We Need Women of Colour in Our Writing Rooms
What it's like for a New Zealander being a "triple threat minority" in Hollywood—an immigrant woman of colour.
Thanks to another mid-week morning crawl through Los Angeles traffic, I’m late to my first writers-room for a massive new cartoon franchise.
Being late to write for the big leagues is stressful enough, and there’s an added edge knowing what the room will probably be like. As I fumble my way out of the Uber and to the back entrance, I see a woman in the cafeteria. “I’m here for the writers room today,” I say, and she blinks at me.
“Down the hall,” she replies and points. “The room with all the men.”
It’s not a new phenomenon for me to be a statistical outlier. Growing up in small town New Zealand, I was affectionately called “token” by my friend group. But in a place like Hollywood, things really ought to be different. Shouldn’t they?
I walk in the door, and I’m the only woman in a room full of men. Again. And I’m the only woman of colour in the building.
"My place in the industry is worth fighting for. To make impactful, truthful stories about our global human experience, the industry needs us.
My first days, weeks, and months in Hollywood were filled with men pointing out to me that screenwriting was a “male career” or a “boys’ club”, to say nothing of the genres that interested me: horror, gaming, animation. Like the stock-standard story of the “gamer girl”, I was either a revered unicorn, or ridiculed. How was I going to thrive? I was told to expect being an outsider, fetishised, and often in danger. It was taken for granted that the small pockets of women screenwriters in the industry would be at each other’s throats for the proverbial scraps. The whole thing was terrifying.
But in reality, our experiences as women of colour are important. My place in the industry is worth fighting for. To make impactful, truthful stories about our global human experience, the industry needs us.
The Women in Film website homepage features the harrowing truth about the statistics of women in Hollywood. Females make up just 11.8 percent of screenwriters working in the world’s leading entertainment industry. If you look at just women of colour, that percentage looks abysmal. I’m an anomaly.
It may not seem like a big deal that women of colour in the writing room are under-represented. But when you consider that media is how we tell our stories, our children’s stories, our society’s stories—this is a problem. People will argue endlessly about affirmative action being “liberal hogwash” or that I’m missing the point about entertainment being all about the bottom line. But can we really believe that the media—the world’s window into itself—doesn’t have a larger impact on the way our society thinks and acts?
"These troubling paradigms about what a woman, or woman of colour is capable of—or worth, seep back into our social consciousness and end up systemically teaching women they are capable of less than they are.
This is how we continue to see half of all minorities on television shows represented as terrorists and criminals. How we are shown tasteless Pepsi ads that suggest institutionalised violence against minorities can be treated with a cold beverage. And how we are left half-heartedly championing movies like Wonder Woman because at least they feature a female superhero, ignoring the fact that we’re still fed a narrative where our goddess needs a man to educate and keep her safe in London. These troubling paradigms about what a woman, or woman of colour is capable of—or worth, seep back into our social consciousness and end up systemically teaching women they are capable of less than they are.
It’s one thing to have women and women of colour portrayed this way on big screens, but imagine the impact of female portrayal on the small screen as well. I’ve sat in so many writers’ rooms for games aimed at 15-25 year old females, and been the only female screenwriter. Tradition means programmers—another male dominated career—usually write the narratives for the games themselves, so that popular new interactive story-app for girls you’ve heard of was probably written by an all-male crew.
As the “anomaly” in these rooms, I’m passionate about telling stories that reflect a more truthful female experience—stories that might even shed light on women’s lives and issues, or inspire. For the app Cliffhanger I’ve written on depression, beauty standards, bullying and spun the “romance” genre of storytelling apps on its heard when two teenage witches try out their spells on the high school’s most popular jock. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with the odd fluffy romance interactive story or dating simulator app, but when the only types of gaming apps for young women out there are centred around dating, I can’t help but feel who we are is being deeply diminished.
But maybe the tide is finally turning. For some companies there’s a growing focus on being sensitive to issues surrounding gender, sexuality, and identity. Stories are not just created for cis-gendered or majority audiences, but try to cater to every women. The complexities of female experience aren’t lost on them. Animation companies like Man of Action have approached me because of my unique voice as a woman of colour, in hopes to diversify their otherwise male-heavy writers’ rooms. While it’s daunting to be a ‘representative’, it’s also empowering.
I hope we’ll continue to see the tides change, and more inclusion encouraged in our writers’ rooms so that we can finally step out of the dark ages with the way in which women and minorities are represented in the media. For a society so far ahead in other ways, there’s really no excuse for the continued over-sexualization and de-humanisation of women in gaming, film, and television. I hope to be just one face among a growing force of women of colour who will tell stories about women; resilient, complex beings who deserve to have their voices heard.