Double Bind: Women on Ambition is a new anthology of essays from prominent women like essayist and author Roxane Gay, Molly Ringwald, Smash creator Theresa Rebeck, and writer Francine Prose, with each contributor exploring the way ambition and feminism have influenced her career.
Below, EW has an exclusive excerpt of Rebeck’s explosive essay, in which she details her experience creating the short-lived cult TV show Smash,what it’s like being a female showrunner and TV writer in Hollywood, and what happened when she was eventually fired from her own show without cause.
Double Bind hits shelves April 11.
“What Came Next” by Theresa Rebeck
Excerpted from Double Bind: Women on Ambition, edited by Robin Romm
So I’m walking to a rehearsal in Midtown, and my agent calls me.
He runs me through one thing and another, and then he gets down to it. Had I heard that Steven Spielberg had set up a project at Showtime, a TV series about backstage at a Broadway musical?
“They want you to write it,” he informed me. “Mr. Spielberg read one of your plays over the weekend, and he called this morning to say that he is infatuated.”
Let me tell you something. When Steven Spielberg calls your agent to say he is infatuated with your writing, that is a good day. The saga of what came next is so long and complicated it would take a book to write it all out. Sometimes I think of writ- ing that book and sometimes I think that writing that book and reliving the whole thing would be somewhat akin to shooting myself in the head. But we’ll get to that.
So I took the job, I wrote the pilot, I created all the characters, I nurtured it through a transition from Showtime to NBC, I produced the pilot, and the show got picked up for an order of seventeen episodes. I was the show runner of the first season, which got terrific numbers and established itself immediately as an international sensation. The show was called Smash.
At the end of the first season, I was fired without cause. No one likes being fired, and guess what, I am no exception. As the dust settled, it became clear that at the management level a lot of dastardly stories had been invented about my character. Sometimes I try to parse them and fit them all back together; I have been, at times, desperate to figure out what actually happened. There was a destructive and incoherent madness to it that resists interpretation.
Mr. Spielberg, to give him much credit, called me the day I was fired and apologized. He told me that he blamed himself. He felt that the politics had gotten way out of hand, and they wouldn’t have if he had been around more. He was probably right.
And, of course, as soon as I was fired, all the men who had conspired to have me removed from my post realized that the show wasn’t going to survive without me and so they slunk away and went off to do other things.
The network then hired a whole bunch of other people to run it in my stead, and it fell apart, and one year after I had made that show into a bona fide hit, it was canceled.
Everyone told me the best thing to do was ignore it and put it behind me.
Then I couldn’t get hired for three years.
Then I fired my lawyer and I fired my manager and I fired my agent.
And then my new agent and new manager and new lawyer all sat me down and explained to me, in no uncertain terms, that I had to take a step back, accept a demotion, and take a job below my skill set and pay grade. At this new job, I had to say yes to everything, and I had to prove that I played well with others.
The whisperers had run around and told everyone that I was a lunatic. So this is what I had to do, if I ever wanted to run a show again: I had to keep my head down and prove that I was smart and hardworking and a team player.
God knows I had plenty to do during those years. I wrote two plays. I finished my third novel. I directed All My Sons for a major regional theater, and I wrote and directed an independent movie. My son started college; my daughter finished middle school.
But I was convinced that I had to return to television. I felt cheated by what had happened on Smash, and I was determined that the men who had cheated me would not have the last word on my talent and my character. It pissed me off that the men at my level who had been fired in similarly ridiculous circumstances somehow managed to bounce upward. I felt like what had hap- pened to me was yet another version of the recklessly hideous way so many talented women are treated—silenced, kicked to the curb. I didn’t want to just slink away and disappear. I wanted to fight my way back into the game.
To successfully run a television show, you have to be a general. I was an excellent general. But in order to prove I could do it again, I had to be a good girl.
• • • • •
My ambition is wearing me out.
I’ve been on many different television shows over the years, and my husband is frankly enraged by the way people behave in this environment. He threatened to leave me, a couple of times, if I ever went back on staff of another TV show. He was kidding, but only sort of. He wants me to take my ambition out of the game and stay out of it.
He’s not necessarily wrong. I tell stories about the shenanigans that go on in writers’ rooms, and my friends outside the business roar with laughter or cringe in disbelief.
The misogyny is beyond anything that people believe when I tell these stories. On my first job in television, when I was in my twenties, I would sit, dazed, while a roomful of men sat around and told fist-up-the-ass jokes, roaring with laughter. In another room, the guys would sit around and pitch stories, and then write everything down in great detail on little white cards. Whenever a scene with female characters showed up they would write a card that said, “girl scene here.” Then they would look at me and say, “You’re a woman, you write this.” When I said, “You know where I come from, we write both women and men,” it was considered provocative.
One time, I was in a room where one of the guys was pitching a beat in a story. He said musingly, “Two people walk into a bar. No wait. Two people and a woman walk into a bar.”
One time, after a number of seriously offensive jokes were told in succession, I said, “Come on, you guys, am I going to have to leave the room?” Instead of apologizing, one of my male peers said to me, “If you think that’s rough, you haven’t been in enough writers’ rooms.”
“Don’t tell me where I’ve been, a–hole,” I replied.
Okay, I didn’t really say that, I just thought it. But the rest of those stories are true.
Why would any writer with curiosity and brains and a simple will to tell a decent story put up with b—s— like this?
Well, they do pay you a lot of money. Writers of all other genres—fiction, theater, poetry, nonfiction, independent film—generally don’t make much money at all. By contrast, television writers are quite well paid, although many of them don’t think so because if you spend too much time in Hollywood, you inevitably end up comparing yourself to people who make even more than you do.
Back in the day, writers like Clifford Odets, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner went out to Hollywood to make money, and the system treated them like this as well. And they complained, drank too much, fell into despair, and went back to their “real” writing.
I don’t know why I put “real” in quotes; they actually were leaving this nonsense and going back to doing real writing. And that sort of thing is still going on: We all howl about it and write novels and plays and movies like Barton Fink, excoriate Hollywood, and then go back for more money.
I personally had given up on all that nuttiness by the time I got that phone call from my agent, so many moons ago. Truth be told, I was in a healthier headspace back then. I was living where I wanted to be living, doing what I wanted to be doing, and hanging out with the people I wanted to be hanging out with. I didn’t have any fierce need to run my own television show. At least, I wasn’t chasing it.
Why didn’t I stay there? When I think back to that day when I was just walking to rehearsal for a play that paid me next to nothing in a lousy space in Midtown, before my agent called to tell me Mr. Spielberg was infatuated, mostly what I remember is that I was happy.
But I don’t know one person on planet Earth who would have turned down that offer. Everyone wants their own show. I recently found out that one of my favorite novelists wasn’t writ- ing novels anymore because he was trying to get his own show on Showtime. Apparently he needs the money, but trust me, it’s not merely about the money. The thought of having your own TV show is a big promise to a hungry little ego.
My friend Lisa cops to the hungry little ego. “Twelve to fifteen million people hearing my words and seeing characters who they love, and I love expressing my values and my empathy and my humor, I fucking love that. I really like being one of the people who has the privilege of pouring stuff out into the world and hoping it lands and sticks and resonates with whoever’s watching and listening. Full of myself a little? Yeah, I think you have to be, to think that your work is worth the many millions of dollars to film it, and the attention of the audience.”
Her position, I think, really is swell. I also think that Lisa’s hungry little ego is a sort of pleasant and respectful version of the breed. Most egos don’t behave as well as hers does. Add to that fact this: The apprenticeship of television writing is all about having your own ego kicked in the head so many times it develops a revenge fantasy. Television is a training ground for fucking up people’s characters just enough to make them truly dangerous when they are finally given power over other creative souls.
And the truth is, everyone in the industry knows it.
“I can’t say I enjoy writing for television,” another friend told me. “It’s unhealthy in general. The system is a killer. You sit in a room with other writers eight hours a day, then the show runner comes in and makes all the decisions. And that’s the part before you get notes, do rewrites, more notes, more rewrites, then get totally rewritten anyway.” But she started as a playwright and couldn’t get her plays done. When she’s not writing for a television show, she doesn’t have decent health insurance.
In the face of this, we all sit around and tell apocryphal stories about shows where the network left you alone, where the show runner had a good heart and a light hand. There’s always a mythic show out there, where they treat the writing staff with respect and shoot the scene the way you wrote it, and it came out great, and the lowly but talented and decent staff writer is vindicated.
The heart remains hopeful. Every show actually seems like just a great job at the beginning. Everybody likes each other. The network notes haven’t gotten too crazy; the boys haven’t started acting like jerks yet. The excitement is heady. Money! Health care! Telling stories for a living! It’s truly all you know, and all you want to know.
- • • • • •
Freud writes eloquently about the ego’s need to return time and again to the same pattern of behavior, repetition compulsion, a drive so strong it overrides the pleasure principle and sends us back into traumatic situations that we know are traumatic. That mysterious thing called the Self seems to want to go through the same pain over and over and over again, mystifying itself with the belief that next time, I’ll master it, I’ll control it, I’ll get it right. Mircea Eliade writes of the Myth of Eternal Return. The Buddhists call it samsara. I felt the reality of these definitions strongly once when I was stuck in a traffic jam on Sunset Boulevard going to a meeting. Holy s—, I thought. How did I get here again?
Although, endlessly indulging in repetition compulsion might also be tagged as perseverance. Or ambition. Women are told they have to be better, smarter, tougher, and more resilient than their male counterparts because, well, that’s just the way the world is. Men tell us this. I cannot count the number of men—including my new agent and my new manager, who are great and on my side—who blithely announce that this is just the way things are. So maybe we’ve just been programmed this way.
Who knows. One time I asked my daughter Cleo why she was doing something that was getting her in trouble over and over again. She was about four years old. With tears streaming down her face, she said to me, “I’m a stubborn girl.” My husband had to stop himself from laughing. “I wonder where she got that?” he said.
I am a stubborn girl.
I am also a talented and hardworking girl, and the truth is I do play well with others. But in corporate culture, “play well with others” has come to mean absolutely agreeing to everything that gets thrown at you. It is a given: You have to say yes to your boss all the time. And that means all the time, and cheerfully—that, I’m not as good at. And the men who I’ve seen attain success in this world are salesmen, charmers; they know how to manage up.
That’s another phrase I learned: manage up. Basically that means making your bosses love you, whether or not you are doing a good job.
Here is another phrase that I learned: comfort level. When I was fired from the show I created, my soon-to-be-ex-agent told me that the president of NBC had a “comfort level” issue with me.
Comfort level, I came to learn, is Hollywood code for men who don’t want to work with women. So women, who are suspect because there is this comfort level issue have to work extra hard to play well with others and manage up, in addition to sucking everything up and understanding that things are going to be handed to the guys, and then they’re going to tell a lot of sexist jokes and tell you to your face that you’re supposed to be writing the girl scenes because they’re too busy writing about shooting people and blowing things up and other utter bullshit.
Ooops, did I say that? This is another thing that “play well with others” means: Keep your mouth shut.
In television, we have to be very stubborn girls indeed.
- • • • • •
I loved running a television show. I was really good at it. I liked that I had to write so much, I liked working with the actors and the directors, I liked production meetings, I liked going all over to location shoots, I loved editing. I loved my postproduction supervisor and my line producer; both of them taught me life lessons about graceful professionalism, taking care of your collaborators. I ran a clean set, so the people who worked there were happy. I was a good general.
I also have to admit that it was fun rewriting my whole writ- ing staff on Smash. “Fun” might be too strong. Because I hated having it done to me so much, it was not something I took on lightly; I actually tried not to rewrite everything egregiously just because I could. But for that first season at least, it was my show and I had the last word and I understood the thrill of that, and the responsibility. So I did my job, and I stand by it.
But no matter how hard I tried—and trust me, I’m not a lunatic, and I did try—the boys didn’t want me running that show. One of the other executive producers kept saying, “But who is in charge?” He had never worked on a television show before so I assumed this was just informational, and I would tell him, point-blank: I am the show runner. That means I am in charge. This struck him as more than slightly insane. I had to keep explaining to him how television shows work: You stand with the show runner. You don’t keep attacking the show runner; it will bring the show down. It was a truth he did not want to understand.
There was also an architectural problem in the power structure above me. How to “manage up” was never very clear. Mr. Spielberg is an enormous force and a great storyteller. He and the head of the network both believed that they were in charge. There was a strange dysplasia. They seemed to think that I was some kind of factotum, or typewriter even. No matter how polite I was, it rocked everyone to the core when the typewriter talked back.
Was it gender based? It sure felt like it. The power structure includedtenmenandonewoman, and, inspiteof all theirsecond- guessing and wrangling, the show was terrific until they fired the woman in charge. I was explicitly told, during my firing, that the show was “too important to the network,” and so they were taking it out of my hands. The person they gave it to had virtually no credentials and no experience in the theater. His television credits were nowhere near as comprehensive as mine. The show died under his watch. Two years later, another net- work gave him another show to run. Meanwhile, I was still being told that I was unemployable because everyone knew that I was a lunatic.
The whole thing was dreadful. And I do want to do it again. Is this like childbirth? You think, Oh god, it’s so great having a kid, I don’t remember the pain. No, it’s actually not like that. The memory of the pain is pretty vivid.
Woody Allen has famously admitted the heart wants what it wants. But what does that mean? Is that just a way of excusing inappropriate desire?
I tell myself that it’s not just enraged ego; I have stories to tell. My heart wants to tell stories. Women should be telling stories. And the earth will not survive without women claiming their voices and their partnership for its people. It may not survive even so. So my heart says, get up, get back in the game, this isn’t just about you. Stand up, you stubborn girl. If I have an ambition, it is to change the world. So yes, I am ambitious. And while I do believe in playing well with others, I ultimately don’t know how to keep my mouth shut. What storyteller does?
I wish this were not the story I have to tell today. I have other stories. I am anxious to get on with them.
Excerpted from Double Bind: Women on Ambition edited by Robin Romm. Copyright © 2017 by Robin Romm. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.