Stacy Rukeyser is the showrunner and executive producer of UnREAL. The opinions expressed are her own.
It’s the Golden Age of television. Haven’t you heard? Except almost 80% of those golden shows are still run by men.
And yet, I’m always a bit hesitant when asked how having a female showrunner makes the creative process different – because the truth is, it depends on the female.
A female showrunner is not necessarily a guarantee of a blissful working experience in which all parties feel valued and heard. But what a female showrunner can give you is, at the very least, a fighting chance to get stories on the air which have female protagonists who feel complicated and real, who are not merely perennially “likeable” appendages to the male characters who get all the good stuff: interesting jobs, moral quandaries, personal agency, not to mention the ability to age or appear even slightly less glossy than your standard, extremely thin fashion model.
I’ve been a writer and executive producer on UnREAL since season 1. But for season 3, I was promoted to showrunner, which means that the season-long stories, characters, and themes rested squarely on my shoulders. And I took that responsibility very seriously.
In the season premiere episode, Rachel and Quinn, our protagonists (the kick-ass producers of a Bachelor-like reality show, Everlasting) try to pitch the idea of a "feminist suitress" to a reluctant network. But it’s not until Chet, the man-buddy of the network president, tells him that a feminist suitress is actually a good, culturally relevant idea, that the network signs off on it. That is maddening. And unfortunately, it happens all the time.
In real life, when the other writers and I pitched the idea of the "feminist suitress," we, too, encountered some hesitation. It was back at that time when everyone – at least everyone in Hollywood – believed Hillary Clinton was going to be our next president. People wondered, with this bright new future on the horizon, if the issues we were interested in addressing – the plight of successful career women who find that the higher they climb the ladder at work, the harder it is for them to find a man – were really still relevant. But I saw the vitriol Hillary endured on the campaign trail, and I could tell – the scariest thing to a great portion of our population is a smart, strong woman.
The proposed storyline was also personal to both me and Sarah Shapiro, the co-creator of UnREAL. I was 37 when I met my husband – and had started to come to terms with the fact that it probably wasn’t going to happen for me. No marriage, no kids. But at least my career was booming.
I knew how painful and real this experience felt to me, and I believed it would resonate with other viewers. So when the request came in to consider an alternate route for the character – perhaps someone who fits the more traditional, demure definition of femininity – I fought. Hard. Before I had time to worry if I’d be seen as "difficult," "bitchy," "irrational," or "emotional." Or perhaps despite the fact that I knew I might be seen exactly that way. That’s how important it was to me.
And we got our story through. A story which the studio and network wholeheartedly love, with all its conflicts, complications, and layers intact.
But to make this happen, you need someone with skin in the game, who is willing to put her ass on the line and say, "Yes, this IS relevant." That’s why we need more women at the helm.
We all need to take a look – women included – at the societal conventions, internalized sexism, and unconscious bias which make us feel “safer” with a man in charge – and make it that much harder for women to tell their stories and do their jobs.
And while we’re at it, if we can talk about the gender pay gap, oppressive work environments, the lack of reasonable maternity leave policies, and every other issue that stands as a barrier to women in all industries, great.
It’s an exciting time of increased awareness. Maybe that’s the real golden age we’re in. So, good. Now the work begins…
UnREAL premieres on Monday, February 26 at 10/9c on Lifetime.