Ever go on a rant amongst friends and deeply regret it after the fact, realizing that you should’ve instead just kept your mouth shut or watered down your opinion? Well, I did that last night and although with this post I don’t intend to water down my opinion, I am giving myself a do-over. A no-holds-barred, completely honest, articulate and lengthy do-over full of well thought out, personal accounts that had all of the context I was missing when I ranted last night.
The conversation had been about Hollywood – as I’m sure you’ve figured out by the title. We (<—me and my friends) all work in the entertainment industry so it’s often the subject du jour when we get together. My one friend works as a full time assistant and the other works as a freelance or part time production assistant. I am an independent producer. I’ve done a few posts that point out my reasons for leaving my corporate, day-to-day entertainment job and although I didn’t touch too much on my problems with the industry as a whole, I talked enough about it to give y’all an idea that it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. Well, with the conversation I had last night, I talked about my problems with how the United States (and maybe even the entire world) views labor as well as how that affects the way we work and the toxic culture that thrives in the entertainment, tech and news industry. I especially touched on the kind of jobs my friends were working (and that I had worked at one time).
I’ll break up this post into subject headings because it’ll help me to organize my thoughts better, to be honest. So let’s start with society and it’s view of labor.
TIME AND LABOR
Time is our most valuable resource. Whether you’re enjoying yourself for five minutes or having the worst five minutes of your entire life – it’s time that you’ve spent and will never get back. And in that sense, everyone’s kind of on equal footing in terms of how valuable our time is because nobody’s living forever and there’s no surety of when each of us are going to pass away. With that said, why do we have a society and labor force that says that someone can spend nine or ten hours of their life every day doing a job and still not have enough money to pay for basic things like food and housing? It’s one thing to be in financial debt but paying someone below a living wage for a job that takes up the majority of their daily life is like putting someone in a kind of time debt. It’s not possible to generate more hours in a day. And if you need more money, the only option is to use up what precious hours you have left to work another job and try to make up a decent paycheck. So many Americans are currently doing this and have done this for years in order to survive. And I think the worst part is that we’ve created a society that makes people believe that if you don’t work a “prestigious job” or a job that requires extensive education then you deserve to make below living wage.
Here’s the thing… we all can’t be doctors and lawyers and if a person wants their job to be their life’s purpose, that’s up to them. However, it doesn’t mean that those who’s passions don’t fall within the “prestigious job” category or those who are working for the sole purpose of paying their bills and sponsoring their lifestyle should be penalized. Not everyone’s passion is their work. Some people are passionate about their children or their gardens or their social life. Some people love bowling, reading, painting, building things, collecting items, travelling, dancing, etc. This is not even to mention the people who ARE passionate about their jobs but still can’t make a living doing it because it’s not in the “elitist’s list of acceptable occupations club” (social work, anyone?). Bottom line: if you work at Pizza Hut and just want to be a contributing member of society that’s able to buy a home and a car and go on vacation a few times a year then who’s to say you shouldn’t? Ultimately, classism and it’s inextricable ties with labor have created the idea that some people’s time is more valuable than others. But the catch is… it’s not. No one person’s time is more valuable than another person’s.
One of the biggest shockers for me coming from a working class household was the realization that the more money I made, the less labor I had to do and, in some cases, the less hours I had to work. For all of the shitty, minimum wage jobs I’ve ever worked – the physical strain and hours I needed to work in order to see a half-decent paycheck were endless. There were people who worked these nine to twelve hour per day, labor-intense shitty ass minimum wage jobs alongside me and still had to collect public assistance because it wasn’t enough for them to take care of themselves and their family. And plenty of people will say, “yeah, well they made bad choices” but at the end of the day, if they choose to work hard at a job – isn’t that a good choice? Shouldn’t that be rewarded? The fact that so many actually turn their nose up at people who suffer minimum wage jobs lets us know that job shaming has allowed us to internalize society’s fucked up view of what a person’s life is worth.
Which leads to my next point…
Along with status comes a certain level of respect that society says you should have. And if you don’t believe me, then go to work and slap your boss in the face. Of course, the very idea of this is laughable because not many would be stupid enough to do this. But there are plenty of people who have been physically or verbally abused by their bosses. Hollywood is gaining notoriety for this – particularly sexual assault. A person who slaps or verbally intimidates their boss would be afraid of being fired (losing their livelihood) AND possibly being hit with criminal charges. Why doesn’t that work the other way? Why are there so many abusive bosses who have NOTHING to fear?
When I was talking with my friends last night, I told them that I can’t go what we call the “assistant route”*. I told them that I refused to spend ten hours of my life every single day doing heavy labor and competing with others for the opportunity to devote even more of my time/life to some huge corporation that has no loyalty to me whatsoever. I told them that I wanted to be valued and I didn’t like how those in lower positions were treated in Hollywood. What I said – of course – sounded insensitive. My friends work as assistants and are therefore going the “assistant route.” They’re smart and will likely go far in Hollywood. But there are two things that I think I could have given more detail. Those two things are the abuse and discrimination that happens in the entertainment industry. And when I say abuse and discrimination, I don’t just mean sexual assault or not hiring people of color.
Abuse and Discrimination
Entertainment is an industry that mixes art with commerce so of course there’s going to be some eccentric and unconventional methods that creatives use in a typical work day. And dollar is king. So if a director or producer that’s a real money maker for a studio has a difficult personality, they’re going to be protected at all costs. Pair this with society’s disregard for those lower on the totem pole and it’s open season on the powerless. Entry level employees working long hours, being paid very little and being treated terribly.
Additionally, so many people are happy to be working in such a competitive industry that they’ll take whatever they can get in order to move up. The “this too shall pass” mentality is rampant in the entertainment industry and after all of the crazy stories that have emerged about women being sexually assaulted by powerful men, it’s easy to see why “this too” has been passing for all of these years.
In film school, we were taught to expect mistreatment. We were told that we had to have a “thick skin” to work in entertainment. And although this is true in any industry, we’d also heard countless stories about the notorious “casting couch” or people who were berated and verbally abused in their day to day lives. Some of us even experienced this first hand. These stories shook me to my core because as someone who suffers from depression and high blood pressure, being verbally abused or even physically intimidated at work has the potential to be a matter of life and death for me. It could also rule me out as a candidate for entry level jobs that could lead to the jobs I ultimately want to do. I’ve managed to keep my blood pressure under control but I’ve accepted that depression is my life long battle. So what do I do if my mental illness is kicking in and I go to my minimum wage, twelve hour a day job and my self-bullying sentiments are amplified by an insensitive and extremely unprofessional boss? In every sense, it’s not worth it for me. So I try not to take that chance. I try to work for emotionally stable people and in environments that are professional. But the odds of finding that in Hollywood are slim to none (in my experience.) There’s always someone that is waiting for their opportunity to release their rage onto someone that they deem powerless.
I learned at the end of my career in news that I didn’t have the mental well-being to deal with abuse in the workplace. The way that I learned was through my body. At the time I was in my fifth year at a local news station and while walking to my car after a long day, I’d received several calls from my abusive boss. She’d left me messages telling me to come back. I turned back around and walked into the building to receive her wrath. She yelled and ranted at me that I’m not dismissed until she personally dismissed me (although that was never a policy and I’d already stayed fifteen minutes beyond my nine hour shift just hanging around). She proceeded to tell me how (in her words) I “fucked up.” She physically pulled me into my editing suite and pointed out every mistake I’d made that day, told me to correct them (which I did) and told me to sit and wait until she said it was time for me to go. After about ten minutes that I sat in, what was essentially, “time out” she dismissed me.
Being that I needed that job to pay my rent, I put up with this treatment but it affected my health. After that day, I’d started getting migraines. Being that I’d never experienced this before, it freaked me out. I was in so much pain I thought I was having an aneurism. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t hear. I was shaking so hard that I could barely drive home. After that, I managed the pain of my constant migraines as well as I could but my anxiety level of going to work began to manifest itself in different ways. I made bad choices. Misplaced things and forgot entire blocks of time. I would sleep through my alarm and through the day, to the point where I would miss entire work shifts. It was like my body was physically putting an end to this job whether I liked it or not. I tried to explain to people what was happening to me but I couldn’t because I didn’t understand it myself. And this only helped to make my depression worse.
It’s taken me years to understand that I suffer with depression. It’s taken me even longer to realize the many ways that depression manifests itself in me. Along with that, however, I’ve learned what I can and cannot allow myself to experience for over eight hours a day. And one of those things in the “I cannot” category is abuse. For the record, no one should have to deal with abuse, but just like there are children who survive being bullied and manage to thrive and those who get bullied and shoot up their entire classrooms or commit suicide, I know that how people handle abuse is not one size fits all. Just because an assistant had a stapler thrown at them, survived it and then went on to become the CEO doesn’t mean that another person’s life or career couldn’t be severely derailed by that experience.
As someone who had no power, no money, worked looooooong hours and was desperate to one day move up, I was easy to exploit and abuse. And although I’m older and wiser, the disability I suffer with knocks me out of the running for corporate entry level jobs that often come with a side order of abuse and minimum wage. This, folks, is the discrimination I was talking about.
And as a side note: I know it might sound like I’m just an extra sensitive person (or “snowflake” as my husband and annoying trolls on social media have been referring to each other lately) or someone who “couldn’t cut it” in a rough work environment. But gone are the days where I seek to take pride in my ability to withstand abuse. I think the more we address mental illness and exploring healthy workplace environments, the better society as a whole will be. Everybody benefits. To use the “bullying in schools” example, a low tolerance for bullies equals a better classroom not only for the child being bullied but the teachers and students who weren’t. In seeking to create a healthy and professional work environment for those with disabilities and mental illness, we’re creating a work environment that’s healthy for everyone.*
While women and people of color who have traditionally been passed over, ignored and excluded from the entertainment industry are beginning to break in, those with disability – mental and physical – are continuing to be excluded on the basis of an implicit bias within the film industry.
Okay, one more story and then I’m almost done. Hang in there, you’re doing great!
I went to a panel discussion at a really small Women’s film festival in L.A. a few years ago. Now the panel that I went to was about diversity but imagine my shock when I arrived and saw that there were only white people on the three person panel. There was a gay man, a bisexual woman and a man in a wheelchair. My first instinct was to get up and go but I stuck it out attempting to suppress the cynicism oozing from my pores. I’m thankful that I did because the gentleman in the wheelchair educated all (7 or 8) of us in the room about the ableist nature of working in the entertainment industry. The lack of wheelchair ramps, how break rooms are set up, how offices in general are set up with no regard for the physically disabled.
Placing this within the context of entry level work, the discrimination he faced became as clear as day. Studios and production companies require entry level employees to perform a lot of physical labor and compete amongst other able bodied entry level people doing the same tasks. You have to be an “eager beaver” ready to go the distance to prove your undying loyalty to a demanding boss or company. A friend told me he’d interviewed for a position where the interviewer told him that his going out and choosing the perfect donut for his future boss should be done with the same seriousness and care that his boss takes when choosing their studio’s next film. Now if someone’s ability to be a great executive or writer or whatever hinged on their ability to perform obscure tasks unrelated to the job, then this would make perfect sense. But making a mean cup of coffee or picking up dry cleaning doesn’t mean you can write well. This is just an outdated method that Hollywood uses to vet potential employees and their commitment to the company. And it knocks people out of the running that would have otherwise been able to lend a much needed and long absent viewpoint to the kind of stories we tell. You barely see people in wheelchairs, the blind, deaf or hearing impaired, amputees, or anyone with disabilities in front of the camera because – well – they’re not behind the camera. Many of them can’t get past the first rung on the ladder – which is having access to that first entry level job.
So I write all of this to say that I despise Hollywood’s “assistant route” because it’s a stupid, outdated system that:
- Discriminates against people with disabilities (both mental and physical)
- Exploits the labor of marginalized people (women, POC, poor, etc.)
- Supports society’s classism and elitism in regards to job shaming
- Protects abusers and encourages those in power to abuse their positions
- Uphold’s society’s jaded view of labor, time and what another person is worth
I would love to write about the array of sexual abuse allegations that have come to light recently but I’ve written enough for tonight. For now I’ll say that as a Black woman from a humble socio-economic background, it doesn’t come as a surprise to me in the slightest. I’ve always been of the mindset that those lowest on the food chain get to see society at it’s most honest. Our country teaches us not to value the time – and therefore the lives – of those it deems “less than.” So ultimately, if there wasn’t abuse in the entertainment industry (an industry that in it’s very essence, tells the stories that reflects our society’s values) then I’d be surprised.
- The “assistant route” in the way that I’m using this phrase means moving up through the Hollywood machine by starting out working as an assistant (usually to an executive at a studio). By taking calls, running errands and scheduling for an executive (or agent or producer, etc.) an assistant is able to listen in on important calls, do important networking and learn about the industry via an indirect immersion into the environment. An assistant is lucky if they have a boss that A) promotes them quickly B) mentors them and/or C) doesn’t treat them like shit.
- I believe that a lot of toxic office culture that many of us have experienced is mental illness that’s trickled down from higher ups who’ve never been diagnosed or forced to manage it in the workplace.