them, and make them better than they were before. (Chances are these projects will not deeply suffer without the perspective of entitled, lecherous men.)
In her memoir, Bossypants, Tina Fey described her internal struggle when she wanted to get pregnant with her second child. It was right in the middle of 30 Rock and she knew her “selfishness” (i.e. desire for another child) would cause an entire production to shut down. She was consumed with guilt by the decision.
Imagine if these men had thought, just for a second, about the repercussions of their “selfishness” (i.e. rape, abuse, harassment). The world would be a much better place —and a lot of people would still have jobs.