On Wednesday, Ilene Chaiken was one of two speakers at the Out & Equal Workplace Summit’s Women in Leadership Luncheon, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Chaiken delivered a speech about her career as a television executive in Hollywood, and how many obstacles she ran into when she was attempting to tell “gay stories” and “our stories.”
Ilene Chaiken with [L] Senator Sheila Kuehl and Ernst & Young execs
Upon taking the podium, she described her job as creator of The L Word as a “really sweet gig,” saying that she was going to discuss her journey there. “I knew I wanted to tell stories,” Chaiken said. “But I didn’t know what stories I had to tell.” She felt as though she was “intrinsically a storyteller,” and though she knew she was gay, she didn’t consider herself a “gay writer.” She considered herself a gay woman and a writer.
Chaiken said she wasn’t out until she had begun her career, serving as a “d-girl” (development girl), a term she noted is not in use much any more. But once she came out, she said she felt it was a gift; something gays and lesbians share as a common bond. “I think they’re missing out,” she said of straight people, eliciting laughs from the crowd.
“I tried before The L Word to tell gay stories,” Chaiken said, which began when she was working as an executive for Aaron Spelling. “I learned TV from him.” She notes that L Word viewers might see his influence in her work.
“The first story I put together was for a doctor show on ABC called Heartbeat,” she said, and some in the audience nodded in recognition. Chaiken went on to explain that she’d come up with the idea for a doctor show based on a real life medical office called the Women’s Medical Group, an OBGYN clinic ran by lesbians. And when she took the idea to Spelling, he loved it, accept there were to be some changes: There had to be men and only one of the woman could be a lesbian, but she was demoted to being a nurse practitioner.
The cast of Heartbeat
“It wasn’t credited as I would have liked,” Chaiken said, also sharing that Gail Strickland played the character, who asked if she could come study Ilene and her partner at the time because she was so “daunted by the idea of playing a lesbian.” Chaiken notes that this was the first regular lesbian character on TV.
After that, Ilene went to work with Quincy Jones and helped create The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But she felt frustrated by not having done what she truly wanted to do there, and locked herself in a room and wrote “an angry feminist action movie. “I was like a Phoenix rising from the ashes as a writer,” Chaiken said. This movie was Barb Wire, starring Pam Anderson, and it was, Chaiken said, much different from her original script.
“I had written a radical character — a butch sidekick that could have been transgender, but the producers said it was much too out there,” Chaiken said. “[The final product] was not the way I envisioned it.”
Gay stories took the back burner for a while, as Chaiken stayed behind the scenes working on other people’s shows. But she was approached by Disney to write a story about her coming out experience, to be called Story of Her Life. And Chaiken said, “Much of it you might recognize as Jenny’s story.”
And while it never came to fruition, Showtime invited Chaiken to get behind the film Dirty Pictures, a film about art and homophobia and Robert Mapplethorpe. Once it won a Golden Globe Award and proved to be successful, Chaiken said she felt she had developed a good relationship with Showtime that could be beneficial in the future.
Around this time, Chaiken penned a story for Los Angeles magazine about the gay and lesbian baby boom. It was featured on the cover and entitled “Lesbian mom chic: Hollywood redefines the family.” At the time, she and her partner had twin 2-year-old girls (they’re now 15) and she still wasn’t sure if she could translate her own life onto television, but decided to give it a go after the article.
She went to Showtime and pitched a series about lesbians, telling stories about her own circle of friends and family. The two women executives said that the “white man in the suit in the office down the hall” would never go for it, so she was turned down. But one year later, Queer as Folk debuted on the network.
Chaiken went back with what must have been an improved pitch, because Showtime bought it and she said, “It worked out fairly well.”
She told the audience that she’s sad the show has ended, but was ready for it to be over. Chaiken said that Showtime sees the franchise as having value, but is disheartened that there still aren’t gay women with their own shows, akin to a lesbian Cagney & Lacey or lesbian doctor, cop or comic book hero show. “There are only three lesbians on TV right now and four so-called bi woman,” Chaiken said, “and movies are just as bleak.” She went on to say that gay and lesbian writers and artists are some of the most brilliant, but they often put their own stories behind veils to get their films and shows made. She said we should all be using our resources and exercising our collective influence, relaying stats on lesbian and gay incomes and demographics. “We’re a desirable audience,” she said, and then said she was happy to announce that Showtime picked up the second season of The Real L Word, and that she’s also working on a pilot for CBS.
The lesbian community has differing feelings about Chaiken’s work on The L Word and it’s reality show spinoff, but her own real story, told that day, was one of the most entertaining I’ve ever heard from her. Hearing her talk about how Jenny Schecter’s story was based on her own life and coming out process, and how her radical feminist movie was transformed into a failed film about Pam Anderson wearing leather — well, it offered a little more insight into why The L Word turned into what it did.
Chaiken isn’t trying to win us over; she’s trying to get her story heard. Which means if you’re not Ilene or someone she knows, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll feel represented by her work. So if you can take anything away from her journey and experience in the industry, the message continues to be the same: create the change you want to see in the world. We can’t rely on anyone else, not even another lesbian, to do it for us.
— by Trish Bendix