Imagine being given the chance to lead production on a potential hit series for a major network in Hollywood. You write a story (based on your own life experiences!), create characters and narrative arcs, attract an A-list cast, and then receive spectacular viewership. The show becomes a success, gathering loyal viewership in its first season — all because of you, a talented showrunner who wrote and worked relentlessly. Now imagine all of that disappearing at a moment's notice for no foreseeable or anticipated reason. You're off the show. The show fizzles out because the heart of the series has been ripped out with no explanation. Oh, did I mention you are a woman in this scenario? A qualified and talented woman who is replaced by a man? That is exactly what happened to Theresa Rebeck, creator of NBC's short-lived musical series, Smash. In an excerpt for Entertainment Weekly from her powerful personal essay titled "What Came Next," Rebeck explains her experiences with sexism in her industry, which started in the writing room and followed her to the pinnacle of her success, and then right down to her lowest low, following her sudden departure from the show.
Rebeck's essay is long and detailed, starting with her first conversation with her agent telling her that Steven Spielberg himself wanted her to run the series based on her stories on Broadway. She jumped at the chance, and was all in until it fell apart without her. But the most interesting part of her story isn't when she is at her highest high or lowest low; it is when she reflects on what she's learned from the overall experience of being fired for being a woman, and the inability to be taken seriously be her male counterparts.
She recounts one specific memory and uses it to illustrate the larger toxicity of the male-dominated entertainment world: "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 showrunner. You don’t keep attacking the show runner; it will bring the show down. It was a truth he did not want to understand."
She continued: "Was it gender based? It sure felt like it. The power structure included ten men and one woman, and, in spite of all their second-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 network gave him another show to run. Meanwhile, I was still being told that I was unemployable because everyone knew that I was a lunatic.
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?"
She ends the essay by proclaiming her interest in moving on from the heartbreaking experience and telling her own stories for the world again once more. We really hope she does.
Her story will be published in an upcoming book of essays, Double Bind: Women on Ambition, along with other female tastemakers and media influencers like writer Roxane Gay and actress Molly Ringwald.