Fresh off of Frances McDormand’s rousing Oscar acceptance speech in which she introduced the phrase “inclusion riders” into the national lexicon, actress Dakota Fanning provided another example of how women are finding their voices in Hollywood.
Sarah Aubrey, executive vice president of original programming for TNT, said the actress’ manager insisted that Fanning be included in the promotional materials alongside her two male co-stars in the television series The Alienist.
“We had a very explicit conversation about that,” Aubrey said of negotiations with manager Brittany Kahan. “You were not going to be little-missed off the one sheet.”
Aubrey joined with other powerhouse women in television — Paramount Television President Amy Powell, Claws Executive Producer Janine Sherman Barrois, and Warner Bros. TV’s Executive Vice President of Development Susan Rovner — in a frank conversation about how they’re ‘flipping the script’ and driving change in the television industry from the inside-out.
The South by Southwest discussion at times felt like women were dispensing career advice to their girlfriends.
Rovner talked about avoiding the “tiara syndrome,” a term coined by Carol Frohlinger and Deborah Kolb, the founders of Negotiating Women. It refers to women’s expectations that if they keep their heads down and work really hard, someone will notice them an place a tiara on their heads.
“I used to do that,” confided Rovner, noting that she looked around and noticed her male counterparts weren’t waiting around for their promotions. “I picked my head up and said this is what I deserve. I earned it and I’m going to demand it and I’m not going to wait for someone to give me my crown. I’m going to demand my crown.”
Sherman Barrois talked about the trap of apologizing — how women are raised with this conception of politeness. The veteran television executive, who has worked as executive producer on such hit shows as Criminal Minds and ER, talked about how she apologized when she told a group of writers she needed a script the next day.
“A guy pulled me into an office. He said, ‘You never have to apologize. Stop that shit,” Sherman Barrois said, eliciting applause. “Because we’re so used to making everyone feel comfortable and feel good and not being critical, being afraid to be quote/unquote ‘a bitch.’ ” To get into the top jobs, we have to be unapologetic about your decisions.”
The female executives talked about how they’re working to create opportunities for women and people of color in the television industry — and fight for financial parity.
Rovner talked about Ava DuVernay, creator of the drama Queen Sugar, who made it a point of hiring only women to direct each episode.
“We gave all these amazing talented women their first opportunity,” Rovner said, who called to help these women land other gigs. “I went out of my way, saying, ‘I’m calling on behalf of all these women to make sure they get other opportunities.”
Powell, whose Paramount TV studio produces The Alienist for TNT, talked about how the studio deliberately fleshed out the role of Fanning’s character, who was a tertiary figure in Caleb Carr’s best-selling crime novel set in New York City in 1896, from which the series is adapted.
“One of the first things Dakota, (Aubrey) and I talked about was her character having agency and driving story,” said Powell. “Her role in the show was not to be someone’s love interest. We worked hard with our writers to give her something significant.”
Fanning said she likes to think of the character, who is described in the books as the New York City Police Commissioner’s secretary, as a ground-breaking figure who was the first female to work for the New York City Police Department. She even breaks loose of the constricting corsets of the era.
“In the last episode, Sara is actually wearing pants … which is very nervy to wear in the police department, doing her job,” Fanning said.