Women Behind Canadian TV: Sandra Chwialkowska

Cr: Margaret Chwialkowska
Cr: Margaret Chwialkowska

If television in 2016 taught us anything it’s just how damaging tropes can be. Phrases like ‘Bury Your Gays’ unfortunately became added to viewers’ everyday lexicon, but thanks to social media, fans have started to speak up about plot points and tropes that could be causing more harm than writers think. Figuring out solutions and new ways of telling stories, rather than falling back on harmful tropes, is something X Company writer and co-executive producer Sandra Chwialkowska is very passionate about.

Having written on Seasons 2 and 3 of X Company, as well as shows like Lost Girl and Rookie Blue, strong, multi-dimensional and complex female characters are not new to Chwialkowska. An alumna of the Canadian Film Centre’s Bell Media Prime Time TV Program, she recently spoke to The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series to go in-depth about her experience writing on some of Canadian TV’s most well-known drama series. In addition to sharing her concerns about the perpetuation of harmful tropes, Chwialkowska also recalled experiences she’s had being the token, or one of two, females in a writing room and how harmful tokenism can be to the message of the story.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Have you always been interested in TV and knew that you wanted to write?

Sandra Chwialkowska: I was always interested in screenwriting. It was always just a question of how to get into it because there was something elusive and invisible about it. I studied literature and creative writing in college. After that I just wanted to get on a film set and be in that world. Over several years I worked various jobs in and around writing, but I didn’t know how to break through. I was a PA on a movie called The Squid and the Whale, I was an intern at CBS, I was a publicist, but on my own I was always writing.

It wasn’t until a producer I knew recommended the TV program at the Canadian Film Centre that things changed for me professionally. That really opened the door to meeting showrunners, network executives, other writers and figuring out how the industry landscape worked here in Toronto because I’d previously been working in Los Angeles. It was a very different industry and I didn’t really have any contacts in Toronto. So coming to the Film Centre was a way to meet everyone who works in the industry in Canada, which was a big shift and when my professional writing really began.

TTVJ: Upon quick glance of your resume you see shows like Rookie Blue, Lost Girl and X Company, all with lots of female writers on their staffs, but have you ever been that token female in the room?

SC: I have been the token female, or one of two, which can be very limiting. When you’re the only female in the room you’re looked to the point of view or voice of the female character. ‘What would she do at this juncture?’ Well the danger of any form of tokenism–racial, LGBT or any character that is different–is the danger of them having to encompass all aspects. So you lose opportunity to do specific or unique characters because all the sudden the one female has to represent all women.

My first job out of the Film Centre was on a cable half hour called The Yard. It was a small room made up of me and two men who were my bosses. The great thing about that though was that even though I the only female writing, they were incredibly open to my perspective which was different from theirs, even to inventing characters who weren’t in the world. We had a female character that was a good one and another female character that was more sexually promiscuous, but I said ‘what about the nerdy villain?’. They were incredibly open, so I was lucky in that regard.

When you’re the token female and representing female characters you fall into speaking for all women, which takes away from showing a bigger tapestry of women. So you fall into problematic areas of stereotyping or tropes that aren’t showing a wider variety of character types.

CBC
CBC

TTVJ: You worked on Lost Girl, a show that was revolutionary for both female and queer representation. How do you think working on that show helped your career?

SC: Two of the biggest influences on my career have been Tassie Cameron (Rookie Blue) and Emily Andras who was the showrunner on Seasons 3 and 4 of Lost Girl. What I loved about that show, first as a fan and then as a writer and producer in the room, was that it really approached the idea of female friendship in a non-aggressive way. With so many films and shows we see women pitted against each other in combative ways and the Bo/Kenzi friendship is, beyond all the other love stories in that series, the greatest love story of all. Two women who were incredible friends, they had their issues, but they always had each other’s backs. That was really important to Emily and definitely a pillar of that show. At the time it was rare to see, and one of those friendships I found incredibly wonderful and aspirational as well, to where I was like ‘I just want to be friends with them.’

TTVJ: You joined X Company in Season 2, the same year where the female characters really seemed to step up. Do you think there’s any correlation to that happening and the fact that there were more female voices in the room?

SC:  I think Mark [Ellis] and Stephanie [Morgenstern] were always very keen to show all the characters and their complexity. For me personally, when I go into any room I always gravitate towards the characters I relate to the most. They are typically female because I’m female. I was really drawn to Sabine, she didn’t have a huge role in the first season, but in Season 2 I thought she was fascinating because she was an innocent, and in some ways the most relatable to the viewer. Most people aren’t spies and she was someone experiencing the horrors of the war like a regular civilian.

I relate to that and can put myself in that position. What is that like when you find out your husband is a Nazi and how do you stay married to someone like that? So often when I was pitching ideas I’d come back to things like ‘what is Aurora like?’ She was hanging out with a bunch of male spies in a safehouse, the way I was hanging out with guys in a writing room. I was often thinking of stories through their perspective. So I’d tend to pitch Miri, Sabine and Aurora ideas–not exclusively but probably more–because we tend to write what we know.

In Season 3 we had even more women in the room, it was true parity, and you’ll see there’s even more juicy roles for women coming your way. If there is an element of arithmetic to it, I think the more perspectives you have, people tend to come at it from a personal vantage point. So it does often come out like that, as the more women in the room the more women on screen–not just in terms of bodies, but point of view like ‘what would Sabine actually do?’ That’s an interesting math that tends to happen that the screen can, over time, begin to reflect the makeup of the room.

TTVJ: Given that you’ve written on shows with so many multi-dimensional female characters, which of those was your favorite to write for?

SC: I mentioned earlier that one of the great influences I had early on was Tassie Cameron. I owe her a lot because she gave me my first hour long credit on Rookie Blue. She really gave me my first chance, hooked me up with my first job, went to bat for me and really took a risk hiring me. But Gail Peck is a really fun character on Rookie Blue and I love Charlotte Sullivan.

She wasn’t a main character in the early seasons, as it was the Andy and Sam show, but I loved her because she had all the best zingers. I also always had this feeling that she was slightly misunderstood and that there was a lot of depth there. I was really drawn to her and the sides that we weren’t seeing. Charlotte has so much variety, humor and quirk that I remember pitching an episode and saying ‘can we give Charlotte the A story?’ To Tassie’s credit she said ‘let’s go for it!’

It was a risk but that was so much fun to write and incredibly validating to have your showrunner say ‘we haven’t done this before, but let’s do it!’ I love writing for characters that have the best lines because you have fun thinking them up. So I’d say Gail and then Kenzi and Tamsin on Lost Girl.

Global TV
Global TV

TTVJ: What are some of the biggest challenges you think still exist for women in the industry?

SC: It’s challenging for all writers in Canada as the rooms get smaller, the orders get smaller and the number of shows get smaller. There’s more of an attempt to hire women and to find representation and parity in a room. I do find that’s really shifted a lot in the last six years I’ve been working. Six years ago it felt like ‘OK we got one, we have enough!’ Obviously, I’m not including Emily rooms or Tassie rooms which have always been at least equal.

There’s challenges in the way we represent females and female stories. A lot of it is how to express the female gaze and avoid tropes that are very damaging. A lot has been written lately about TV shows trying to get rid of the rape trope, which I’m in support of. There’s other tropes such as ‘can you have a female character who is ambitious without her ambition coming from the fact that she doesn’t have children?’

I was hired to lead an adaptation for Corus and had a mini incubator room where I brought in a couple female writers. Something we talked a lot about was how we could do a murder mystery without falling into pitfalls and tropes that are damaging to women. So much of the structure of mystery storytelling involves those elements. One is that if someone is murdered, there’s a body and the female body is usually fetishized. She’s found naked, the camera lingers and it’s gross. It happens all the time and has become part of the canon of how to tell that story. In most writers’ rooms we’d barely talk about it, but in this room we talked a lot about how we can hit the plot point, but not fetishize it, not be degrading, not be sexist. How do we tell the story and make it compelling without falling in these traps?

That was a really different experience and it was so great to have these different women in the room to talk about these things we see on TV that really frustrate us. As soon as you engage your imagination, you find solutions or turn tropes on their head, and there’s ways out of it if you’re aware and trying to solve the problem without leaning back and getting lazy onto pre-established tropes. There’s just things we repeat that there’s ways around. A woman can just be ambitious just because she’s ambitious, not because she’s had a miscarriage.

TTVJ: I think that was a similar intent the Saving Hope writers had with the Lexa Pledge. They weren’t saying you can’t kill gay characters, but just think about it and if there are other ways to tell your story.

SC: That’s exactly it, and it’s hard to talk about this stuff without generalizing because everyone has their own sensitivities. I have a really hard time watching an episode of television that has a rape in it because something inside me shuts down and I don’t want to continue. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell stories that involve rape because Jessica Jones handled it beautifully. It told it from the point of view of the survivor, and it told it without showing it or objectifying the victim. It’s just finding different ways of telling the story and I found it way more affecting, way more powerful and way more compelling because of that.

 

What do you love about the characters on X Company and Lost Girl? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

X Company airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on CBC. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.

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