Following in the footsteps of powerful women in Hollywood like Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lawrence, The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore writer and performer Robin Thede has penned a personal essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, calling for gender equality and racial diversity in the entertainment industry — particularly in the writers’ room.
“I’m a black, female late-night comedy writer,” Thede’s essay begins. “Stop laughing, I’m serious. We exist. We’re just super-rare.” She goes on to cite a recent article in Complex, which finds that of the 155 writers currently working on the top 10 late-night talk shows, only eight (about five percent) are women of color.
Thede, who became the first and only black woman in history to hold the title of head writer on a late-night talk show across the first season and a half of The Nightly Show, has also written awards show bits, sketch shows, and sitcoms for top-tier talent, including Chris Rock, Queen Latifah, and Kevin Hart. Now, she’s using her platform to support the Writers Guild of America, East’s proposed amendment to the Empire State Film Production Credit. The diversity tax credit is facing opposition, despite aiming to “tangibly increase the number of women and people of color in writing and directing positions” by allotting around $5 million of New York’s $420 million credit for film and TV production to projects that hire qualified women and people of color in writing and directing roles.
“Women writers and writers of color are chronically underrepresented in television and film across the board (Shonda Rhimes can’t do it ALL, people. OK, she can, but she shouldn’t have to),” Thede writes, citing the 28.7 percent of overall TV writers who are women (13 percent minority) and 16.9 percent of female screenwriters working in film (7 percent minority). “If these numbers don’t make you angry, they should. They certainly piss me off.”
“Look at the world around you. Do you see only white men in it? No, you walk by people of all races, religions, genders, and entertainment interests. Why wouldn’t you want a writers’ room to reflect the world as it actually exists?” Thede continues. “I would love to see more three-dimensional Black, Latino, Native American and Asian characters who can do more than just say one-liners. I would love to see women who are more than just one-note emotional zombies waiting for a man to tell them how to feel.”
Though Thede references TV works by Issa Rae (HBO’s upcoming series Insecure), Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black), and Dee Rees (Bessie) as proof that great work can come from underrepresented perspectives, she fears that hiring practices in Hollywood will stifle the voices of their female and minority successors.
“When there’s a position to fill, showrunners and producers (usually white men) ask writers (usually white men) for suggestions, and they recommend their friends (usually white men), and the cycle continues,” she explains, urging people to voice their support for the WGAE’s amendment — which passed the New York State Assembly but still needs to pass through the Senate — by emailing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and two key state senators by June 16. “I know it requires more than a retweet or just pressing the ‘like’ button, but aren’t we all craving a little more sophisticated communication these days? Your small effort can literally make TV and film better and help provide opportunities to countless qualified writers and directors. And it’s free!”