Tales From the Arts World: Women Who Bully Women

A woman joins a group of writers of a TV show. The woman who recruited her then tries to destroy her.

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Editor’s Note: This article is written by Anonymous — not to be confused with the Anonymous who published an op-ed in The New York Times last week informing the planet of what a catastrophic mega-disaster is the amoral and treasonous presidency of Donald Trump, as if that constituted a newsflash. Rather, this Anonymous penned the article for Daily Review, the Australian content partner of The Clyde Fitch Report. Given the subject, it seemed timely for our stateside readers. CFR rarely, if ever, runs unsigned stories; we have not asked the editor and publisher of Daily Review, Ray Gill, for the person’s identity.

A well-employed writer, I was seduced into a brainstorm for the third series of a television drama. This would require two or three separate weeks and involve sitting in a room with four other writers, the producer and a note-taker, and improvising a broad-stroke story arc for a new series, building on the strengths of the previous ones. If all went well I would most likely end up writing for the series.

The fundamental understanding of a professional brainstorm is not unlike those TV improv shows. A bunch of hopefully talented creatives enlist their imaginations to build on, develop, twist, revive or improve the suggestions of those around them in a creative free-for-all. Blocking or condemning other’s contributions saboutages the adrenaline of confidence that is the brainstorm’s rocket fuel.

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To preserve that confidence requires a self-imposed veto on self-consciousness. You cannot think through the value of your thoughts more than one or two stages ahead – because the flicker of your idea may ignite a much better one in your colleagues. Second-guessing yourself before you throw your hat in the ring will evaporate your courage. Instead, you argue your thought in the moment with the collective understanding that in trying to sell it to the room you may in fact make it work. There is an unspoken understanding that everyone is equally vulnerable and on a level playing field of self-exposure.

A stream of incomplete ideas has the potential to be transformed into something valuable with the quick flick of another’s brain. When the process works, it’s invigorating, collegial and inspiring — a kind of mental play-off not dissimilar to a basketball match. Although one person’s hands are on the ball as it goes through the ring, everyone knows it took the quick-witted dexterity of the team to slam-dunk it.

I was wooed with a fancy lunch to work on the show by an older female producer. She professed to be delighted in my joining the team and lunch was a relaxed, pleasant chit-chat about shows we all enjoyed and the excitement of the upcoming project.

A week or so later, I showed up for the first day. The other writers in the room were much admired by me. I felt in good company. The producer sat at the table and listened as one of the writers, who was central to the earlier series, started us off.

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It’s a strange feeling, the turning of the internal cogs, the switching on of the complex apparatus that extracts narrative turns, character traits and conceptual flourishes from the brain’s creative closet, opening genre-drawers that may be useful (crime, political thriller), slamming closed others (romantic comedy, family drama, fiction). As words fly about the room, certain pieces of the story land with the certainty of a perfect-fit. But there are gaps everywhere, silences descend momentarily before one of the writers heroically breaks it. Some ideas are met with a heavy pause, the contributor feels the sink of the heart, tries to push away the flicker of blossoming humiliation, and then another writer takes it up and with one generous, creative act of mouth to mouth, saves it.

Ideas swerve from the macro (the entire planet of this series: its topography and population) to the micro (“what if they bump into each other in a lift?”). A series of algebraic sums are planted with a key “X” or “Y” or “Z” missing. We know where we want to start and finish but not how to get from A to Z. Instinctive thoughts sometimes prove to be gold, other times there is the realisation that instinct is born of cliché. Our minds have been encouraged to think along standard narrative paths and we have to find a way through those blueprints to the deeper, more original trajectories.

I’m a confident writer but something is amiss. Within an hour, I have the vaguest sense of unease. I begin to chart the reactions of the producer, who greets every one of my suggestions with an immediate dismissal. I reassure myself that she is tough, she has had to be to get anywhere, and that it’s not personal. I go home that night feeling insecure in a way I haven’t for years. I’m surprised I’m this vulnerable.

All night, her belligerent tacit criticism wears away at me. She’s right, I think to myself. I’m hopeless at this. I’ve arrogantly believed myself qualified but I’m actually very mediocre. Everyone else in the room is more experienced and brighter. I’m a disappointment to everyone — how could I have missed this? I had better find a way to redeem myself.

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By lunchtime the next day, the sense of her disrespect for me has begun to change the air in the room. The comforting thought that I’m paranoid is losing its case. I can feel the other writers subtly try to defend me, or soften her blows — the collective intent a clear indicator that I am either the dunce or the fall-guy.

An expert witness is brought in to talk to us about the series’ subject matter. This woman is highly intelligent, very articulate and experienced. She is a window into the world of the series and I find her knowledge thrilling. I ask lots of questions, mainly about the psychological aspects of the people she describes and she seems very happy to answer. Whenever I ask a question, the producer — who I should add is confusingly intelligent as well as experienced — rolls her eyes in a pantomime of sit-com frustration or sighs audibly. At one point, she interrupts my question to say “Let’s just hear what X has to say, shall we?”

I’m clearly asking too many questions. But wasn’t this a brainstorm? Isn’t the point to look around the edges of the story and find unexpected triggers? Aren’t we trying to harness information and filter it through our creative brains, whose ways and means are not streamlined or formulaic? Isn’t the point of an expert witness, to fire us, elucidate the truth so that we can extrapolate and write a fiction with authenticity? Who is she to tell me what will be useful? Who is she to put fences around my questions when she cannot know how the most indirect question can travel, quietly, insistently, into the heart of the drama?

Hour by hour, the producer becomes more vocal in her irritation with me. What starts as frustration (which I automatically excuse as an appropriate response to my inadequacies) segues into visceral dislike. My body starts to register childhood experiences: feeling trapped inside humiliation and not having the power or opportunity to escape. I make my way to the bathroom where I cry uncontrollably. The tears spill as if they have been stored in a reservoir, whose banks have blown. I call my boyfriend, who, astonished, tells me to get in a cab and come home. But I am determined to acquit myself of the initial week I signed up for before resigning.

Ghastly group lunches must be stoically got-through, my stomach scrunched in tension. I put enormous energy into appearing calm and professional but I am internally replaying all my successes, certain that this producer can see flaws in me I’ve been blind to. My confidence, once a robust reserve of optimism and energy, has dwindled to nothing. I don’t dare to hope it will return — instead I put all my hope into the countdown of hours until I can be free, longing for the long drive home.

All night I feel her malevolence seep quietly into my other projects. I begin to doubt my capabilities across the board of my creative life. A tiny hand grenade of malice has been thrown into the mental storeroom where stories half written, planned or completed sit in joyful anticipation of some kind of public life. I am shrinking.

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Day three, I am liberated by silently resolving that I will not continue beyond this week, I find myself making useful suggestions in the room, which the other well-intentioned writers (humiliatingly) amplify to try to steer the ship back on course. But when I describe a character in the first series as “enigmatic”, the producer’s eyes expand in horror and she screams the word at me over and over again and then berates me for denigrating the work of the other writers (despite the fact they agree with me). Her strategy of “divide and conquer” is brilliantly applied. She praises not to reward good ideas but to belittle those excluded. She plays favourites. She moves malevolently from mealy-mouthed (“This is all about you guys”) to control freak (“No, no, no! That’s a TERRIBLE idea”) in a manic dance of strategic rug-pulling.

I have always been rather dismissive of “workplace bullying” — the term itself a cliché. I’ve never understood how grown-ups can’t just stand up for themselves, no doubt a product of having rarely experienced a “workplace”. I feel guilty at my sudden eruption of sympathy, born of new understanding. There are success stories, presumably in every industry, who have cultivated ways of working that embellish their own egos, who create useful identities (“She’s tough”, “She’s no-nonsense”) to preserve their own status. And I am newly aware that our professional identities are sometimes fragile constructs which mask the hairline fractures in our egos.

After finishing the week, a number of writers spoke to me of their own experiences with this woman, her shattering effect on their confidence and their slow realisation that the traits she had encouraged as personal public relations (“tough”, “takes no prisoners”) were actually psychotic. Her ability to get things made was no doubt due to having a retinue of underlings or colleagues who played good cop well enough to hold onto the creative personnel for the duration of one of her shows. Or the process of intimidations that she had honed to a personal sport had bought her decades of subservience.

Is this why Australia has yet to produce the searingly compelling, disruptive television that the UK and America is routinely producing? Are our writers (and audiences) being short-changed by producers who cannot or will not relinquish control or cannot tolerate vesting more power in the mysteries of writers’ imaginations?

It has taken me some time to get over it, not least for the shocking express ride into childhood that she provided. For the first time in many years, I felt what I have always known, that the child we were is very near the surface of our adult lives and that our experiences are always vulnerable to that child’s unresolved fragility.

And that’s all very well. But how is it that a woman who came into her professional life during the volatile charisma of the feminist movement be such a woman-hater? Perhaps at the time she established herself in the film industry, she believed, rightly or wrongly, that you had to behave worse than the worst man to survive.

Happily, generations behind her, the feminist message I grew up with was articulated as confidence and freedom. And the understanding that real creativity blossomed with benevolence and faith rather than the self-protective armour of bitterness. I think it has furnished me with a good working life with kind and generous friendships born of creative endeavour. I don’t think that’s true for her. That’s a great thought, hold onto it.

This article was first published on Daily Review, the CFR’s Australian partner.