Women Behind Canadian TV: Ellen Vanstone

Mary Barber
Mary Barber

As one of the co-creators behind Rookie Blue and having worked on shows such as Cracked and Remedy, writer and producer Ellen Vanstone has spent a good amount of time behind the scenes on many Canadian television shows. She started her career in journalism, but made the switch to episodic television and helped create one of the most successful Canadian series in Rookie Blue, a show where the majority of writers were female. How was that show able to break the trend that sees an overwhelming majority of men working in behind the scenes positions?

Vanstone recently took part in our Women Behind Canadian TV series here at The TV Junkies to discuss exactly that topic. She shared why it’s sometimes necessary to be uncomfortable and challenge oneself, as well as share some personal experiences from the time she has spent different writers’ rooms in the industry.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Can you share a little about your background and how you got into writing and producing television because I know you’ve worked in some other areas as well?

Ellen Vanstone: As a journalist, I wrote a magazine article that CTV optioned, and then they asked if I was interested in trying my hand at writing a script. That was a huge break into the industry. I was then hired by Ilana Frank [the producer behind Rookie Blue] who’s a really great example of someone who has always used women, and hasn’t done too badly with shows like Rookie Blue and Saving Hope. A lot of people are like ‘Well, there’s not enough experienced women,’ but Ilana gets women from all over the place, and a lot of them are now super successful: Semi Chellas (Mad Men), Esta Spalding (Masters of Sex), Tassie Cameron (Rookie Blue), Morwyn Brebner (Rookie Blue, Saving Hope), Sherry White (Rookie Blue, The Catch), Noelle Carbone (Rookie Blue, Saving Hope), Ley Lukins (Rookie Blue, Lost Girl), Sandra Chwialkowska (X Company, Lost Girl).

TTVJ: You were involved early on in creating and developing Rookie Blue which had a huge female presence. How did diversity factor into your hiring choices when you were putting that show together?

EV: I think Ilana just has really good taste when it comes to casting—whether it’s actors or writers. I don’t know if there was an overt bias towards women, but it seemed to work out that way.

TTVJ: What did Rookie Blue do that other shows could learn from or maybe something other shows aren’t doing that they could emulate?

EV: Rookie Blue was a hit because it had such a terrific showrunner in Tassie Cameron. She brought her own sensibility to shape that show into the charming success that it was, and it just so happens she’s a woman. It’s the way men take for granted how they bring their sensibilities to a show–for better or worse–so when a woman, or a bunch of women, do that, the same thing happens, for better or for worse.

TTVJ: So if we can keep getting women in those top positions–showrunners, executive producers–then they will naturally hire more women to fill the ranks?

EV: Maybe. Probably. I once worked at a magazine where the French-Canadian owner was about to hire a new publisher. The candidates were a guy from Toronto and a guy from Quebec.  So we’re all buzzing and gossiping about who’s going to get the job, and this French-Canadian guy on staff just stares at us like we’re a bunch of idiots and says: “Zee monkey hire zee monkey.” Which is what happened. The Quebec owner hired the Quebec candidate who was most like him. That always stayed with me because it was funny, but also it made me realize how you tend to see yourself reflected in people like you and want to hire them. I’d be as guilty of that as anybody if I had the power, which is why we all have to keep talking so we don’t all do that.

The really good thing that’s happening right now is people are openly talking about the extent of sexism in the industry, from Meryl Streep in Hollywood to you in this series about Canadian women. But we have to be careful. I hate to distinguish and strictly talk about ‘Men are this. Women should do that,’ because there are a lot of men out there who are not against women in their rooms or rising in the ranks, and there are a lot of women–myself included–who can also be unconsciously sexist or male-oriented and we can make our own mistakes. What’s good is that the dialogue is bringing it more into the open, making us all more conscious.

I wasn’t even conscious myself of how sexist it can be until I spent some time in male-dominated rooms. Let me give you some examples.

In one room, it felt like the solution to every story problem was to rape the female lead or guest star in order to raise the stakes. So I finally said, ‘Why does she have to get raped? Why doesn’t the man get raped?’ The men in the room went nuts: “Oh my God Vanstone, what’s wrong with you? That’s sick!’ And for the rest of the week they called me “Man Rape Vanstone.” I’m sort of sitting there going “Do you not see the disconnect here?” Because it was hilariously obvious.

In another room, the men are sitting around saying ‘Well this female character wants power, so how will she get power?’ Then one of them says ‘What if she gets pregnant and doesn’t say who the father is?’ I said ‘You know how Hillary Clinton likes power? Do you think Hillary would get pregnant to become more powerful?’

All of us women have been in any number of rooms where the approach to female characters who are having a lot of sex is that they’re damaged somehow. But no one ever worries that James Bond is an abused husband hiding out from an alcoholic wife or dealing with some kind of childhood trauma. Is that why James Bond is a sex-crazed, martini-obsessed nymphomaniac? Because he’s so damaged? They don’t realize they’re thinking that way, and I don’t blame anyone for having been conditioned to think that way. We all just have to become more aware of that kind of thinking.

TTVJ: Is it also about giving women a shot? There seems to be more programs out there, do those need to be expanded, or should something else be done?

EV: You know there’s these arguments like ‘Well we’d like to hire more women, but the men’s scripts are better,’ and it’s like ‘Oh, OK. Well I guess I’ll just have to be better.’ The fact is that that’s an excuse that people can hide behind–I’m not saying everyone is–but there’s more to a writers’ room than people who can churn out a script. Writing is a very collaborative thing and when you sync up stories in the room, and you collaborate and you break episodes, that’s all part of the writing process that everyone can contribute to while they’re learning to churn it out at the keyboard.

I was just in this room on Carmilla, and it was an all-woman room–it was Sandra Chwialkowska, Ley Lukins, Mika Collins, Jordan Hall (who created the webisode) and me–I don’t know if it was the first all-woman room in Canada, but it was really great and we got a lot done, possibly because we didn’t have to spend so much time explaining what we meant to each other. Still, in that room we were all white, so there’s always challenges.

TTVJ: Because people are always going to go with who they are comfortable with and we need to make that conscious decision to say ‘Let’s leave a spot open,’ or ‘Let’s bring someone new in,’ instead of ‘I’m just going to go with these people I’ve always worked with.’

EV: That’s exactly right. You’ve stated exactly what needs to be done, which is the willingness to be uncomfortable, because change is always uncomfortable.

TTVJ: Well it’s understandable to think ‘I’ve worked with these people before, we were extremely successful so let’s do it again.’

EV: It’s totally understandable. Even when everything is in place and you have a magical combination of the world’s most talented writers, making the show is still going to be hugely difficult. So now we’re asking everyone to challenge themselves further by hiring some unknown person instead of that other person who makes you comfortable. What I would argue is that it’s not just a moral argument, but in the long run it’s also a pragmatic one. Diversity in the room will inevitably make your show show better.

TTVJ: What advice do you have for young women looking to get into writing for television?

EV: I would give the same advice to a young woman, a young man or anybody, which is that there’s nothing you can do but work hard and be aware that there’s always lots of things going on that are for and against you. I don’t think I really have any advice. [laughs] It’s very easy to give these platitudes ‘Speak up! Stand up for yourself! Work hard!’ Doesn’t that all go without saying?

OK, here’s some advice for women. When you’re sitting around with your women friends drinking and complaining about sexism in writing rooms, try to use a certain percentage of that evening to think about creative ways to change the system and support each other.

Every voice is important. Men’s voices are important, women’s voices are important, not to mention voices of persons who identify as neither.

I just want to add one thing. In 1914, a writer in Manitoba, Nellie McClung, was part of a group campaigning for women’s right to vote. After the provincial government threw out their request, she wrote and performed in a satirical show the very next evening, playing the head of an all-female government that mocked and rejected men’s right to vote. The show got national attention, and it was instrumental in making Manitoba the first province to give women the vote, in 1916. The federal government made it universal in 1918.

Do not underestimate the voice of a female writer.


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