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How the TV Industry Can Better Protect Writers From the Next Toxic Showrunner

As Matthew Weiner plots a dramedy for FX, Noxon — who backed Kater Gordon's claims that the 'Mad Men' creator sexually harassed her — offers nine suggestions to avoid workplace abuse.

Marti Noxon (Left) and Kater Gordon

In late 2017, Emmy-winning Mad Men writer Kater Gordon accused the show's creator, Matthew Weiner, of sexual harassment. In a corroborated article, she alleged that while working together late one night on the former AMC drama, Weiner told her that she owed it to him to let him see her naked. A year later and after co-winning the Emmy, Gordon was let go from the critically acclaimed series. She has not worked in Hollywood since. She most recently founded the charitable fund Modern Alliance and joined the board of Hollaback, two efforts dedicated to preventing and ending sexual harassment. Weiner, meanwhile, has repeatedly denied Gordon's allegations, telling The New York Times in October 2018, "I have reasons I don't believe that I said it, if that makes sense, but I really don't remember saying it." Former Mad Men writer Marti Noxon publicly backed Gordon's claims. Now, as Weiner attempts to plot a comeback with a dramedy in development at Disney-owned FX, the two women look back at the experience and offer a plan for how to create a safer working environment so that history doesn't repeat itself. (FX declined comment.)

One of the worst things about experiencing gender discrimination, hostile work environments and sexual harassment over the many years of my career was that I was usually believed. 

Matthew Weiner

Let me repeat that. I was absolutely believed by most people. 

The stories I reported were in workplaces known for the type of abuse I was experiencing, or at the hands of people who had reputations for all sorts of bad — and even illegal — behavior. 

This problem is hardly unique to Hollywood, but it is surely true that this town loves the "difficult genius" myth almost as much as it loves male CEOs. And too often, that dictates enabling abusive people and systems in the name of art. A writer friend familiar with discrimination law put it best: "It's the rare industry that has such low accountability it attracts people who either can't or willfully refuse to work in environments that require it. It's a feature, not a bug."

And so, while I was believed, there was either no response, or little more than a "conversation" with the perpetrator that amounted to a slap on the wrist. I heard "they're going through a hard time" or "I know, it's awful, but what can you do?" or "everyone hates it, but they're so talented" or "yes, it's horrible, but at least it's not as bad as working with …" And for the worst cases "yes, you can report. But the consequences might be that people are afraid to hire you again." 

Even when I did speak to the companies I was employed by — I could feel the brutal math of corporate America at work: How much will it cost us to address this? And what do we stand to lose if we do? In the end, it was more profitable to roll the dice, hope everyone got out alive, and do the bare minimum. Did I take the next step and hire a lawyer or report it to HR? No. But it felt quite clear that to do so was to stand alone. I wasn't that brave, or that powerful. 

I bring this up in the wake of the firing of Peter Lenkov, the latest in a series of showrunners who were in the "open secret" club for being misogynist and abusive — as well as the recent decision by FX to develop a new show with Matthew Weiner, a creator who, as reported in the publication The Information and other media outlets, has a corroborated past of sexual harassment and bullying on his show, Mad Men.

I was well aware of his history, because I was one of two women who spoke out. The other was Kater Gordon

When Ms. Gordon boldly came forward, I felt galvanized and terrified. Not only did I remember what happened to her, I had my own troubling experience with Matthew during my time working on the show. So, as I'd done before and like so many who have been in similarly toxic environments do regularly, I ran the math of the marginalized: How much will it cost me, in my career and reputation, to speak the truth? And how much mental anguish will I face from dealing with detractors and mud-slingers? To complicate matters further, I had been open about a period of relapse with alcohol during my professional life, and while I was solidly sober again, I feared my history might be used against me.

Despite the calculations, I felt I had to address my experience, in the hope of perhaps preventing others from having to endure the same. 

When the news was announced about the show, both Ms. Gordon and I got calls from media outlets. How did we feel? Did we wish to comment? We spoke at length about our feelings in light of the news, our trepidations about addressing the subject again, and how to proceed. We agreed that, while reliving this is difficult, we are still individually committed to changing the toxic culture that to this day, often goes unchecked. We know that when someone is credibly accused and refuses to be accountable for their behavior — or chalks it up to a reckless sense of humor, seeing them rewarded further discourages other victims or bystanders from speaking up.

It appears John Landgraf and FX have done the calculus and decided to go forward with a project that could expose them and their employees to significant risk. What will they do to prevent the same behavior from happening again?

In order to create safer working conditions, Ms. Gordon and I consulted several experts and advocacy organizations, including New America and Hollaback, and we offer the following recommendations based both on our personal experience and on their good work. Moving forward, I commit to implementing them on my productions and encourage all studios to do so as well:

• Assistants should only work in the writer's room, production facilities or office, and when others are present.

• Ban alcohol and drugs from the workplace as they increase incidents of harassment, aggression, and disrespectful behavior.

• At least two members of a production should be present at hiring interviews for writers and support staff.

• Studio personnel should hold exit interviews for anyone above the line who is dismissed from the show or leaves voluntarily. This will help reveal issues within the production.

• Assistants and support staff should be paid a living wage that also incorporates any and all overtime worked. The lack of both career and financial security is disempowering and creates a dynamic where one must choose between supporting themselves or submitting to oppressive or exploitative behavior. (#PayUpHollywood) 

• Have a succession plan prepared for a change of leadership. Often companies are not prepared to protect their shows — and the jobs of their employees — in the case of reported and confirmed abuse.

• Require in-person, or live, bystander intervention training that addresses sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying, and racism for all employees. 

• Engage a neutral third-party reporting service such as tEQuitable and AllVoices. These systems allow individuals to raise awareness of an issue privately and protect workers from retaliation.

• In accordance with law now passed in 13 states, including California and New York, NDAs must focus more narrowly on the protection of confidential business information rather than on covering up a company's bad practices.

While we applaud the steps FX has taken to increase diversity and inclusion at the director and writer level, we ask for the same resolve to raise up all their employees and foster a healthy work environment. Providing opportunity is incredibly important, but ensuring that these opportunities are safe (in every sense of the word) is also pivotal. A serious commitment and accountability from the studio to be part of the solution on all fronts is what this moment demands. 

Because there is yet another cost to the math of feigned ignorance about workplace abuse — it can silence the very voices places like FX say they want to promote, both creatively and in corporate culture.

When Kater and I spoke out, we were told by many people in the industry — often in whispers — that we were believed. It's time for that to mean something. 

Marti Noxon contributed to this post. She is a writer-producer whose TV credits include Sharp Objects, Dietland, Mad Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grey's Anatomy and Glee. She made her feature film directorial debut with 2017's To the Bone. Kater Gordon won an Emmy for writing on Mad Men. She founded the charitable fund Modern Alliance and serves on the board of Hollaback.

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