Sexual Harassment in the TV Industry (When You’re a Nobody)

Sexual harassment is the norm in the TV & film industry, where you are not only expected to take it, but do so with a smile. Gretchen Carlson enjoys the benefits of fame and the ability to afford hot-shot attorneys. My experience is much more common.

Spoiler alert: If you’re a nobody who complains about mistreatment, they make you disappear.

WORKING STIFFY

(An excerpt from “Welcome to Audreality.”)

The TV & film production scene in Portland is a microcosm. With frequent fourteen- to sixteen-hour shifts, there isn’t much to do outside of work, but sleep. Not much time for that either! The people you spend all day with on set become your entire social network. It’s an exclusive, busy group of hard­working individuals.

Sometime in 2011 (when I was still acting), I’d arrived a few minutes early for a non-­speaking role. Background. Killing time outside, ran into a familiar face, Sparky! He’s an advanced editor, but also owns specialized vehicles, cameras and other equipment that he rents out for local projects. He knows his stuff!

Sparky said, “Wow, you’ve gotten into shape.”

Flattered, explained the cause for my transformation, “I’ve been working on a film project. Seeing myself on screen made me realize, I had to make some changes: work out more, drink less… and be more of a lady.”

Sparky laughed and said he doubted I was ever fat. Also, if I needed help on the film project, let him know. Took him up on it that instant! Sparky brought me into the world of video editing. He set me up with my own equipment and taught me how to use it. He was my go­-to video ­tech guy, preparing for the Audreality premier. Then he saved me again, when he sent me to meet the Assistant Director of a major film, to get a job.

Gone was in it’s final week of shooting when Sparky alerted me, they needed “an army of PAs” (Production Assistants) for some big, urban scenes. At every intersection along the perimeter of the set, they needed PAs to “lock it up,” stopping traffic and keeping the gawking onlookers out of sight.

On that gig, met a woman who booked me as a PA on an Audi commercial a couple weeks later. Same routine: lock up intersections and keep the general public out of the way.

Other production jobs were not nearly so mundane. Noticed a guy who I’d originally seen almost twenty years ago, on the set of “Fifteen & Pregnant.” He was bossing around a few dudes, moving equipment.

I asked, “How come there aren’t any women in your department?”

“Girls don’t do this kind of stuff,” said the Boss. “It’s hard, dirty work and you have to be able to move a lot of weight.”

“Sounds like my kind of job!”

He scoffed, “You wanna be a Juicer?”

Having no clue what “Juicer” meant, I replied, “Yep, I’m tough. I love physical activity.” Giving him my card I said, “Next time you need hands, call me.”

The Boss requested my assistance on some small tasks during the Audi shoot, mainly hauling beanbag weights. He seemed to get a kick out of watching.

Soon got a message from the Boss, inviting me to join his crew on one of the TV shows shooting in Portland. It’s the biggest thing to happen in the production scene here, ever: a primetime, major network series.

“Juicer” means Rigging Electrician. Learned that my first day, filling out new-­hire paperwork. The guy who was overseeing things was a large man with long black dreads, black shades and a wide, bright smile. Gooch.

Stopping at the job title box, I asked, “What’s my job title… Juicer?”

Grinning, he said, “The technical term is Rigging Electrician.”

If you’re new to the field, you’re “Green” or a “Greenie” (like an unripe banana). Gooch took me under his wing, teaching me about the high­-voltage world of Rigging Electrics. We made it possible to use electricity, even in remote places, hauling generators, lights and cables, everywhere the production team went to shoot.

Even though it was cold, often storming, rode my bike to work each morning. I’d allow a full hour to get there. When I arrived, never late, it was around dawn.

No matter where we were, the drill was the same: First unload the truck, which was packed floor­-to-­ceiling with supplies. The external power generator for the truck was near the rear door, it had to be fired it up immediately. Then we’d roll out several racks, loaded with equipment, placing them in a neat row behind the truck. We’d do a brief walk­through of the location, while the Boss told us the plan: Generators go here, here and here (strategically placed around the perimeter). Put a distro kit and five­piece cable run, for five hundred feet one direction, another distro kit with a five­-piece for eight hundred feet in another direction, more sets of cable and distro elsewhere, etc.

“Distro kits” include a short stack of “stingers” (extension cords) and a power distribution box to plug into. There’s also a black mat to lay over the entire pile, for camouflage. The distro boxes connect with the main cable runs (usually four-ought), that lead to the generators.

A single hundred­-foot four-­ought snake (power cable) weighs a hundred pounds. Our job was to get those cables and other equipment out of the truck and haul them into place before the shoot, then retrieve them and reload the truck ASAP after each set wrapped. The work was filthy and took every bit of strength I had. I loved it.

Besides, this gig was a rare opportunity. These were union positions, which meant the Company hired people from the Union list, before bringing outsiders on board. Since Portland for the first time had three TV shows shooting simultaneously, everyone on the list was already working. So the Boss was free to hire whoever he wanted.

Thanks to my time on that production, got enough days to join the Union. Cost $900 to apply, nothing else to it. Not like there was an option. I was told, if I wanted to keep working union gigs after 30 days, I had no choice. So I joined the Union, in a process that included swearing­-in under oath at a crowded, long and otherwise uneventful meeting.

Sparky said, “Welcome to the Mafia.”

Others told me, since I was a good worker, I shouldn’t worry about not having enough work ever again. They said, “Once you’re in, you’re in.”

As a woman, people were surprised when they heard I was a rigger. They told stories about how they used to know a chick rigger, once. Gooch told me I should always have a chip on my shoulder and to wear it proudly, because this business is extremely sexist.

Sometimes it was a nuisance. The sole source of my discomfort was the man who’d brought me on board in the first place, the Boss. Before I’d joined the union, he’d mentioned he was supposed to hire from the List, but he preferred me. He had me ride with him between locations, a time he used for venting his marriage frustrations. He wanted to know what I thought he should do about it.

One day, the entire production staff was required to attend a meeting about sexual harassment. On our way to the presentation, the Boss said, “This is all your fault.”

“What is?”

“This meeting. They’re doing it because everyone wants to sexually harass you.”

Once he approached me from behind, squeezing my shoulders in a hard-­pinching technique, crooning about how his wife loved his massages. We were waiting in line at the catering truck. I cringed – not only from pain – but embarrassment, noting wide­-eyed stares from my colleagues.

Most of us riggers were “day-­players,” meaning we got booked to work one a day at a time. We could count on it being a long, grueling day. We weren’t allowed to ask when it would be over, because no one in our department controls that. All we knew was, when the director yells, “Martini!” They’re starting the last shot of the night.

At the end of each day, we’d each take a moment with the Boss in the truck (which was also his office), to find out if he’d be bringing us back the next day. This depended on the Boss’ mood.

When it was good, it was really good. I was working up to 60 hours a week, starting at $24 an hour. After ten hours it went to $36. (We always went over 10 hours.) Then is was $48 after fourteen. Those were some hefty paychecks!

We used large machinery to hang cables, lights and gear. At some point, it was decided that everyone who worked in rigging or construction was required to be lift-certified. In order to achieve this with maximum efficiency, I, the lone female and a herd of dudes, were given a paid day to attend a class about lift safety. Most vivid was the slideshow image of a man whose lift got snared in some power lines. The moment he stepped out of the basket, his foot became the grounding point for the electricity. He became a human-­shaped chunk of coal.

My first time in the lift, I was sent more than 50 feet up, under the rafters of the cavernous main stage. We were suspending a massive river of hundred-pound cables, out of the way of the foot traffic and ever-­changing scenery. The grips had built an apparatus from which to hang the cables. Our job, as Rigging Electricians was getting the cables into the apparatus. For some reason they sent me – a Greenie – up there alone. Rose with caution, not completely out of a crouching position. It looked like the metal bracket was juuuust about to go.

I called down to the men below, “Hey guys, this bracket is about to­–”

POW! The metal bracket released from the beam and the cascade of heavy cables fell, closing me into my wobbling cage, high above the cement floor.

“–It was just about to go.”

Once I was back on the ground someone said, “Now you see how dangerous this job is. That could’ve easily taken you out.”

“Taken me… out?”

“You could’ve been seriously hurt. Or worse.”

“This job – it will kill you,” said another guy.

Once Gooch left, the Boss and his business partner were back in charge. One evening, I went to the Boss like usual, to find out if/when he was going to have me back. He must’ve been extra pleased with my performance, because he booked me four of the next five days. Then he grabbed the back of my head, pulling my face toward his, even against my resistance.

He said, “What, you don’t do kisses?”

Shook my head, escaped his grip and got out of there as fast as possible.

Next morning, we were rigging a retirement center on SE Stark Street. Everyone had walkie­-talkies on set, so if anyone needed something, we could reach each other in an instant. The Boss had just assigned me a task, when his voice came over the walkie again, between chortles.

“Hey Audrey, I’ve got a special job for you out here in the truck.”

Wasn’t hard to catch his drift. A grip named Travis was working on a project nearby. Based on the abrupt way he stopped what he was doing, he’d heard it too.

“Really? I’m just getting started on the task you gave me two seconds ago.”

More laughter from the other side. “No, no,” he said, “Just kidding about the special job.”

Not at all laughing, I said, “Ha, ha, ha.”

I stood frozen over the pile of work in front of me.

Travis was watching, jaw dropped, “What was that about Audrey?”

“Well, he said had a special job for me in the truck. Then he said he was joking.”

“Uh­-oh, sounds like he has a crush on you.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. What are you gonna do about it?”

Shrugging my shoulders, told him I don’t know.

Now that the Boss had booked me to work the entire week, we were stuck with each other. But there were no more car rides. No lunches together. No smiles. He wouldn’t even look me in the eye. In countless ways, the Boss made it clear he resented my presence. I couldn’t do anything right! Even when I went to the bathroom with a feminine emergency, there was something wrong with it. (He complained, it took too long.) At the end of that week, the Boss pulled me aside. Feigning regret, he explained the sad truth, that since I’m a woman in a man’s field, I have to work a lot harder, “Because everyone is watching.”

The Boss never called me to work again. Discussed the situation with a friend who said I might want to submit a complaint in writing. But he also warned, this would be an uphill battle. Was simultaneously advised by a friend in Rigging Electric to keep my mouth shut. Sparky was sympathetic, but grim. He said if I made a complaint, they’d find a way to get rid of me. But I was already gone.

Reached out to our union rep. He told me not to bother putting my complaint in writing, that talking it out in person was a better idea. When I looked into making a complaint through the union secretary, my inquiries were left unanswered. So I tracked down the Rigging Electric crew on location and handed my letter of complaint to the Boss, outlining the inappropriate actions that had taken place, how it made me feel and that I wanted to get back to work.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” He asked, giving it a fast glance.

“I don’t care. I just want things to be the way they were before.”

He sneered, “It can never be the way it was.”

I told him, “That’s fucked up,” and left.

Within hours, got a call from the director’s assistant. They wanted to talk in person. Upon being seated in the office, met the director. A woman was also introduced, a legal liaison for the Company.

“You must know why you’re here,” she said.

Trying to lighten the mood, I replied, “I was hoping you were having me in for an audition. Guess not, eh?”

No one laughed. Then my grilling commenced, which went on for at least an hour. The Company conducted an internal investigation, with interviews of the Boss, his partner and a dozen of my coworkers, who I’d listed as witnesses. They told me I did the right thing by reporting the Boss’ behavior, that I’m still employable and they suggested being patient. The call to work would come eventually, probably when the other shows started up again. They assured me, the person who harassed me no longer held that position.

A few days later, a fellow rigger said I should undo whatever I’ve done or I’ll never work in this town again.

When the timing seemed right, went back to the set to meet the new boss. First ran into the Rigging Electric truck driver. He said he couldn’t be seen talking to me. Shook the new boss’ hand, explaining that I am lift certified, I’m in good standing with the Union and I’m completely available to work. He never called.

The Season One wrap party was a blast, except when one of my former co-workers made a scene, several Fuck Yous in my face, until he was physically dragged out by his wife.

When I couldn’t stand it any longer, submitted a complaint to the Bureau of Labor and Industry.

After almost a year waiting, the phone conference between myself and the BOLI rep lasted over three hours, poring over the responding documents submitted by both the Company and the Union. The papers were full of lies: The union rep said he’d offered to mediate the situation, when in truth he tried to bury it. Supposedly, I got “physical” with the new boss, the day I went in to introduce myself. Two weeks later, got a letter from BOLI: Not a single witness was willing to testify on my behalf. Case dismissed.

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2 thoughts on “Sexual Harassment in the TV Industry (When You’re a Nobody)

  1. Jeez. Sparky was right. The Mafia.

    Makes me wonder about the time I was a member of the BLE. I don’t recall any female hogheads, and only a couple female hostlers. I wonder if it was those 12 hours stuck in a cab with one other person, the overnight stay, and 12 hours back. Too many things could happen and women kept themselves out of it. I hope that’s changed since I was running the route.

    BLE: Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Hoghead: Locomotive Engineer.

    Becky’s run into sexual harassment herself at her work. She handled it and it’s never happened again. Now she’s like everyone’s den mother. The advantage she has is she works for a government owned agency, and the penalties for sexual harassment are swift.

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