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‘Star Trek: Discovery,’ Jeffrey Tambor, and the Way we Talk About Verbal Abuse

Star Trek Discovery
By  · Published on June 19th, 2018

Another change of the ‘Star Trek’ series’ showrunners should prompt a serious discussion.

In the creation of a film or TV show, conflict is bound to arise. After all, disagreement is only natural in such a collaborative space. But that conflict can morph into something ugly. In the wake of the accusations against Harvey Weinstein, we learned some hard truths about some of our favorite artists. However, one area of this discussion that continues to spark debate is that of verbal abuse. Particularly in terms of what actually constitutes as such an offense.

An article from The Hollywood Reporter details the recent shake-up on the production of Star Trek: Discovery, the latest in a long line of creative shifts at the show. Discovery has now gone through its second change of showrunners, with Alex Kurtzman this time taking over from Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts. From the report, we learn that, according to sources, the duo had frequently clashed with the show’s writing staff. Harberts had apparently “leaned across the writers’ room table while shouting an expletive at a member of the show’s staff,” in a confrontation that made a number of writers feel uncomfortable.

The Star Trek franchise is no stranger to this type of situation. The early Next Generation seasons saw many of the same issues that Discovery is facing, as highlighted by William Shatner’s Chaos on the Bridge documentary. But in 2018, this story feels particularly noteworthy. We’re just scratching the surface of what abuse in the entertainment industry can do to people. But the issue of verbal abuse is one we haven’t yet found a way to properly discuss. One that is often dismissed as something that “just happens.”

Recently, Jeffrey Tambor was also taken to task over allegations of verbal abuse. The actor admitted to “yelling at” numerous members of Transparent‘s crew while denying accusations of sexual misconduct. Also brought to light was Tambor’s abuse of his Arrested Development co-star Jessica Walters. In a cast interview for The New York Times, excuses were made for his behavior. Terms like “difficult” were thrown around, as other members of the show’s ensemble fueled the idea that this is just the way things are in the industry. Something that Walters herself disagreed with.

Tambor made the claim that his outbursts on Transparent were due to his difficulty portraying the character:

“But I was scared, because I was a cisgender male playing Maura Pfefferman. And my whole thing was, ‘Am I doing it right? Am I doing it right? Am I doing it right?’ To the point that I worried myself to death.”

This rang false for a number of reasons. Actors struggle with roles, but using this to excuse abusive behavior is harmful. And hiding behind the idea of the “difficult genius” should no longer be acceptable in a world where abuse is rightly called out. There are a lot of people who work hard to make a film or TV show happen, and no one person should have the right to disrupt that for “creative reasons.” Also important to recognize is the way in which verbal abuse can affect people. It goes far beyond the heated exchange and can put people off from their profession altogether.

Attempting to downplay the harm done by verbal abuse is dangerous. One of the things that come up in many online discussions is that these instances aren’t as severe as those involving Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. This is a dangerous road to go down. What we’ve seen over the last year is that there are a lot of problems with the entertainment industry. Problems that require a nuanced discussion, that goes beyond saying that A isn’t as bad as B. And saying that one case isn’t “as bad” as one of the worst sexual abuse scandals in recent history is something of an empty statement. If we continue to make this point, instances of abuse on a smaller scale will carry on.

Another point of discussion is that film sets are high-pressure scenarios. Which is true, and anybody with on-set experience can attest to this. But there is a fine line between being stressed out and abusing somebody. If a person is causing problems by not doing their job correctly, they should be told. But repeatedly shouting at that person is not acceptable. Especially when it often has more to do with this idea of a “difficult”‘ artist who just has to go through that process.

This should also apply to the discussion of the relationships between actors and directors. While there are directors who have gotten away with mentally torturing their actors, we shouldn’t accept this as the norm. The likes of Stanley Kubrick and Lars von Trier may have worked like this in the past, but recognizing that as a problem is important. And simply saying that others have acted in that way in order to justify this behavior now has to stop.

Just like The Next Generation before it, Discovery will go on. And while some fans may not be pleased with Kurtzman as showrunner, it’s certainly preferable to a hostile working environment for the writers. And if we can be less dismissive of verbal abuse in any workplace, then a more nuanced discussion on the issue can begin to take place.

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