The One Problem With Showing Women’s Mental Health Issues On TV

I was sitting in a theater at Sundance when I saw it: The Skinny. A dark comedy about bulimia. ....And I lost my goddamn mind. Shit. That’s my show. That’s BINGE. I wrote that!

I'd been developing Binge — a dark comedy about my decade with bulimia — for the past two years. It was the reason I starting writing, and how I got my sanity back after rehab. And there it was. Not on my computer screen, or on my agent’s desk, or in the trash of countless Hollywood Gmail inboxes, but showing on one of the most prestigious screens in world. I was too late. Bulimia had been “done." Even though Jessie Kahnweiler’s (brilliant) show (not to mention her entire experience) was vastly different than mine, I was certain my project was over. My story had been told, Jill Soloway was involved (!), my years of work were for nothing, my recovery was for nothing, I was nothing... The self-flagellating spiral went on. “But hold up, Gulner!” I said. “You’re a feminist! Don’t you want an honest conversation about eating disorders to be had?! And wasn’t your mantra for 2016: Her success is not my failure?!” It was. (It was also, coincidentally, “Don’t elect anyone who has ever admitted to grabbing a pussy” — but one out of two ain’t bad, right?)
So why did I feel so desperate? Well, Hollywood is rough. For everyone. But it’s a special kind of rough for women. A kind of rough that means your agents and managers are usually male. The directors you work with, the producers you work for, the writers hired, and the characters driving the scripts are usually male. And the money is male.* So, whether a woman seeks to enter the industry as an actor or a writer (I seek both), that underrepresentation means something. We feel it. “Sorry, we already did one female-driven comedy this year.” “Sorry, she’s just not likable enough.” “Sorry, but it feels like she’s just doing this (bulimia) to herself.” “Sorry, I don’t really respond to ‘feminist’ writing.” “Sorry, you’re not 18 or a size 2. I can’t get you work.”** And I’m a white woman. I’ve got it good. Entertainment is an inherently competitive industry. But there are fewer quality roles and creative opportunities for women, so that competition is amplified for us. Particularly if you’re over 25 — or, as we in the industry call it, “sobbing at Death’s door.” Yes, things are changing (slowly). And the opportunities (women’s labs, diversity showcases, etc.), when presented, finally feel somewhat attainable. But there remains a sense that, although the industry wants stories about women, it doesn’t want too many stories. Or stories from too many types of women (WOC, queer, trans). And it especially doesn’t want too many stories from too many crass, ugly, selfish, unlikable (read: loud, real, driven, complex) women. And so, the healthy competition that feeds artistic movements morphs into something ugly. We judge each other in waiting rooms at auditions. We don’t allow for mistakes. We assume others are faking their feminism, or doing it wrong.
This problem is further complicated when exploring mental illness among women. We’ve reached a point where most conditions seem to be “covered.” Depression: You’re the Worst. Bipolar disorder: Homeland. Eating disorders: The Skinny. But what if my bulimia doesn’t look like Jessie’s? Or my sister’s depression like Gretchen’s? Mental illness can’t be wrapped with a pretty bow and tossed in the “done” pile. Women and women’s issues are being serviced with a light touch. Talk about it, but don’t talk too much about it. To want something, to speak up, and to work hard as a woman in an industry (hell, a world) that’s excluded and shit on us for decades is a risk. It costs us, emotionally, financially, and spiritually, to participate. And when we are told “no,” it’s devastating. The “no”s are a constant reminder that our success, representation, and validity are nothing compared to that of men. Don’t believe me? Just ask Secretary Clinton. Back at Sundance, drowning in my heavenly combo of popcorn and Sour Patch Kids (try it, it’s amazing), I realized I’d fallen into the greatest trap of the patriarchy. I’d begun to see my sisters as barriers to achieving my dreams, instead of the very community that will help me achieve them. With The Skinny, I didn’t see Jessie handing me the ladder. I saw the ladder being pulled away — and that’s not okay. That’s not how change works.
In a country backsliding, I vow to kick my 2016 mantra up a notch: Her success is my success is your success. We need each other more than ever. Let’s keep creating until we break through this massive glass prison. Below, is Binge. It was created by my writing partner, Yuri Baranovsky, and me, along with the kick-ass feminist partners at Happy Little Guillotine Studios: DP Justin Morrison, editor Dashiell Reinhardt, and production designer Marie Jach. We made this 22-minute pilot on spec with no money, little support, and a shit-ton of passion. Binge features the revolutionary music of hip-hop artist B. Squid, the delightful positivity of The Mots Nouveaux, and the indie-pop stylings of Vlad Baranovsky.
Please check it out. And go make your own stories. They’re important. Oh, and to Jessie and the entire The Skinny team — thank you for your ladder. I’ll do my best to keep climbing. * I love men. My writing partner is a man and he frickin’ rocks.
** Real quotes, gals, real quotes.

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