Jessica Gao and the Cachet of Hollywood's Minorities.
Words: Stephanie Dando
Jessica Gao is an American screenwriter of Chinese descent who first chiselled her way into the industry when she won Nickelodeon’s screenwriting fellowship. She was subsequently hired on ‘The Mighty B’, a comedy show for pre-teens about an ambitious girl-scout. Since then, Gao has monkey-barred her way across such popular shows as ‘Robot Chicken’, ‘Bajillion Dollar Propertie$’ and ‘Silicon Valley’, a darkly humorous show about a junior executive yuppie working for a soulless corporation. She currently writes for the cult-followed ‘Rick and Morty’, an adult animation about an alcoholic science genius and his impressionable young grandson who go on sci-fi adventures in other worlds. Beginning her screenwriting career at the age of twenty-four, Gao, now a decade later, has an unassailable number of writing credits under her belt for vastly wide-ranging shows. But it wasn’t easy – and not merely due to the notoriously exclusive nature of the screenwriting industry.
In ‘Whiting Wongs’, a podcast Gao co-hosts along with writing/producing luminary Dan Harmon, creator and co-creator of ‘Community’ and ‘Rick and Morty’ respectively, Gao speaks frankly about the racism and sexism embedded in the industry through frank personal accounts. Gao tells of how, at the beginning of her career, a showrunner complimented her ‘Star Wars’ t-shirt. But what could have started and finished as an innocent compliment devolved into a bizarre heckling when the showrunner ranted that he much preferred it when Gao dressed less provocatively because her “cleavage”-showing shirts were apparently extremely “distracting” for him and “for others”. The showrunner saw fit to deliver his speech in a room full of other writers who Gao tells, at least, looked “mortified”. The head writer’s blasé comments exemplify the casual misogyny present in those places we would expect to find thoughtful, creative narratives, and thoughtful, creative people. We would also expect, if not social awareness, some manners, both of which were alarmingly absent in the described scenario.
Another POC screenwriter featured on the podcast, Brittani Nichols, describes the toils of almost always being the only POC in the writers’ room. Nichols describes being in the awkward position of shooting down racist jokes made by Caucasian co-workers while Gao emphasises the echo chamber that predominantly white, male spaces provide. “It’s status quo to dismiss the opinions of people of colour,” Nichols says, with Gao emphasising “especially when you have eight other guys who look like you and think the same way as you backing you up…if you dismiss the other person, you have eight other guys saying ‘totally bro! I agree with you!’” Harmon extrapolates:
This feelings Gao and Nichols have of their perspective not being appreciated and, in fact, being outnumbered and even swamped, has a statistical basis. Studies show that the number of women writers in film and TV writing rooms ranges from 25.2% to 31.6%, while a report conducted by Color of Change in late 2017 found that an overwhelming 91% of showrunners across 18 American networks were white. 80% of those showrunners were men.
Harmon’s remarks above give an interesting insight into how powerful people in creative industries justify resisting change: they deflect criticism by calling upon those supposedly untouchable ideas of fairness and democracy and ‘may the best man win’ odes – we in the West love all that Lockean stuff, don’t we – which very successfully applies concealer to the ugly blemish that is institutional bias. Two years ago, the 88th Academy Awards were marked by controversy over astronomical underrepresentation of non-white folk; all twenty acting nominees were white, as well as four out of five nominated directors. Defending the choices, actress Penelope Ann Miller said “it was just an incredibly competitive year.” By relegating the issue at hand to a defence that nobody wants to argue with because to do so would draw in accusations of reverse racism and affirmative action, Miller was able to falsely justify an elaborate illustration of institutional bias; the implication in her words, the thing said but not said, is that competition naturally eliminates the achievements of people of colour because they just aren’t good enough. But perhaps it’s time that we stop pretending that the glamorised Academy Awards exist in a vacuum that is separate from the world we all live in that prizes white faces and perspectives and voices over others, and get with the picture – people of colour and white folk do not have an equal footing in the entertainment industry. This has been shown time and time again in decades-worth of Oscars ceremonies which have all but ignored the achievements of non-white folk.
That the Academy is an old white man’s club is pretty well documented and was the subject of particular scrutiny during the 88th annual Oscars mentioned above, resulting in prominent celebrity boycotts. In response to the criticism, the Academy took almost immediate action and promised to shake up membership protocols which historically meant marginalised groups fell to the wayside. A recent Vulture article which interviewed a number of new Academy members revealed that members were already sensing a change. One member said there was a feeling of “not wanting to award people who [had] been rewarded a lot in the past,” citing Christopher Nolan’s well-acclaimed Dunkirk as a film expected to take home an award but that has thus far received no accolade. The most recent Oscars had its predictable moments and its – very – awkward moments, but the annual 90th celebration of cinematic excellence did hail an especially significant victory: Jordan Peele taking home the award for best original screenplay for ‘Get Out’. Peele’s achievement marked the first horror film to win the award, while Peele himself was the first black person to take home the award, ever. The sludge that is misrepresentation is being reshuffled, loosened, shaken up – slowly, yes, but at least the mixer is on.
Words: Stephanie Dando