The unspoken rules of a female comedy writer who survived a male world
In the last couple of weeks, many people have asked me what I think about all the sexual harassment allegations going on in the entertainment business. Since I’m a woman who worked as a comedy writer in television for more than 20 years, it makes sense they’re asking.
Have I ever experienced sexual harassment personally? I don’t think so. I guess I’ve just been lucky. “Or maybe you’re just a dog!” I imagine some guy telling me ‘as a joke.’ That’s the kind of thing that working in a comedy room will do to you. You get so used to hearing that kind of stuff you think it automatically, even when you’re alone.
But that’s not sexual harassment. Right?
Having a career as a television writer is difficult, even if you’re man and especially if you’re a woman. It’s a very competitive business, and there is no security. So I’m proud I was able to work consistently for so long. And I think that’s a testament to my work ethic and my skills as a writer. But I also know I successfully played the game. What is that game?
Well, I’ve worked on 16 shows in my career. And out of those 16, only two of them had a show runner who was not a straight, white male. On some staffs I was the only woman writer but on most I was one of two women in the room. And to get one of those two coveted spots, I knew you had to be the kind of woman men want to be around.
To me that meant being nonthreatening. So early on, I developed the habit of prefacing everything I said with some sort of self-deprecating disclaimer, like “this is probably wrong” or “this is probably terrible.”
I also learned how to deflect unwanted touching without offending. Most of the guys I worked with would say, “Gayle’s not a hugger.” I’m not sure that’s true. But it was better for them to believe I had childhood scars that made me uncomfortable being touched, then to let some guy I worked with know, actually, I don’t mind hugging; I just don’t want to hug you.
Being the kind of woman men want to be around also meant taking care of my appearance. So I went on diets, I exercised regularly. I did those things for myself, yes, because I cared about how I looked and also about my health and well-being. But I also knew it would make things easier.
There is a certain stereotype about the kind of guy who becomes a comedy writer — basically someone who had to learn to be funny if he was going to get a date for the prom. But it’s different for women. If you are overweight or don’t do your hair or make up, it can be perceived as a sign that you don’t really care what men think about you — and that’s threatening. And it sends the message that you don’t care about pleasing your boss.
So I have given a lot of thought to my looks over the years. And even after a very late night rewrite, when all the guys would come straggling in the next day unkempt and unshaven, I would always dress nice and wash my hair and shave under my armpits —
“Ahhh!” I hear my male colleagues voices in my head. “Don’t tell us about the hair under your armpits! We don’t want to think about that kind of stuff. Women’s bodies are hairless. They don’t need to shave or wax or get lasered. They are perfect!”
Which brings me to another unspoken rule: If you want to be the kind of woman who gets jobs on a comedy staff, it helps if you censor yourself.
What other personal info do women need to keep to themselves? That they go to the bathroom. That they have bladder infections, vaginal infections, yeast. That they bleed. “Stop!!” “Shhhh!!” “Please!!!” They cry out. They cover their ears! “I can’t hear you. LALALALALALA. Never mention those words again.”
And since I wanted to keep working in the business, I didn’t.
But it wasn’t just physical things I kept under wraps. I also suppressed my feelings. My truths. What do I mean?
Well, over and over in comedy rooms I’d hear that men and women are different. Women are natural caregivers, happy to stay in and tend the home while men need to go out and provide. This did not ring true to my experience. My husband was much more intuitive about taking care of our children than I ever was. But I could see that the men I worked with needed to believe that their wives were happy and fulfilled putting their own careers on hold to oversee the household. It justified their own neglect.
Over the years I suppressed many of my thoughts, stories and ideas out of fear I would offend, put off or just outright bore my male colleagues. That was on top of thinking about how I looked, what I wore and what I projected. I was careful to flatter and flirt — in appropriate amounts — and also to never be the thing men really hate: an angry woman! That’s a part of myself I rarely let out of its cage.
But none of that is sexual harassment. Right?
A lot of men in my field are wondering now … and grumbling: How can we do our jobs, write funny stuff and so on if we have to be THINKING ALL THE TIME — about what we’re saying and how everything we do will be perceived and maybe taken the wrong way? To them I answer: Welcome to my world.
And to the people who have asked me what I think about all the sexual harassment allegations going on in the entertainment business right now? Well, since I’m not trying to work on TV shows anymore, I can finally be honest. I think it’s great.
Gayle Abrams is an Emmy-nominated television writer and producer whose credits include “Frasier,” “Spin City,” “Gilmore Girls,” “90210,” “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and many others. She is currently writing a novel.
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