I am home and feverish today so not up to my usual verbosity, but I happened to catch this new piece by Nell Scovell, a female comedy writer, on the Vanity Fair website this morning, regarding her experience working on Letterman. I’d urge you to read the whole thing, of course, but she answers some lingering questions:
Without naming names or digging up decades-old dirt, let’s address the pertinent questions. Did Dave hit on me? No. Did he pay me enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely. Did I say anything at the time? Sadly, no.
Now, heretofore I have not much cared about the Letterman thing, partially because I don’t really care about Letterman, and also because I didn’t really hear anyone claiming coercion. Like any feminist I kinda wish that high-powered men didn’t see fit to turn their workplaces into meat markets, but it’s not very high on my list of priorities. So I wrinkled my nose, and moved on. But Scovell is making an ancillary point I hadn’t thought of, which is how destructive that kind of atmosphere can be to women’s professional advancement just about anywhere:
I have a theory. An executive producer with an all-male writing staff once inadvertently revealed his deep, dark fear. While discussing a full-time position for me, he mused out loud, “I wonder if having a woman in the room will change everything.” Of course, what he really meant was: “I wonder if having a woman in the room will change me.” Male writers don’t want to be judged in the room. They want to be able to scarf an entire bag of potato chips while cracking fart jokes and making lewd comments without fear of feminine disapproval. But we’re your co-workers, not your wives. Crack a decent fart joke and, as professionals, we will laugh. And while writers do need to feel comfortable in order to make comedy, denying an entire class of people certain opportunities in order to preserve a way of life seems a tad antebellum. Plus, it’s been my experience that a room with a fairer sampling of humanity will always produce funnier material.
While I’m not sure I can get on board with the “we won’t change you, don’t worry, you can have your fart jokes” kind of reasoning – fart jokes aren’t the issue, the bullshit way men exclude and intimidate with their shitty sexified fratboy talk is – Scovell has hit the nail on the head. A female colleague of mine at work once remarked that when the elevator doors opened, she would often hear the group inside (if all male) fall silent, as though she had broken up the party. Small cues like that, dudes, are how you tell us you don’t think we get an equal share of the world. If you were making the kind of joke that would make a woman uncomfortable, the problem is not that she interrupted your fun. The problem is that you made the joke in the first place.