What We’re Watching: Stacy Rukeyser
On fighting for feminist tv characters
Stacy Rukeyser is at the helm of UNREAL, a satirical look at the dangers of reality television. She talked to Bitch about misogyny and sexism in Hollywood, the renewed purpose of the show, and why she creates such smart and fierce women characters.
What was the first tv show or movie that really stuck with you? The first shows that really stuck with me were The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, and Charlie’s Angels. I have also loved Nora Ephron’s Heartburn since I was 16. When I first started writing for tv, Sex and the City was still on, and I remember feeling so comforted by seeing a single woman on television who was all about her career, but also trying to find love. In the series finale, Carrie gives this speech about how the most important relationship that you can have is the one you have with yourself. It still makes me tear up.
What persuaded you to pursue a career as a television writer, producer, and now, showrunner? I pursued a career as an actress, but it was unfulfilling, so I decided to write a feature film. Then I had an idea for a tv show. It didn’t sell, but I realized I liked writing for tv. Getting into the Warner Bros. Television Writers’ Workshop really changed my career. They introduced us to showrunners, and I realized they were just smart people who wrote great tv. I still deeply admire other showrunners, including men, who create really smart female characters.
Recently, you wrote a column for The Hollywood Reporter about One Tree Hill’s writers’ room being a “frat house” that was a “misogynistic quagmire.” What is the value in women who are
behind the scenes speaking publicly about sexism and misogyny? I hope things are going to change. I know that things got much, much worse at One Tree Hill after I left. That makes me feel even worse about not saying anything at the time. I didn’t really change that environment before I left, but I made decisions about how I would run my [future] show because I cared very deeply about creating a good working environment.
Do you think that having women at the helm of tv shows makes a difference in the kinds of characters we’re now seeing? I really do. Having a feminist suitor was important to me. I was 37 when I met my husband, and until then, I was that career girl who was really thriving but was still single. When we first pitched the idea of a feminist suitor to Lifetime, everybody thought Hillary Clinton was going to be the next
president. But there was a little bit of hesitation from Lifetime about addressing feminism. I fought really hard for that character because these issues felt so personal to me. That’s what you get when you have a female showrunner.
Do you think UNREAL serves a deep and important purpose? The purpose of this show has always been to pull back the curtain on reality tv shows. The princess fantasy that these shows perpetuate is really dangerous. Twenty women are fighting with each other for one man, and they have to look good in a bikini, kiss in hot tubs, and never talk about their work. In exchange, he’ll pick you up in the helicopter and take you to Bali for dinner. It’s so seductive and so ingrained in our culture that even women who are really doing well in their work still have this fantasy that a guy is going to come in on a white horse and save them.