What book bans and the Hollywood writers strike have in common | Heather MacDonald
If all else fails, I have to imagine it would be easier to replace studio execs with ChatGPT than the writers
(Photo by Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)
Book bans have reached a fever pitch.
In 2022 alone, at least 2,571 unique books were banned or challenged.
The American Library Association reports that challenges to books have doubled in the last year through organized efforts to reshape our country’s access to information. Luckily, this educational hit list has been met with resistance. Elected officials routinely push back on harmful bills, brave parents have stepped up to run for school board positions that have become hotbeds of contention, and students have protested by the hundreds to keep their school libraries free from censorship (see Central York School District).
Through this lens, it is clear to see that the writer’s strike centered in L.A. and New York plays a crucial role in modern literary justice. If the writer’s strike were a story of its own, the pairing of small town school boards and the bright lights of Hollywood would make for a compelling hero’s journey impossible not to root for.
Background on the strike: Every 3 years, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) negotiates a contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).
Of the more than 11,000 members, 98% voted to strike starting May 2nd due to the breakdown of negotiations between the writers and the studios. Points of contention include technology such as AI and ChatGPT, paying writers fair residuals on streaming content, working conditions, and wage increases.
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In the writer’s strike storyline, greedy studio executives who threaten to add to the silencing of important stories at a crucial moment in history are the clear choice to play the villain. The WGA estimates that Comcast, Disney, Fox, Netflix, Paramount, and Warner Brothers made a combined $28 billion in 2021. The WGA contract would be asking for only 2% of these profits.
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Discovery President, David Zaslav, (whose name, one picketing writer helpfully pointed out, already sounds like a villain), has been a leading force in systemic cost cutting measures causing writers’ pay to plummet. Zaslav, the CEO with a $39 million salary, commented without a hint of irony that, “Almost all of us got into this business, you know, with a lot of sacrifice in order to be part of that journey, and so that’s what is going to bring us together.”
Last week, Zaslav gave the commencement address at Boston University that was largely drowned out by boos and shouts of “pay your writers!”
The Protagonist in Our Story
Connecticut Democratic state Rep. Matt Blumenthal spoke recently about the duality of book bans:
“The worrying part is that there are people who want to deprive individuals of these stories, these perspectives, who want to impose their will on others. But I think the positive side of this… that tacitly that contains an admission that if people get these ideas, they will find them persuasive…. [This is] about determining who gets to be the protagonist in the story of America.”
Books bans are about power. The power to censor, reject, and shape generations and conversations. It is not a coincidence that the 7 of the top 10 most challenged books of last year have LGBTQIA+ themes. Blumenthal speaks to the undeniable fact that there is also power in stories, and the bullseye on these books should also serve as a way-marker of what kinds of stories are needed most right now.
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The stories we enjoy in shows, movies, and digital content are no different. In the face of a coordinated attack on books, the writer’s guild and professional writers take on that much more importance.
The diversity of the stories they can tell is highly dependent on the negotiations happening right now. A large point of contention in the strike is the allegation from the WGA that that studios have intentionally devised ways to create “a gig economy inside a union workforce.” By following the blueprint of Airbnb, Uber, and Doordash, the big studios were able to shift workers away from stable, reasonable paying jobs to low quality freelance work.
This has consequences.
When writers are unable to make a living, already disenfranchised groups will be the first to fall. Since the last writer’s strike in 2007, membership in the WGA has become younger and more diverse, undoubtedly leading to more diverse stories being told. Many writers picketing during the strike point to Abbott Elementary, a TV show on ABC, and Best Picture Winner Everything Everywhere All at Once, a film produced by A24, as perfect examples of how different viewpoints create profitable content.
Underpaying writers, not paying fair residuals on streamed content, and hoarding record profits at the top is a systematic degradation of progress and all but guarantees that marginalized voices in film and TV will be silenced along with thousands of banned books.
Fairly compensating writers leads to better outcomes. This is not conjecture, we have been here before. Jon Stewart famously spoke about his efforts over close to two decades to bring diversity of viewpoints to The Daily Show. Stewart realized that his paid staff all started out as unpaid interns.
“But any intern that could afford to take three months off from college and spend that time polishing your grapes is going to come from a wealthy background, so all the people you were hiring were all socioeconomically at a very high level. By paying the interns, suddenly you’re getting a much more diverse group of people that are coming in.”
This writer’s strike is one of the largest strikes in entertainment in recent history. The WGA has public support on their side with a survey showing that more than 80% of people are aware of the strike, as well as pro-union sentiment being at its highest rate since the 1980s.
Beloved shows like Stranger Things, SNL, White Lotus, Euphoria, The Last of Us, and Abbott Elementary have all announced they are on hiatus until the writers receive a satisfactory contract.
Studio execs should work alongside the writer’s guild to build a future in entertainment that acts as an antidote to censorship and the undeniable decline of diversity of thought in our country. Entertainment and art serve as a cultural touchstone for society, and this is an incredible opportunity for Hollywood to be a force for good and help craft a strong storyline to combat book banning fascists trying their best to rewrite history.
If all else fails, I have to imagine it would be easier to replace studio execs with ChatGPT than the writers.
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