Stacy Rukeyser on Fighting for Feminist TV Characters

Stacy Rukeyser, showrunner of UnREAL (Photo courtesy of Bettina Strauss)

This article was published in Travel Issue #79 | Summer 2018

Stacy Rukeyser is at the helm of UnREAL, a satirical look at the danger of reality television. She talked to Bitch about misogyny and sexism in Hollywood, the renewed purpose of the show, and why she creates such smart and fierce women characters.

What was the first TV show or movie that really stuck with you? Why was it so particularly resonant?

The first shows that really stuck with me were The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, and Charlie’s Angels. I was a 10-year-old watching Charlie’s Angels, and I no idea that it had some issues. So when I first got to Los Angeles, I said that I wanted to do shows that were full of strong, independent women—like Charlie’s Angels. People had to tell me that they never wore bras, but I hadn’t even noticed any of that. To me, they were part of this whole group of strong, smart women who were on television.

One movie that I have loved since I was 16 years old is Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, which a lot of people haven’t watched. It’s based on her novel, which is about her divorce from Carl Bernstein. Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson star in it, and she gives this great monologue at a dinner party after she triumphantly leaves her husband. I can still quote bits of the movie.

When I first started writing for TV, Sex & the City was still on, and I remember feeling so comforted by seeing a single woman on television who was all about her career, but also trying to find love. In the series finale, Carrie gives this voiceover speech about relationships and how the most important relationship that you can have is the one that you have with yourself. It still makes me tear up. I’m drawn to anything written from that personal space.

Children often only see the people in front of the camera: the actresses and the occasional famous director. How did you first learn about behind-the-scenes work, and what influenced you to pursue a career as a television writer, producer, and showrunner?

It was a childhood dream of mine to be involved in the making of entertainment. I majored in politics while I was in college, but I was also interested in theater and was doing plays. I focused a lot on political dramas and wrote my senior thesis about politics as a form of drama. When I graduated from college, I did pursue a career as an actress, but I found that it was unfulfilling and decided to write a feature film. Then, I had an idea for a TV show. It did not sell, and nothing ever happened with it, but I realized I liked writing for TV. Getting into the Warner Bros. writers’ workshop changed my career. Not only did they teach us how to write for television, but they also introduced us to showrunners, who were these mythical kinds of people who created and ran these shows. When I met them in this workshop, I realized they were just smart people. I still deeply admire other showrunners, including men, who create smart female characters. I’m in love with Homeland, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Crown. Those characters inspire me, and they’re all written by men. But I am inspired by other women showrunners, such as Melissa Rosenberg, who works on Jessica Jones.

You’ve been working on UnREAL since the first season, but this is the first season that you’re the showrunner. What were your hopes going into this season? Were you invested in furthering certain relationships, like the working relationship between Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) and Quinn King (Constance Zimmer)?

I’d been a writer on the show from the very beginning. I wasn’t there when they shot the pilot, but I’ve been with UnREAL since it was brought to series. I came to the show because of my love of Rachel and that incredible inner conflict that she had even on the page. She’s a feminist who thought she’d be working in TV ads, not producing on a show like The Bachelor. She hates herself for it and hates that she’s good at it, but also gets off on being able to manipulate these women. Quinn’s also a central character, and [Rachel and Quinn’s] love is the central love story, even though they don’t have a romantic relationship.

Becoming a showrunner was kind of the same old, same old, because I’d been writing and rewriting scripts since season one. However, I knew that I wanted to deal with a lot of big plot points that occurred in season two. I didn’t want to ignore those plot points because I felt like we hadn’t the time to follow through the emotional and psychological impact of the different things that happened in season two. We always start with Rachel and Quinn, but I thought it required some time and thought to figure out where they would be after the first two seasons. We needed to take some time to explore the ramifications of some of the things that happened. I knew I wanted to have this kind of feminist suitress in Serena [Caitlin FitzGerald] because the issues around gender politics are incredibly interesting to and personal for me. I knew that I wanted to explore those issues with Serena throughout the whole season.

Constance Zimmer as Quinn King and Shiri Appleby as Rachel Goldberg in UnREAL (Photo by Bettina Strauss)

Recently, you wrote a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter about your time working at One Tree Hill. You described the writers’ room as a “frat house.” What is the value in women who are behind the scenes speaking publicly about these experiences with sexism and misogyny in Hollywood?

I hope things are going to change. There are a lot of brave women who have been coming forward, and through what I’ve heard and read, I know that it got much worse at One Tree Hill after I left. That makes me feel even worse about not saying anything at the time. I had to look out for myself, but I didn’t change that environment before I left.

It was tough because I was a story editor, which is a pretty low-level writer, so I don’t know what kind influence I could’ve had. But I made decisions at that time about how I would run my show because I cared very deeply about creating a good working environment. TV is such a collaborative medium. So many people’s work goes into creating UnReal, and I want them to have ownership of the show, feel proud of it, and also feel good making it. The first step is creating a safe working environment, which seems like it should be a base-level requirement. I also want to go further and address some of the unconscious biases and the inherent sexism that exists in both men and women, and that is preventing more of us from getting great female stories on the air. We all need to look at ourselves.

In your Hollywood Reporter column, you wrote, “showrunners wield an inordinate amount of power because they hold in their hands the hopes and aspirations of everyone who works for them.” How did you create a safe and welcoming writers room for UnREAL?

It starts with who you hire, and it’s important to hire immensely talented people who aren’t assholes. You have to care about that as a requirement for your staff. It’s also about setting the tone and making it clear what’s okay and what’s not. In our writers’ room, we’re often talking about stuff in a very bold way. It can get intense and political, and the points of view can be very deeply held. I think it’s great to have those conversations, but there’s a way to have the conversations without people feeling threatened and attacked. Everyone has to feel valued and heard because that’s the only way for people to come up with the next great idea. It’ about making it clear that I care about these things and that my door is always open.

Beyond the writers’ room, in that week that everything came out about [Supergirl and The Flash showrunner] Andrew Kreisberg and [One Tree Hill’s showrunner] Mark Schwahn, I went up to Vancouver where we had a table read. And I stood up and announced that I cared about these issues, and I wanted people to feel comfortable coming to me with them. I wanted to make sure everyone had my phone number and let them know that they could call me day or night because I take these issues so seriously. We’ve been filming UnREAL for four years, and things have come up in the workplace—not about sexual harassment or anything like that. But I’m proud of the way we’ve dealt with those things. Our studio and network have also been supportive. It’s frankly why people have to talk about it. Writers’ rooms have been a bit of a boys’ club for a long time, so much so that men aren’t aware of these issues. It has just been the way that it has been for a long time.

Stacy Rukeyser and Shiri Appleby on the set of UnREAL (Image courtesy of Robert Adam Mayer)

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Joy Press recently released the book Stealing the Show: How Women Revolutionized Television, and it takes an intimate look at the rise of women showrunners. Do you think that having women at the helm of TV shows makes a difference in the kinds of characters we’re now seeing?

I really do, and I can give you a specific example: Having a feminist suitress was important to me and [cocreator Sarah Shapiro]. I was 37 when I met my husband, and until then, I was that career girl who was thriving but was still single. And I found, as Serena is finding, that the higher she got on the ladder, the harder it was to find a guy. I thought I wasn’t going to get married and have kids. My nephew would be the person with me on my deathbed. I was okay with it because my career was going well, but I was also sad about it. When we first pitched the idea of a feminist suitress to Lifetime, it was before Donald Trump was president. Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was going to be the next president, but on the campaign trail, I saw all of this vitriol toward her because she’s a smart, strong woman. The election showed us that, for many people, there’s nothing scarier than a smart, strong woman. But there was a little bit of hesitation from Lifetime about addressing feminism so head-on, especially since Clinton was going to win. Weren’t smart, strong women being celebrated now?

It was very important to me that this was who this character was, but the feedback [I received] was that she should be a kindergarten teacher, more demure and quieter. I fought hard for that character because these issues felt so personal to me. My mouth was open before I thought about being perceived as strident or bitchy or any of those stereotypes assigned to women who speak their mind. That’s what you get when you have a female showrunner. I don’t think a male showrunner would’ve fought for that idea. You can get laughed at. I’ve had male showrunners laugh at me, and my ideas never made it out of the writers room. You need somebody with skin in the game to bring these characters to life.

UnREAL is a satirical look at the manipulations of reality television. Given that we now have a president who’s a former reality star, do you think UnREAL serves a deep and important purpose now?

I sure hope people take it that way. I really do think this kind of reality television is incredibly destructive and detrimental to our culture, and the purpose of this show has always been to pull back the curtain on those kinds of shows. It does damage to the people who are on the show, work on the show, and those who are watching the show. You get so used to talking about these contestants in such a negative way that it becomes acceptable discourse. It also makes it a lot easier to start talking about yourself in the same way, as ugly or not hot enough, or fat. That’s very dangerous.

The “princess fantasy” that these shows perpetuate is also really dangerous. Twenty women are fighting with each other for a prize—a man—and to get it, they have to look good in a bikini, kiss in hot tubs, and never talk about their work. In exchange, he’ll pick you up in the helicopter and take you to Bali for dinner. That’s crazy. Yet The Bachelor continues to get large ratings, and a large percentage of their demographic are high-earning career women. It’s so seductive and so ingrained in our culture that even women who are doing well in their work still have this fantasy that a guy is going to come on a white horse and save them.

Certainly, we’re trying to get at things that are not about being a reality show, like gender dynamics in the workplace; men taking credit for our work; and women not being taken as seriously as a man who says the same thing. You don’t always get to write things that are so personal and fun, so we want UnREAL to be a wild ride that also educates us along the way.

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