Ideas

Ideas | Joanna Weiss

Why did #MeToo only catch on now?

 CULVER CITY, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Vanity Fair contributor Nell Scovell speaks onstage during the ‘Equal Means Equal Conversation’ at the 2016 Vanity Fair Social Club #VFSC for Oscar Week at PLATFORM on February 26, 2016 in Culver City, California. (Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Vanity Fair
Nell Scovell onstage during the “Equal Means Equal Conversation” at the 2016 Vanity Fair Social Club for Oscar Week.

Ever since Frances McDormand’s Best Actress speech at the Oscars, “inclusion rider” — a contractual way to ensure that productions hire more women and minorities — has become a Hollywood buzzword. For decades, Newton native Nell Scovell has been arguing for greater equity in the entertainment industry. But the movement didn’t find a national audience until recently. Why only now?

A longtime comedy writer whose credits range from “The Simpsons” to “Late Night with David Letterman,” “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” and the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, she was also the co-author of Sheryl Sandberg’s manifesto, “Lean In.” Scovell will read from her new memoir, “Just the Funny Parts” — about her years as the only woman in the room in Hollywood — at Harvard Bookstore on April 2. She talked to Ideas by phone about inclusion riders, #MeToo, and what it might take to bring about lasting change. This transcript has been condensed and edited.

In 2009, you wrote a piece in Vanity Fair about the hostile, sexually demeaning workplace environment on David Letterman’s show. It got a ton of attention, but it didn’t change the world.

You noticed.

So why did #MeToo take off now, and not then?

From the original Vanity Fair piece, there were two hopes. One was that they would hire more women, and to the smallest degree that worked. Within six months Leno, Conan and Letterman had all hired one woman. So, yay! We brought back tokenism! The second thing was, I really thought: Someone will investigate the situation at Letterman. I always say, I don’t want a witch hunt, but I do want a fair and judicious review of witches. In this case Letterman, on air, announced to the public he had sex with women — plural — that he worked with.

And people defended him for that. Even women. Barbara Walters.

One of the interesting twists of the Letterman case was that he was a victim of blackmail. And I think that changed the narrative. I certainly was sympathetic to him. I mean, that was a very disturbing story, but he ended up getting a pass for the underlying behavior.

Do you think #MeToo will catch up with him? I’ve wondered about that: the men whose behavior was outed before #MeToo.

One of the unfortunate parts of #MeToo is that you look at Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, and their transgressions were so grotesque that I actually worry that they’ve raised the bar — now, if a guy hasn’t raped a dozen women, we think he’s a gentleman.

Hollywood, like most industries, just has a terrible record for this, and I think #MeToo comes out of feeling like we have nothing left to lose. We’ve tried being silent and, quote, “playing the game,” and that’s not working. There aren’t enough women in leadership roles to make a difference.

Wouldn’t a television comedy be an especially challenging place to work? You have to feel safe to make jokes. You can’t be getting up in arms at every sexualized comment. This isn’t quite the same thing, but I think about Billy Bush feeling like he had to laugh at Donald Trump’s sexist comments because that’s the way the industry works.

I’m going to go a step further and say that there’s a reason that a Queens-born real estate developer chose to become a Hollywood figure: I think he was drawn to a culture that suited his inappropriate behavior.

So how do you square that, in a workplace setting like the writers’ room?

I’ve spent a lot of time on sets, and you know the difference on a set when someone walks by and brushes up against you accidentally and when someone presses up against you with intention. That’s the physical manifestation of harassment. In the writers’ room, I know the difference when someone brushes up against me and makes a sexist crack and when they’ve stepped over the line and made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe.

Over time has it become easier to speak out, or is it as hard as it’s ever been?

It’s easier for me now, because I’ve reached a level of standing, but it remains hard. In my last staff job, I was the only upper-level female on the show and there were four-upper level men. And, routinely, they would ditch me for lunch. Beyond personally feeling left out, what really frustrated me was they talked business at lunch. So they made it harder for me to do my job well. And I did approach them and raised the issue with the executive producer, and I believe he called me paranoid. So the answer to your question is: Yes, I speak up more, but no, it doesn’t make any difference. [Laughs.]

In that 2009 Vanity Fair piece, you encouraged comedy staffs to hire more women. And you had specific suggestions for increasing the candidate pool: post applications online, encourage repeat submissions. Now, after the Oscars, everyone’s talking about “inclusion riders.” How would they work in reality?

I’m on the board of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which is run by Dr. Stacy Smith — she conceived of the inclusion rider. What I love about the inclusion rider is it uses the fact that Hollywood is based on hierarchies, and it knows that these key players have persuasive power. Actors, financiers, directors — Frances McDormand — have enough power that when they sign on to a project, the same way Tom Cruise says, “You’ve got to let me put my Scientology table near the crew,” you can also say, “Oh, and that crew should not just be diverse by gender and race but also people of disability, people of the LGBTQ community.”

I have long believed that there is not a pipeline problem when it comes to women and people of color. I call it a broken doorbell problem: There are competent, capable women and people of color standing on the doorstep ringing the doorbell, and the door is not being opened.

It does seem to depend, as you say, on being adopted by the A-listers.

Right. And so far, Brie Larson has endorsed it, Michael B. Jordan has endorsed it. Frances McDormand. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — their company is called Pearl Street Films — were the first white men to endorse it. I hope a lot of others follow suit. I’d like to see David Letterman adopt the inclusion rider on his Netflix show.

The cynical journalist in me says that, in the same way that men with shady pasts will condemn David Letterman or wear a Time’s Up pin, maybe this is just a convenient cover. Or does that matter?

It’s OK to say, “Oh, we got away with this in the past but now we want to be part of the solution — and hold our feet to the fire. We’re not just going to give lip service, but we’re taking the next step.”

Joanna Weiss, a freelance journalist, can be reached at joanna.weiss@gmail.com.