Rachel Langer has only been writing for television a few years now, but it’s been long enough for her to gain some perspective when it comes to the lack of women in many television writing rooms. She began as a writers’ assistant on Season 3 of Continuum and is now a writer for the CBC series This Life and REBOOT: The Guardian Code. She was also the recipient of the Bell Media National fellowship in 2012.
Langer joined the The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries, where we look to shine a light on the lack of gender diversity in many behind the scenes positions. She shared her views on the challenges that still lie ahead for women and some of her experience as part of several male-dominated writing rooms.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: Can you share a little about your background and how you got into writing for television?
Rachel Langer: I grew up in Edmonton and I actually went to music school and failed spectacularly at being able to perform in front of people, so I thought ‘Maybe that isn’t the best idea for a career.’ My husband, was going to film school and he wanted to move out to the coast. So he went to film school and did all this really cool stuff and I thought, ‘You know what? I want to do that.’
I started writing really, really terrible samples for awhile and tried to meet everyone I could in television. The showrunners in Canada are very open and accessible to having a coffee and just chatting with you which is great. I was writing some docu-drama, basically the Canadian Dateline, but it was great experience because it was partially scripted and a lot of interviews. That at least got me some experience.
I was then writing freelance for TV_eh? and got to do a couple interviews with showrunners which was great because it got my face in front of them. Eventually I just started querying them for writers’ assistant jobs. I emailed Simon Barry from Continuum and said ‘I can make lunches and get coffee and take notes. I just really need to get my first job in a room.’ He said ‘Great! Can you start in 3 days?’ I was on Continuum for six weeks and then I went to the Canadian Film Centre as part of their primetime program. I did the television program there and after that it’s been an easier ride because you get a lot of people to know you from there.
TTVJ: Specifically, how do programs such as that primetime program at the CFC help young writers?
RL: The CFC is both an education program and a gatekeeping program. It sets you up in a real writers’ room situation with a showrunner in residence and vets you for a future of being in the room with a working showrunner. Then it also introduces you to the people you’ll be working with, for, and pitching during your career, offering a space where you can learn and connect so that when you come out of the program, you understand what’s required both on the business and networking side, in development and in the room. It was an extremely valuable thing for me.
TTVJ: What’s been the makeup of the writers’ rooms you’ve been a part of in your career? Are they mostly men or have they been fairly equal?
RL: On Continuum there were two women, me as the assistant and then one that was the co-executive producer, Shelley Eriksen, but there were eight people in the room. Olympus was the same, Gillian Horvath and I were the two women out of six. This Life in development was equal, two women and two guys. Once we moved out to production it was just me and Joe [Kay] and our script coordinator, so again equal which has been cool. REBOOT there were three women and four guys, which was a pretty big triumph because it’s often billed as a boys’ action series, even though it’s just an action series, so it was great to have three women in there.
TTVJ: Both Continuum and This Life have male showrunners. Do you think there would’ve been any major changes if they had been led by females instead?
RL: I don’t think so. I’ve been really lucky working with male showrunners who are big advocates for women. It’s the same on REBOOT, Mike Kiss is probably the biggest feminist in the room which is pretty great. I think there are definitely shows that would’ve had serious changes, but in these cases it felt really collaborative and it didn’t feel like the male gaze was taking over. It felt very open.
TTVJ: What do you think the biggest challenges are for women trying to break into television writing?
RL: I think there are a couple major things, and it’s a bit of a mental game for women which is a really challenging thing. I know for myself, I struggle to negotiate or ask for the things I want. I have a great agent so I don’t have to usually worry too much about that, but even when she’s negotiating on my behalf I kind of feel like an asshole a lot of the time, and I’m like ‘Oh no, I should just take what they give me and be thankful I’m working.’
I’m not sure if that’s a personality thing, although I have heard a lot of other women say similar things. I think often times it’s due to this idea that we’re going to be perceived as difficult if we ask for certain things, whereas if a dude asks for stuff it’s just ‘He’s just backing up and asking. That’s what dudes do.’ I think there’s a bit of a stigma around that and around the idea that if we are really firmly standing up for something that we believe in, then we might get labeled as emotional–I hesitate to say hysterical–but there’s just a bit of a stigma around why we’re fighting and why we’re standing up. I just think it takes a lot of work to break that kind of stuff.
In the same way I feel like I’ve been really lucky in that sense that in the positions that I’ve worked in, I haven’t felt a lot of negative energy coming back that way. I think there’s been interviews and pitches I’ve had where I think ‘OK that’s just never going to work because they don’t see what I’m talking about.’
The other thing is that a lot of the time women are getting hired because they are women. You can land on either side of the fence on that issue. It’s great that people are hiring women because we need more women. At the same time there’s that thing in the back of your brain saying ‘Are my ovaries the only reason I got the job?’ That can be a bit of a challenge but I think for me, the concession that I’ve made, is that this is such a hard industry to break into that anything that gets you in the door you should take it. Maybe they’ll hire you the first time because you’re a woman, but the second time is going to be because you’re great. If that’s what it takes to get in and prove you can do the job just as well as anybody else then that’s fine by me.
TTVJ: Since one of the biggest issues is just getting that foot in the door, would it help if the CFC program was opened up to more participants or other programs like it existed? Would that help more women get started with their careers?
RL: My year at the CFC was an even split between ladies and dudes which was great. If they were to open up the CFC to more people it would make it hard to make sure that the doors they are able to open would stay open because the volume would become challenging. Programs like that have to tread a fine line between providing amazing opportunity while remaining small to ensure that they can continue to provide those opportunities. I think female focused programs like Women in Film & Television (WIFTV) and the From Our Dark Side genre competition are a great companion to programs like the CFC that help female creators find their start, and continue their success and go on to support other female creators.
TTVJ: Canadian television has some women in very prominent positions behind the scenes. What are your peers doing that you’re really enjoying at the moment?
RL: I am a huge fan of Daegan Fryklind who is doing Bitten. I don’t know, she just does it with such poise and grace. She makes it look easy and I know it’s not easy. It’s a really tough job. Between her and Emily Andras who’s doing Wynonna Earp and Shelley Eriksen who is on The Code, there are just so many amazing women who are running shows and doing it with humor and dedication and I just love seeing that. It makes it feel that it’s within our grasp and the way things are moving.
Thoughts? Comments? Sound off below! Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.