Panel Advises Screenwriters on Portrayal of Women

Panel participantsPanel participants from left: Tricia Bent-Goodley, Stacy Owens, moderator Elizabeth Laviter, Kathy Gurland, Jacki McKinney and Colleen Keenan.

Social worker Kathy Gurland said Hollywood writers can skip over-the-top storylines about a character dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

“The drama for people with cancer is lived every day,” Gurland said.

She suggested writers for television and movies wishing to improve their characters’ authenticity should talk directly with cancer patients as well as members of their care teams and loved ones.

“These people are not just their diagnosis,” she said. “Cancer is a family illness.”

Gurland, who runs Peg’s Group, a cancer care navigation consulting service in New York City, took part in a recent panel discussion to help writers in Hollywood improve their accuracy when addressing women’s health issues. The event was hosted by the Entertainment Industries Council in partnership with NASW, the NASW Foundation, SAMHSA and the Writers Guild of America, West.

“I told (the writers), ‘it would be more realistic if you made the person with cancer multifaceted,’” Gurland said. “We, as social workers, look at the whole environment of a person, from relationships to the financial.”

Social work as a profession could use more realistic portrayals in Hollywood scripts as well. For example, Gurland noted she rarely sees a social worker portrayed on hospital dramas, which are a staple on television.

“I told (the writers) that social workers are involved with every aspect of a person’s care,” she said.

Overall, Gurland said she found the panel discussion enlightening for the participants and the audience.

“I was proud of the fact that most of the questions from the audience were directed to the social workers on the panel,” she said.

Greg Wright, senior public relations associate at NASW, attended the event. He reported in the NASW blog that another panelist, Tricia Bent-Goodley, professor of Social Work at Howard University School of Social Work, encouraged writers to be aware that domestic violence victims span the demographics, with women of all socioeconomic and age levels affected.

“You have the power to break the stigma, to show women are resilient and not just sitting around as victims,” Bent-Goodley said.

Wright also related the powerful story delivered by panelist and social worker Jacki McKinney. She was sexually abused as an infant, later ostracized by her community because of it, and subsequently developed depression and mental illness. McKinney now works as a consumer advocate at SAMHSA.

McKinney said television programs and movies rarely depict people recovering from a mental illness and only show them in a negative light.

Social workers can continue to serve as health and mental health experts for Hollywood writers seeking realism in their stories, according to former NASW President Suzanne Dworak-Peck, who attended the panel discussion. She founded the NASW Communications Network, which assists the media and entertainment industry with resources about social issues.

“Social workers are skilled in addressing a client’s psychosocial care. The media and entertainment industry can benefit from learning more about us,” Dworak-Peck said.

She said Hollywood writers want their stories to be entertaining but also accurate. “We, as social workers, have a critical role to play in providing that accuracy,” Dworak-Peck said.

Other speakers included Colleen Keenan, a nurse and interim director of the University of California, Los Angeles Nurse Practitioner program; and cancer survivor Stacey Owens.