Women Behind Canadian TV: Alexandra Zarowny

Credit: Alexandra Zarowny
Credit: Alexandra Zarowny

Thankfully the notion of television shows employing a “token female” writer seems to be a thing of the past. However, it’s something writer and producer Alexandra Zarowny did experience firsthand while working her way up in the Canadian television ranks. After spending several years in television production, Zarowny decided to switch gears and become a writer. Since graduating from the Bell Media Prime Time TV Program at the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) she has written and produced on various shows such as Murdoch Mysteries and Lost Girl.

More recently, Zarowny has joined her Lost Girl boss Emily Andras, working as a writer and co-executive producer on the upcoming SyFy series Wynonna Earp. The new action adventure series will introduce viewers to Wynonna (Melanie Scrofano), Wyatt Earp’s great granddaughter, who battles demons and other creatures using her unique abilities. Zarowny joined The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series to discuss why she loves writing characters like Wynonna and Lost Girl’s Bo (Anna Silk), and what she sees as the biggest differences between working in writers’ rooms with gender diversity and those where she was the “token female.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Can you first just share a little bit about your background and how you got into television writing?

Alexandra Zarowny: I was a producer of lifestyle programming and director of development for a small company in Alberta, then I hit a certain birthday and said ‘Hey! Didn’t I want to be a writer?’ So I applied to the CFC which was a great transitional tool for me. It allowed me to get a lay of the land and introduce myself as a writer to a lot of the producers and broadcasters. I had a good sample which attracted the attention of an agent. They got me work on Radio Free Roscoe and after that it was Degrassi, Murdoch Mysteries, The Listener, Republic of Doyle, Lost Girl and now Wynonna Earp.

Once I got my foot in the door, I met some exceptionally strong and supportive people who were loyal to writers they had a shorthand with and enjoyed working with, which is huge because you don’t want to be in the trenches with people you don’t respect or trust. I owe my success mostly to a lot of generous men and women who had patience for my particular brand of awkward.

TTVJ: The Lost Girl writers’ room had a lot of women, but what’s been the general makeup of rooms throughout your career?

AZ: I would say most of the rooms I’ve worked in lately have been split far more equally than when I started out. When I first began writing in rooms, there was still the practice of ‘We need a female voice in here to fill a niche.’ Maybe that niche was “a lighter touch,” or “a female sensibility,” “a girl to write girls.” I think a niche like that is always quite dangerous because if that niche goes away, then so does the need for that particular brand of writer. But that’s how it started, with me filling a supposed “chick” niche, something that is pretty ridiculous considering male writers have been writing great female characters for years.

I have to say there are a lot of terrific guys who gave me my first jobs and who I would consider my mentors, like Bob Carney and Cal Coons. But on the flip side, I’ve absolutely come across men who were dangerously sexist, and who said inappropriately personal things in order to jostle for a better position, whether arguing a story point or cutting in line at lunch. But the men who helped me develop my voice early on, the ones I enjoyed working with, were those who, as I learned, were secure in their own abilities and who they were as people. I don’t think they felt the need to make me, or anybody else under them, male or female, feel inadequate. They just wanted to find good writers with strong and unique points of view, and see how those people meshed with the material they were working on.

TTVJ: So when you found yourself in those rooms where it’s mostly men, what was your strategy? Do you feel like you have to come in and prove that you’re down with them?

AZ: Definitely. The boys’ club is a very specific type of environment, one some of my male friends have talked openly and frankly about. Often when a lot of guys get together in a writers’ room, or in any situation–maybe it’s the hunter in them–they typically look for the weakest animal, someone they can dominate. That’s the one they will mercilessly tease or disparage or even humiliate–whether it’s a guy or a girl.

So as “The” girl in the room, in order to not feel completely vulnerable, you typically “go blue first.” Throw down the gauntlet. Hit them with a “C U Next Tuesday” first and somehow that can make a room full of guys extremely comfortable. You have to prove that you’re quite ballsy, that you’re tough and that you’re definitely, definitely not going to cry–which they are apparently terrified of. You don’t want to be reactive in a way that might be construed as “too emotional,” which I think is hilarious because it’s very insulting to any artist, all of whom need to access their emotions in order to write great characters and stories that resonate.

SyFy
SyFy

TTVJ: Conversely then, what’s the biggest difference you notice in rooms that have mostly women?

AZ: Those rooms are where I really started to find out who I was a writer. When I was in a room with all men–and you recognize you’re the token woman in the room–you do feel like you have a role to play. So you’re trying to figure out what that role is exactly that will best help your co-writers and yourself to be successful. You’re trying to make the other people in the room comfortable with who you are because you don’t want to freak them out by being too emotional, or sensitive or quiet. Unfortunately, what that tends to do is stifle your own creativity because you’re not allowing yourself to let your freak flag fly. Working with women–and maybe it’s just because I’ve worked with amazingly freaky women who aren’t afraid to let their flags fly–I know I have grown as a writer, and allowed myself to grow as a writer, because I feel so much more comfortable.

It’s not necessarily because they are women, it’s just because I don’t feel like I’m playing a role. Once you’re coming in as a writer and not THE female writer, you’re forced to face your own abilities and ask ‘Well what kind of writer am I?’ You’re trying to find out what makes your point of view unique.

TTVJ: You’ve written on shows such as Lost Girl and now Wynonna Earp with these multi-dimensional female characters. Are those the type of characters you enjoy writing the most and why’s it so important to show so many sides of women like Bo, other than her just kicking ass?

AZ: I relate to them a bit more in the sense that every character I write and want to write is complicated. I like the fact that there are a lot of female characters out there–like Bo and Wynonna–that are unapologetic in their complexity. They don’t have to explain why they are complex from a female standpoint, because they are just people, and it’s OK to be a psychologically complex character.

What makes them more relatable to me as a woman is that they want to look cute while they are kicking ass. They would care if their hair fell out of their perfect ponytail. They still want to talk to their best friends after they’ve snuffed out a villain about boys and the perfect lip gloss–which is a very, very important thing for female characters, including myself. I am still searching. Where is the perfect lip gloss? [laughs]

TTVJ: It’s also something my six year old daughter and I discuss on a daily basis.

AZ: Exactly! That’s just it. I think some women, like myself, have been afraid in the past to explore that femininity, even in the room. You don’t know how many times I dressed down in the room, because if you show up in a skirt and heels you can get a bit ribbed. Now I feel different. Wear the lipstick. Or not. But just don’t be afraid to be yourself in the room.

I love the idea of setting stages where women and young girls can recognize themselves, and understand that they can build equally grandiose stages to play on that explore every facet of who they are, and that it’s OK to do that. You don’t have to compartmentalize who you are. You don’t have to be one thing at any given time. You can be everything all at once and sometimes – okay, most times – it’s going to be messy, but you know what? That’s what makes an amazing character. And, I think, an amazing writer as well.

It’s also really interesting to explore the ideas surrounding women’s sexuality. What does being sexy mean? Is it when you’re kicking butt and wearing heels? Is that part of the male fantasy? Is that servicing them or is it also servicing our fantasies? I think there was a pulling back from allowing women to be more feminine as heroes and villains–I’m thinking of Trinity from The Matrix–because we were fighting against the giant-busted, tiny waisted, typically male vision of a heroine, but now we’re allowing ourselves to explore femininity as a reflection of the female fantasy, the female gaze.

SyFy
SyFy

TTVJ: You had a baby during your time on Lost Girl. When you got pregnant did you have any concerns about people thinking, ‘Oh this is the problem with women writers, they get pregnant and we have to give them time off’?

AZ: When I first joined Lost Girl, Jeremy Boxen called me to work on the show I said ‘You do know I’m six months pregnant.’ So there was always a clock on how long I was going to be with Lost Girl the first time. But this is our jokeme, Emily [Andras], Michelle Lovretta, Anna Silk–we all had babies on Lost Girl. So it was a very baby-friendly community.

The second time I got pregnant I told Emily right away and was confident that she would be nothing but supportive. However, I did keep the pregnancy fairly quiet because some people–and I think it’s a terrible thing in this day and age–have very set opinions about pregnant women and how their growing bellies apparently push out all creativity, and brain functions are reduced to decorating baby rooms. I know of a couple of women who have gotten pregnant on shows with male showrunners who responded to pregnancy with, “This is why I shouldn’t hire women.” To me, that’s a showrunner who shouldn’t be working with people and probably shouldn’t be writing them either. With the right people, being pregnant on a show can be great, and can mean special grilled cheese deliveries from craft, but in other rooms, you can feel like people are already looking beyond you and filling your position.

Again, it all seems to me to come down to whether the people you work with are secure enough to not be threatened by another person, sometimes of a different sex, in the room. I’ve worked with some terrifically creative and supportive men like Jeremy Boxen and Dennis Heaton who love working with smart, funny, complex, crazy, cool people, regardless of whether they’re man, woman or alien.

TTVJ: It seems that one of the biggest challenges is growing the pool of young women writing so that more are hired. How can we get that to happen?

AZ: I think letting them know that it’s an actual possibility and inspiring by doing it. One of the things that I love about Emily is that she’s a completely kick ass woman who knows herself but who admits when she doesn’t know if something’s working or not. She’s wickedly funny and an amazing storyteller. She’s incredibly supportive. Watching her and what she has done in her uniquely balls-out way, and how she navigates those sometimes murky waters with terrific diplomacy is inspiring. Seeing other women succeed continues to inspire me to do my own thing and work hard to get there.

We’re at a time right now in history where there are certain things that are just not acceptable in a professional working environment, where tolerance has been tested enough. Beyond the tolerance for unacceptable behaviour–tolerance for even having to explain to people why belittling actions and words are not allowable. We still, in my experience and with certain men in certain situations, take the time to explain gently and carefully why some ways of acting towards women and speaking to women are not acceptable. We still ignore or joke or roll our eyes out of it. Why are we still doing this? When somebody says something inappropriate, we don’t have to take the time to say ‘I want to talk about feminism and why your behaviour in the workplace is wrong.’ If you haven’t caught that bus yet, then I’m not stopping to pick you up. You’re on your own and you’re going to get left behind.

If we create environments for young women in our industry of zero tolerance for people who say things like ‘Well that was really funny for a girl,’ or ‘your boobs look great in that shirt’ then we create conditions where women don’t feel like they have to navigate the waters so carefully. They’ll be free to let their creativity flow and, in the end, grow faster and stronger as writers which is better for all of us in the industry.

When you’re young and just starting out, you’re terrified and so scared of everything, and what you can’t possibly understand when people tear strips out of you because you’re a woman, is that they are also insecure and scared. But if their fear is hurting you, that’s not okay. We, the ones who have been around for a while, the ones who have a modicum of power–I’m talking to senior writers, showrunners, producers and broadcasters–need to start changing things by example, by responding to inappropriate behaviour and words with ‘No! I’m not going to tell you why, just no.’ Because if people who put women down for being women aren’t getting it yet, now in 2016, then they are just taking time and energy away from those of us who have imminently more important things to do. Like shop for lip gloss.

 

Thoughts? Comments? Sound off below! Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.

Wynonna Earp will premiere Friday, April 1 on SyFy and Monday, April 4 at 9 p.m. ET on CHCH in Canada.

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