‘Empire’ Writer Talks Transgender Characters And Why It’s ‘Not Enough To Just Capture The Zeitgeist’

CREDIT: CHUCK HODES/FOX
CREDIT: CHUCK HODES/FOX

TORONTO, ONTARIO — Is there going to be a transgender character on Empire?

That question came up during a panel, “Uncovering Unconscious Bias,” at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday. The conversation, moderated by Julie Ann Crommett, manager of Google’s CS Education in Media Program (the event was presented in collaboration with Google), featured five women: Wendy Calhoun, co-executive producer and writer on Empire, Madeline Dinonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute, Rina Fraticelli, executive director of Women in View and Sexmoneymedia, Kamala Lopez, President of Heroica Films and director of Equal Means Equal, and Melissa Silverstein, writer of Women and Hollywood. (Silverstein spoke with ThinkProgress earlier this year about why, even in these cape-and-tights-happy times, it’s so damn hard to get a Wonder Woman movie off the ground.)

What started as a recap of the dismal statistics regarding women in the film and television industries — numbers so abysmal the ACLU formally requested the U.S. government investigate Hollywood for gender discrimination — evolved into a back-and-forth about what to expect from the future, and the struggles aspiring female writers and directors should brace themselves to face.

The problems go back to the pipeline: 84 percent of first time TV directing jobs go to men.

“The DGA [Directors Guild of America] is part of the problem,” said Silverstein, who, along with the PGA Women’s Impact Network, released “The Ms. Factor Toolkit,” a compilation of data about the economic worth and power of female-centric and female-created content, Monday morning. If only 16 percent of first-time television directing gigs are going to women, “that unconscious bias is now conscious discrimination.”

“Don’t tell me that Allison Janney and Anna Faris didn’t notice there wasn’t a single female director on their TV show, [Mom],” Silverstein added.

Fraticelli interrogated the framework of the panel; that is, she didn’t want to be chalking up the bulk of prejudice in the entertainment industry to unconscious bias. “I think there’s a different between a truly unconscious bias and habitual bad behavior.” Lopez followed up in that vein, pushing back against the idea that women not feeling “empowered” enough is as much a part of the problem as anything else. “There’s this empowerment narrative that’s very destructive,” she said. “Empowerment is not power. Empowerment is subjective.”

It was a male audience member who asked Calhoun about transgender representation; no spoilers, but is there a trans character in Empire’s future?

“We talk about everything,” she said. “Shows we love — I love Transparent — and the evolution of Caitlyn [Jenner]. We want our show to be a time capsule of 2015… That said, the thing about transgender stories that’s beautiful to me is, it shouldn’t be trendy.”

“I want it to be organic” if a transgender character becomes a part of the Empire universe, she said. “Give it the humanity it deserves, not some rushed-in thing for a trend.” Questions of identity abound in this cultural moment, she went on, alluding to Rachel Dolezal, and those questions of “personal identity” merit closer investigation through art. But, “it’s not enough to try to capture whatever is in the zeitgeist.”

“When we find it, trust me, we’ll tell it,” she said. “We just haven’t found it yet on our particular show.”

That said, “we have a scene coming up with a music video, and we purposely have a female director, on camera,” based on a woman who actually works on the Empire set. “I only hope 100,00 tiny girls see that and think about directing. We want to represent. We know that’s out there, and we want it to be seen.”

Calhoun also talked about one of her previous writing jobs: She was a writer on (editor’s note: the excellent) Justified, which aired its series finale this spring. During the second season, she was the only female writer and the only black writer on staff; she went to Harlan, Kentucky, where the show was set, “as a black woman alone,” she said, to experience the culture firsthand. She also did ridealongs with the Kentucky State Police, and it was through that experience she learned about a middle-aged woman who was the queen of a major drug ring: The real-life criminal who inspired season two big bad Mags Bennett.

The real-life research, Calhoun said, served as “the backbone of the pitch” to “help me get past the boys in the room” who would be skeptical about such an unlikely character, both in gender and in age. It was the network, she said, who came back to her to ask “Is this character going to be formidable enough for Raylan?”

Calhoun regrouped: She lifted a male character from one of Elmore Leonard’s short stories — he’d given the Justified team permission to take all his stories “and strip them for parts” — changed his gender, and merged the man from Leonard’s canon with the woman she learned about in Harlan. “It really opened up everyone’s ideas as to what this could be.”

Mags, by the way, was played by Margo Martindale, who went on to win an Emmy for her performance.

“There’s been many times in my career” when that’s happened, Calhoun said: When she came across “white and male” as the default setting for any character. When she worked on Nashville, she pushed to have the casting for a P.I. opened up beyond white men, “and a great black actress came in and knocked it out of the park.”

What she thinks about, she said, is: “I know what this role would traditionally be. How can I turn it on its head? Television, especially, deals in stereotypes. That’s our bread and butter. You have to constantly switch those stereotypes just to keep it creative.”

Being frustrated with the system, Calhoun said, can work in your favor. “Channel that anger, baby,’ she said. “There are many days that I’ve been angry. I’ve been angry at political correctness for a long time. It’s kept a lot of black characters I wanted to see on-screen off-screen. But there’s no political correctness in Empire.”

Calhoun quit her job on Nashville after reading the Empire pilot, with no guarantee that she’d be hired to write for the latter show. It was a gamble to leave “my very good-paying job,” she said, but her desire to “write those stories” drove her to take the chance.

“If you’re serious about this, it’s risky,” she said. “It’s a battle and you have to be a soldier.”