'Grey's Anatomy' Showrunner Krista Vernoff On Hollywood Harrassment: "It's Not Just Harvey"
Grey's Anatomy showrunner, Krista Vernoff, on the horrifying harassment culture in Hollywood.
In light of the Harvey Weinstein news about his sexual acts towards women, including sexual assault and rape, women across the nation are speaking out against Weinstein and his disgusting behavior. However, the conversation does not and should not stop there. Millions of women have taken part of the #MeToo movement to show the world just how often sexual harassment and assault happens today and many others are looking for ways to actively end the rape culture and sexual assault. But, how did this happen? How did something that is so obviously horrible come to be so deeply embedded in our society? While that is an incredibly difficult and complex question to answer, Kristina Vernoff, who is the co-showrunner of the ABC drama Grey's Anatomy alongside Shonda Rhimes, has a thing or two to say about harassment in Hollywood. And yes, it is as disheartening as you think. But, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The conversation does not and should not stop here.
In a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter, Krisa Vernoff wrote down several personal experiences that dealt with sexism, where women not only had to play by Harvey's rules, but they had to laugh along as if they were part of the joke. The first story opens up the conversation, in which Vernoff recounts the power of a male network president.
"Several years ago I was trying to cast a pilot," Vernoff writes. "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."
Vernoff then reveals why women and even powerful celebrities have been afraid to speak up about Harvey and his actions.
"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," Vernoff writes. "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."
Vernoff spells out the ugly truth about women working in Hollywood. If she wanted to continue having the career she wanted, she would have to play by Harvey's rules.
"The sad and painful truth is that pretty much everyone in this town knew who Harvey was," Vernoff writes. "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 an horrific extreme. If I didn't work with people whose behavior I find reprehensible, I wouldn't have a career."
Vernoff recalls an interview where the male showrunner liked her script, but was then inspired to ask her if anyone helped her write it, as if she couldn't do it on her own. Despite this, Vernoff interviewed for the job without calling the showrunner out. Why? "Because that's what we do," Vernoff writes.
Then in her second year of working in television, Vernoff was pitching a story to a room of her mostly male colleagues when things went horribly wrong.
"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," Vernoff writes. "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 okay' 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."
Vernoff makes it clear that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what women in the industry have to do to work.
"And these examples are minutia in this culture we work in, in this most liberal of towns," Vernoff writes. "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 okay' 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."
Vernoff believes it is her duty 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.
Vernoff hopes that the changes she has made in Hollywood will inspire the next generation of women in the industry to change the narrative.
"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," Vernoff writes. "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."
Despite all that she and countless of other women in Hollywood have endured, Vernoff is hopeful for our future so long as the conversation continues to spread.
"This entire culture is complicit," Vernoff writes. "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.
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