Tales from the arts world – women who bully women

Despite the sexism that is widely reported and acknowledged in the arts world — a microcosm of the wider world — women regularly attempt to ruin the lives of other women writes ‘Anonymous’.

A well-employed writer, I was seduced into a brainstorm for the third series of a television drama. This would require two or three separate weeks and involve sitting in a room with four other writers, the producer and a note-taker and improvising a broad-stroke story arc for a new series, building on the strengths of the previous ones. If all went well I would most likely end up writing for the series.

The fundamental understanding of a professional brainstorm is not unlike those TV improv shows. A bunch of hopefully talented creatives enlist their imaginations to build on, develop, twist, revive or improve the suggestions of those around them in a creative free-for-all. Blocking or condemning other’s contributions saboutages the adrenaline of confidence that is the brainstorm’s rocket fuel.

To preserve that confidence requires a self-imposed veto on self-consciousness. You cannot think through the value of your thoughts more than one or two stages ahead – because the flicker of your idea may ignite a much better one in your colleagues. Second-guessing yourself before you throw your hat in the ring will evaporate your courage. Instead, you argue your thought in the moment with the collective understanding that in trying to sell it to the room you may in fact make it work. There is an unspoken understanding that everyone is equally vulnerable and on a level playing field of self-exposure.

A stream of incomplete ideas has the potential to be transformed into something valuable with the quick flick of another’s brain. When the process works, it’s invigorating, collegial and inspiring – a kind of mental play-off not dissimilar to a basketball match. Although one person’s hands are on the ball as it goes through the ring, everyone knows it took the quick-witted dexterity of the team to slam-dunk it.

I was wooed with a fancy lunch to work on the show by an older female producer.  She professed to be delighted in my joining the team and lunch was a relaxed, pleasant chit-chat about shows we all enjoyed and the excitement of the upcoming project.

How is it that a woman who came into her professional life during the volatile charisma of the feminism movement be such a woman-hater?

A week or so later, I showed up for the first day. The other writers in the room were much admired by me. I felt in good company. The producer sat at the table and listened as one of the writers, who was central to the earlier series, started us off.

It’s a strange feeling, the turning of the internal cogs, the switching on of the complex apparatus that extracts narrative turns, character traits and conceptual flourishes from the brain’s creative closet, opening genre-drawers that may be useful (crime, political thriller), slamming closed others (romantic comedy, family drama, fiction). As words fly about the room, certain pieces of the story land with the certainty of a perfect-fit. But there are gaps everywhere, silences descend momentarily before one of the writers heroically breaks it. Some ideas are met with a heavy pause, the contributor feels the sink of the heart, tries to push away the flicker of blossoming humiliation, and then another writer takes it up and with one generous, creative act of mouth to mouth, saves it.

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Ideas swerve from the macro (the entire planet of this series: its topography and population) to the micro (“what if they bump into each other in a lift?”). A series of algebraic sums are planted with a key “X” or “Y” or “Z” missing. We know where we want to start and finish but not how to get from A to Z.  Instinctive thoughts sometimes prove to be gold, other times there is the realisation that instinct is born of cliché. Our minds have been encouraged to think along standard narrative paths and we have to find a way through those blue-prints to the deeper, more original trajectories.

I’m a confident writer but something is amiss. Within an hour, I have the vaguest sense of unease. I begin to chart the reactions of the producer, who greets every one of my suggestions with an immediate dismissal. I reassure myself that she is tough, she has had to be to get anywhere, and that it’s not personal. I go home that night feeling insecure in a way I haven’t for years. I’m surprised I’m this vulnerable.

All night, her belligerent tacit criticism wears away at me. She’s right, I think to myself. I’m hopeless at this. I’ve arrogantly believed myself qualified but I’m actually very mediocre. Everyone else in the room is more experienced and brighter. I’m a disappointment to everyone — how could I have missed this? I had better find a way to redeem myself.

By lunchtime the next day, the sense of her disrespect for me has begun to change the air in the room. The comforting thought that I’m paranoid is losing its case. I can feel the other writers subtly try to defend me, or soften her blows – the collective intent a clear indicator that I am either the dunce or the fall-guy.

Real creativity blossoms with benevolence and faith rather than the self-protective armour of bitterness.

An expert witness is brought in to talk to us about the series’ subject matter. This woman is highly intelligent, very articulate and experienced. She is a window into the world of the series and I find her knowledge thrilling. I ask lots of questions, mainly about the psychological aspects of the people she describes and she seems very happy to answer. Whenever I ask a question, the producer — who I should add is confusingly intelligent as well as experienced — rolls her eyes in a pantomime of sit-com frustration or sighs audibly. At one point, she interrupts my question to say “Let’s just hear what X has to say, shall we?”

I’m clearly asking too many questions. But wasn’t this a brainstorm? Isn’t the point to look around the edges of the story and find unexpected triggers? Aren’t we trying to harness information and filter it through our creative brains, whose ways and means are not streamlined or formulaic? Isn’t the point of an expert witness, to fire us, elucidate the truth so that we can extrapolate and write a fiction with authenticity? Who is she to tell me what will be useful? Who is she to put fences around my questions when she cannot know how the most indirect question can travel, quietly, insistently, into the heart of the drama?

Hour by hour, the producer becomes more vocal in her irritation with me. What starts as frustration (which I automatically excuse as an appropriate response to my inadequacies) segues into visceral dislike. My body starts to register childhood experiences: feeling trapped inside humiliation and not having the power or opportunity to escape. I make my way to the bathroom where I cry uncontrollably. The tears spill as if they have been stored in a reservoir, whose banks have blown. I call my boyfriend, who, astonished, tells me to get in a cab and come home. But I am determined to acquit myself of the initial week I signed up for before resigning.

Ghastly group lunches must be stoically got-through, my stomach scrunched in tension. I put enormous energy into appearing calm and professional but I am internally replaying all my successes, certain that this producer can see flaws in me I’ve been blind to. My confidence, once a robust reserve of optimism and energy, has dwindled to nothing. I don’t dare to hope it will return – instead I put all my hope into the countdown of hours until I can be free, longing for the long drive home.

All night I feel her malevolence seep quietly into my other projects. I begin to doubt my capabilities across the board of my creative life. A tiny hand grenade of malice has been thrown into the mental store room where stories half written, planned or completed sit in joyful anticipation of some kind of public life. I am shrnking.

She moves malevolently from mealy-mouthed (“This is all about you guys”) to control freak (“No, no, no! That’s a TERRIBLE idea”).

Day three, I am liberated by silently resolving that I will not continue beyond this week, I find myself making useful suggestions in the room, which the other well-intentioned writers (humiliatingly) amplify to try to steer the ship back on course. But when I describe a character in the first series as “enigmatic”, the producer’s eyes expand in horror and she screams the word at me over and over again and then berates me for denigrating the work of the other writers (despite the fact they agree with me). Her strategy of “divide and conquer” is brilliantly applied. She praises not to reward good ideas but to belittle those excluded. She plays favourites. She moves malevolently from mealy-mouthed (“This is all about you guys”) to control freak (“No, no, no! That’s a TERRIBLE idea”) in a manic dance of strategic rug-pulling.

I have always been rather dismissive of “work place bullying” – the term itself a cliché. I’ve never understood how grown-ups can’t just stand up for themselves, no doubt a product of having rarely experienced a “work-place”. I feel guilty at my sudden eruption of sympathy, born of new understanding. There are success stories, presumably in every industry, who have cultivated ways of working that embellish their own egos, who create useful identities (“She’s tough”, “She’s no-nonsense”) to preserve their own status. And I am newly aware that our professional identities are sometimes fragile constructs which mask the hairline fractures in our egos.

After finishing the week, a number of writers spoke to me of their own experiences with this woman, her shattering effect on their confidence and their slow realisation that the traits she had encouraged as personal public relations (“tough”, “takes no prisoners”) were actually psychotic. Her ability to get things made was no doubt due to having a retinue of underlings or colleagues who played good cop well enough to hold onto the creative personnel for the duration of one of her shows. Or the process of intimidations that she had honed to a personal sport had bought her decades of subservience.

Is this why Australia has yet to produce the searingly compelling, disruptive television that the UK and America is routinely producing? Are our writers (and audiences) being short-changed by producers who cannot or will not relinquish control or cannot tolerate vesting more power in the mysteries of writers’ imaginations?

It has taken me some time to get over it, not least for the shocking express ride into childhood that she provided. For the first time in many years, I felt what I have always known, that the child we were is very near the surface of our adult lives and that our experiences are always vulnerable to that child’s unresolved fragility.

And that’s all very well. But how is it that a woman who came into her professional life during the volatile charisma of the feminist movement be such a woman-hater? Perhaps at the time she established herself in the film industry, she believed, rightly or wrongly, that you had to behave worse than the worst man to survive.

Happily, generations behind her, the feminist message I grew up with was articulated as confidence and freedom. And the understanding that real creativity blossomed with benevolence and faith rather than the self-protective armour of bitterness. I think it has furnished me with a good working life with kind and generous friendships born of creative endeavour. I don’t think that’s true for her. That’s a great thought, hold onto it.

If you have an interesting tale to tell from the art world and would like to share it, contact us at info@dailyreview.com.au 

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19 responses to “Tales from the arts world – women who bully women

  1. It is an interesting article. quite often the bully is taking advantage of your sense of decency and manners. Having put up with my share of bullying and found that politeness is disrespected, perhaps it is best to make a scene and shout the bully down and keep on shouting even if it becomes a shouting contest. I am intrigued as to why the bullying occurs and suspect it is a form of jealousy, perhaps this theory should be tested by asking if it is so. Actually bullying works because most people accept it. I have mentioned last year in a letter I wrote below that John Cleese was publicly bullied by Adam Hill on the last leg. What would have happened if John had asked Adam Hill if he had any manners and made an issue of it. I am sure he would have had the audience on his side and it would have made excellent television.

  2. I once attended a ‘Happiness Conference’ and found myself intrigued in a workshop about how to identify ‘micro-expressions’ ie the emotions we start to feel but quickly hide from others. It was a training by an expert who works with customs, police etc etc. Fascinating. The workshop audience did well (after training) with identifying all emotions except one. We just could not get it. The trainer laughingly told us that often happens, and interesting enough, each nation is different. The one we all had difficulty identifying in Australia after training was contempt. Then they showed footage of our politicians, Howard, Costello etc. They held the Australian people in thinly-disguised contempt.

    Bullying is rife in all our systems, It came from the top. It infected whole societies, and Australia in particular. Many experience it, children can die from it. It is sick, detrimental, and a very real part of the problems we are now experiencing. It almost destroyed me personally and professionally. I am strong again now, much stronger actually, but it took time. Only cowards and weak people bully us. They usually attack when we doubt ourselves. We CAN confront it and call it when we see it.

  3. Narcissistic bully culture is entrenched in this system of social relations that is not limited to Australia. The answer to your question lies in political consciousness that can rise above the personal and understand this as a phenomenon that is culturally produced. It should not be surprising that many successful women and men would deploy such tactics of meting out derisory humiliation upon their chosen scapegoat in this system. Our governments and supranational institutions do it to more vulnerable nations and their populations all the time. If you really want it to change, start focusing on what produces these conditions in the first place.

  4. We can all be fucking bullies when we sense weakness or incompetence, especially when it clashes with our own ambitions. No biggy, just move on…………..

    1. Actually, no, some of us have never bullied anyone, have never wanted to, don’t see the point, think less of those who do.

  5. Another Anonymous. From a female writer who has never — and WOULD never right from the very beginning — join Facebook, Twitter, et al, because I always knew in my bones it would make me too vulnerable to anyone who was out to destroy me. And vulnerability is one of the components of being a (good and original) writer. Not only a woman writer, of course, but in this aspect, it seems to me that men can be much tougher in not allowing others to get at them where it hurts. And dear Anonymous — apart from anything else — what a beautifully written and felt eloquent piece.

    I had my own female destroyers — at STC and major TV production companies — and it did leave you (me) Reeling Like Rocky when you found out it had happened. It is ALWAYS motivated by jealousy and their own insecurity when they realise — though it would never occur to them and they’d never admit it if it did — that you have something they don’t have. And it never, ever will, not in a month of Sundays of **** sucking Higher Ups and intimidating others they feel compelled to control, because it’s lower man down on the Totem Pole Syndrome, isn’t it .

    You will never be an unemployed writer and your boyfriend was right. You should have gone, but you couldn’t. I could have stormed out when it happened to me but I couldn’t. Perhaps I would have the courage to do that now. But probably I wouldn’t.

    Well and truly, now, into my third act, I continue to work on my own material (what I was best at all along) and I’m still alive and I know what I am doing is so good, and most of my nemeses from the past aren’t any more — either living or doing anything good in their lives well.

    So — as Gerald and Sarah Murphy would have it, along with their best friend F. Scott Fitzgerald — Living Well Is The Best Revenge. Or, to top even that, living well and long and doing your best work most certainly is. I don’t think you sound like the sort of person who will ever go under. So don’t. And thank you for writing and posting this piece. Keep eating fish and porridge. It’s great for the brain.

  6. Great article until the generalisation about audiences being short changed by producers. The reason Australia isn’t producing “the searingly compelling, disruptive television that the UK and America is routinely producing” is because we don’t have the audiences to watch it or the networks to finance it. And – sorry to say – I could count on one hand the writers we have of sufficient calibre to write it.

    1. Writers of sufficient calibre don’t pop out of no where. They need to practice and hone skills by opportunities in a culture that supports writers and is determined to lift the bar from mediocrity to excellence.

  7. Happens in public. Did you not see Adam Hill bully and humiliate John Cleese on the Last leg. Same to Jimoin. It will most likely happen to people with genuine talent and the bully will be a person without talent, that is why they are bullies. I hindsight it would be best to confront these people where possible, event to the point of making a scene. It is the reason we need unions.

    1. John Cleese didn’t feel remotely bullied. He said on Twitter that he thought Adam Hills was brilliant and funny and one of the most intelligent shows he had been on. You are making something out of nothing.

  8. This post makes me sad but unfortunately not surprised. I have been working in this industry for 20 years and have suffered from the hands of many females in the business – mostly in writing room (men are not exempt either) but there has been a couple in particular. It is an horrendous experience to go through and many times I have thought about giving up. I eventually decided to move overseas which I did for five or six years. It saved me and my career made me realise I had a lot to offer. I came back and have just finished my own show. I don’t use many writers in my writer’s room because of the horrendous experiences I have had – however, I do commit to training new writers up in order to rid the business of this scourge. Please don’t give up. We need people to push through the bullying and well done for speaking out.

  9. Yes, brave of you. Good on you. Not just the experience of writers. As a director I have had a similar experience. It all sounded very familiar. Sadly this is small industry and it’s too essy for these bullies to have a detrimental influence on your career. But know you are not alone. And thank you, this made me appreciate that I’m not alone either. Of course it can be a reality with both genders but something more devastating when it comes from own. Guess men have had to wear that for years.

  10. The truth is that you had no power in this situation. Your only power was to walk out. Which contractually may have been difficult.
    People can tell you you should have complained… To whom? The powers that be know what this person is like. If they aren’t doing anything about her, they aren’t likely to for you. Eventually, someone in charge will quietly sideline her, but it may take years. Don’t ever stay around an abusive person for years. It doesn’t get better, and it can leave you with all sorts of problems. Been there, tried that.
    I’ve known several fairly despicable bosses. For some, I’ve watched their careers flame out. For others, I’m reasonably sure that’s in their future. Lunatic bosses cost money in replacing and training staff. It gets noted.
    In the meantime, say a mantra to Kali to shake the metaphorical dust off your boots, and be proud of having the guts to share a rotten encounter.

  11. Dear Anonymous,

    The bullying, humiliation and lack of grace you received from this woman producer is gut wrenching and plays havoc with the psyche. I am glad you raised it and hope you are recovering now from the dreaded emotional bends. Your story is all too familiar to me.Thirty years ago I was emplyed as ajournalist and theatr critic. The head of a fil company head hunted me and asked me to write a piece for a TV co-production.. On the strength of this work and my writing he offered me the job of Script advisor to his company.. Thecompany was overflowing with ambitious producers wanting control of scripts, control over directors. Three of the biggest bullies were women. A woman in documentaries wanted to be a creative director She also wanted my office. he arrived one morning and told me I will be called down to the acting director within the hour to be sacked. I was called down but not sacked.Some months later I recommended to the dirctor that Christina Stead’s book
    The Man who Loved Children be considered. We were unable to get the rights..they were owned by Hollywood writer Lillian Helman. Stead offered anyof her other books with the proviso she be flown interstate to meet Don Dunstan of whom she was a fan. Enter second feminst bully. This bully had been demoted to personal assistant. She was asked by the director to inform me to check for other possible Stead works. This bully did not inform me until two days before Christina Stead arrived. “I intended to do it myself but I was too busy” she said. Stead’s books were scarce. I got the only copy “For Love Alone” returned that day to the public library.. I did not see that film and cannot comment on why it failed After three years I left that job with a hefty mortgage. Some months later I received a telephone call from an international film director’s assistant. It appeared that she had gone through the filing cabinet and had read my analysis of of all his his proposals which she thought were excellent. She also informed me that the repeated knock-backs that this Australian film director had received were passed off by these men and women producers stating that the director had appointed a parochial town pump journo who couldn’t tell a good script from a cartload of horse shit. or some such words. They discouraged directors from meeting me on the grounds it was a waste of time.. At dinner we discussed the politics of this company. We agreed on the destructive atmosphere of the place. She then announced she was going back to Sydney to work with her director. She packed her bags the next day.I feel much sympathy for you. Bullying is disgusting. It is a power trip used by some people….often with more ambition than talent. It is practiced by Look at Pauline Hanson!!

    I was very good at my job. Creative script writers that can read trends and inspire imagination are rare. The best also have anlytical minds and visual and emotional intelligence. They need a good ear and originality. Stay strong Anonymous. Had I persisted I would have been a success.

  12. Sadly, not an uncommon experience. My sympathies.

    Q : “Is this why Australia has yet to produce the searingly compelling, disruptive television that the UK and America is routinely producing? Are our writers (and audiences) being short-changed by producers who cannot or will not relinquish control or cannot tolerate vesting more power in the mysteries of writers’ imaginations?”

    A : A major factor, yes. But only a factor.

  13. Intelligent narcissists and psychopaths are very efficient in getting into positions of power, REGARDLESS OF THEIR GENDER. They are also very good at grooming a few subservient colleagues who side with them instead of with he bullied persons. This story reminds me very much of what was going on in the public relations department of a university, only the bully there was the male boss. In this case, because it was a workplace with regular employees and not with casuals, the bullied personnel had a bit more clout and achieved, albeit after a fight of a couple of years, the replacement of the bully with someone else.
    Being a bully is not gender-specific, which means that women with a narcissistic disorder are just as good at bullying as men. It also means that it’s somewhat misguided to assume that women won’t bully other women. They are usually mean to members of both sexes, but perhaps they find it a bit easier to be nasty to other women because they know the trigger points. That this producer “came into her professional life during the volatile charisma of the feminism movement” doesn’t automatically make her a feminist, and neither does it automatically want her to support other women. I understand, though, why it’s even more hurtful for a woman to be bullied by another woman, because somehow we just don’t expect it.

  14. Every writer has a horror story (stories!) like this. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta tell a producer/director/exec/whoever to GAGF. Yeah, you’ll probably burn that bridge. But it’s not one you’re gonna walk across anyway. Besides, pissing people off in this industry is inevitable, anyway. There’s way more important things to worry about than credits. So f@%k it…

  15. Wow! Thank you so much for writing this. I am quite shocked, to be honest, that this kind of crap would go on. And so sad that you had to endure it.

    And every question I had about this you answered. And put your vulnerabilities in the centre of the ring to boot. I wish more writers would do this. Bullies like her wouldn’t have such a strong place to stand if more people spoke out. Thanks for doing it. Must have teen tough clicking send on this one.

    Oh, and thanks too for referring to how quickly and easily we can be wounded, thrown back into our childhood. From someone who’s sometimes got the resilience of a wet paper bag, it’s kind of encouraging somehow to see someone acknowledging our human frailty.

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