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The Sensitivity Reader


The Sensitivity Reader

 

            I shouldn’t be wasting my rare good hours in this office. It was well-decorated but ugly, like someone had used cost as a proxy for taste. The fake flowers looked nearly real. This may have been their goal, but it left me with the impression that they had failed. If you were going to be fake, be good at being fake. This was Los Angeles, after all.

I twitched. No one had noticed this habit of mine, because no one looked at me long enough. I had picked an unfortunate career for my particular problem - my job involved waiting around until others had finished theirs, and then rushing in at the last moment to fix any issues. I could spend my days idly twitching, instead of putting my twitch to good use, as I’d once believed I would.

That’s not to say my job wasn’t important. In today’s media landscape, what with Woke Twitter and Woke Liberals and Cancel Culture and Rachel Maddow and Gen Z and God Knows What Else, mine may have been the most important. I stood between the head of the studio and his sacking. I was in the unfortunate (or, as my mother put it, “fortunate”) position of starting in what I had thought was a low-level, unimportant role, only to find myself at the nexus of power three years later. No, my salary hadn’t kept pace, but as my mother also said, “choose one.” Although, given the choice between money and responsibility, I would have chosen money. The people who say otherwise are politicians, and they’re not to be trusted.

“So you’re saying we can’t put this episode on TV? After I’ve spent $4 million on it?” He asked.

“Do you want the truth?” I asked.

It’s an objectively frustrating question. I couldn’t rip his not-fake-enough flowers from their stems. So instead, I’d intentionally infuriate him.

He nodded. He didn’t want the truth, but that was a truth he wasn’t willing to admit.

“We can’t put this on television because it’s racist.”

 I’d taken half my regular dose that morning. It had been too many days in a row without enough tasks to fill the day. I resented the hours I spent idly twitching, with my mind like a limb - exterior and limited in utility. A full dose felt wasteful. I wished I had a creative pursuit, one I could do at work when I was waiting for a script to come in. If I could even paint watercolor flowers like a pathetic 50-year-divorcee trying to tell her Instagram following her best years were ahead of her - that would be a start. I was 23. My best years were ahead of me, but they still weren’t going to be that good.

I was probably the only person in the whole industry who wasn’t trying to move up. I was the only person who didn’t carry a badly written pilot around in my back pocket like a character in a JD Salinger novel, waiting to pull it out when just the right person asked. Those people were idiots. You know when someone important asks for your pilot, they’re looking for reasons to prove it’s bad, right? You have no chance.

I was hired to bring coffee to the writers. They were all men, and I was all women. Once, I’d overheard a writer pitch a joke. “What if he throws an orange at her, and she catches it with her tits.”

These people were paid a lot of money. Most had to use family connections to break in. Hard-workers lined the outside of Hollywood, waking up at 7 am and banging on its proverbial doors, only to have the heir to MGM steal their job by suggesting a woman catch an orange in their tits.

I have large tits. I didn’t think I could catch an orange with them, but I’d never tried. I hated trying.

A blonde man-child turned to me. “Is that sexist?” He asked.

“Well, it might be better if she had lines. Instead of just her boobs doing all the comedic heavy-lifting in this scene.”

He thought about it for a moment. “Let’s cut the whole scene.”

 From then on, I was the show’s sensitivity reader. Their Season 1 ratings were good, although they’d gotten complaints about the depiction of women (a rite of passage for a network sitcom). They had enough budget to hire a different coffee-bearer, and I was now in a position of power. Instead of actually hiring a woman to write for the show, they had a woman telling their work was “A-OK” and sure to not piss anyone off. I gave my opinion on whether or not something was offensive. And my opinion was typically: it’s fine.

I had liked getting coffee. I had liked being on my feet. I didn’t like offering my opinion to a group of straight white men about whether or not the lesbian character was too much of a stereotype (all she did was flex her muscles like Popeye. So, yes).

I’d never been able to sit still. As a child, I was diagnosed with ADD, but my parents weren’t going to do something as expensive and new-fangled as treat it. It was for the best - ADD medication is its own beast.

But now, I had health insurance through some guild.

 “I have ADD I told a doctor.”

“So does everyone,” she said.

I didn’t say my health insurance was good. Just that I had it.

I needed treatment, now that I had to pay attention for a living. What had I expected her to say? Was there no surgery? No flashing light I could stare at until I was cured? I couldn’t hook my brain up to some sort of imaging system?

“No,” she said.

 Adderall - the best medication for the worst job. It made whatever you were doing the most fascinating thing in the world. This was not good. If you were working on something horribly boring, you’d become convinced that you liked it. You’d lose the drive to keep making your life better. Misery doesn’t always lead to joy, but joy almost always leads to misery.

That was far from the worst of Adderall’s side effects, though. Nearly everyone lived a dull life. Not everyone twitched compulsively. Not everyone lived with constant dry mouth. Not everyone got annoyed if someone said ‘hi’ to them when their Adderall was at its peak and every minute seemed to bear the value of four sober hours. Not everyone weighed the choice every morning - should I be alert, or should I be myself? What’s the price of concentration? Of energy? Of a personality? Is it worse than coffee? Why is it so expensive? Adderall cost me my identity, and a latte costs $7 in Los Angeles. Huge rip-offs, both.

Not everyone only believed their brain worked on certain, medicated days. Not everyone hung their self-esteem on a pill.

A lot of people did, though.

 In my line of work, there was a ranking of whom you could offend. Remember how Friends got cancelled on Twitter years later for transphobia? Once we start doing this for fatphobia, there will be no television left. Which might be for the best. It’s a stupid medium. A sedative in high-def.

Sometimes, I felt like I needed to call the writers out on offensive content, just to  prove I was paying attention. Even if I knew they weren’t going to do anything about it. Even if I knew I’d force their screen-strained eyes to roll to the back of their heads when I said, “wait - I think the correct term is ‘little person.’”

Other types of bigotry were taken more seriously, but none were taken seriously enough. TV was written by people who’d never listened to the word ‘no,’ and I didn’t care enough about the wellbeing of the viewer to try. If people were offended, they had to deal. Life was offensive.

Truly, you could still put just about anything you wanted on TV. They said you couldn’t, but you could. Watch it - you’ll see what I mean.

I’d be accountable if something weren’t flagged. It was more responsibility than I’d ever wanted. I hated the network, but I hated the thought of depending on a boyfriend for money even more. Life was just a series of trade-offs to find what you hated least. The first time I took Adderall, I was in a good mood. A good mood seemed worth the twitch.

 I’d followed a boyfriend to Los Angeles when I was 18. I’d never planned on going to college - I didn’t do well in school, and I resented that the award for finishing school was more school. I deserved credit for my dry wit, even if I intentionally obfuscated it from the world. People should have done the work to mine my remarkable insight out of me. No one put in the effort.

I’d come to LA and work a job that was only cool for young people until I wasn’t young anymore, by which time, I’d hoped I’d have figured out what job was cool for a not-quite-young person. I didn’t care about anything, which meant I was cool by default, which was a relief, because that’s what I wanted to be.

I ended up as an assistant in Hollywood. It was horrible, but it sounded cool, didn’t it? Kind of like skipping college to follow your boyfriend to Hollywood. Less glamorous when you’re the one who can’t afford to wash your jeans, but still romantic.

Adderall’s mood-boost was the first side effect to wear off. I was at peace with it - I believed the only way to be happy was to be born happy. I hadn’t taken the pill to put a smile on my face. Every smile was just a dollar I’d spend on Botox later, anyway. I quite literally could not afford joy.

I reached into the pocket of my jeans. Ew. There was a chewed piece of gum hidden in its own wrapper. Maybe from yesterday, maybe from last month. People said it was the same thing chewing the tire of a car, so at least when I needed to save money on Trident, I’d know what to turn to instead.

 “So get this - the best friend has a drug problem,” said Harper. He was a blonde, bearded man. A pathetic combination.

“I like that. But we don’t want her stealing center stage, so what if it’s a problem no one really believes is a problem, like Adderall. We can make fun of people with Adderall problems, right?”

They all spun around to look at me. How did they know? Was I grinding my teeth so visibly?

Oh, right. I was the sensitivity reader. I was supposed to tell them if it was insensitive. I found their pathetic faces offensive. I was not cut out for this job.

“It’s fine. Adderall’s not a real drug,” I said. I twitched. Not because I lied - I just twitched a lot.

The men in the room high-fived. They were likely all on Adderall. They’d gone to Dartmouth, after all.

             I liked that they thought my drug was worth mocking. I felt better telling myself it wasn’t a real drug. It was better than sugar, for crying out loud! This was Los Angeles. Nothing was worse than sugar, here. That’s what I liked about LA. You could do coke if you didn’t drink coke, and I loved doing coke.

I’d gotten it from a doctor, I needed it. Tons of people took it every single day without the slightest anxiety. The excuses rolled out of me like the skittle you dropped on the floor. The one that went under your couch. And then you couldn’t decide if it was worth flopping on your stomach to get it from underneath, or just move out of the sublet all together.

The first time I took it, I realized it was a massive leg up. But so was having naturally straight teeth. Some people could afford braces, some people got lucky, and some just dealt with the jagged lines inside their mouths, zipping up their lips like a hoodie anytime a camera approached. Adderall was just braces for your brain. I hadn’t gotten lucky, so I deserved it. My dad hung himself when I was eight. Sorry for trying to find something else to concentrate on.

 “Racist how?” The producer asked me.

He took a sip from his ice water. If you move up far enough in Hollywood, you get to drink water that’s ice-cold without having any ice in it. The cubes could bump against your teeth and ruin the experience for you, so instead, your assistant puts a bottle of water in the freezer and then checks it every four minutes to make sure it hasn’t frozen. Just remember, though, if ever you do get to the place where you drink ice-free ice water - you’re an asshole.

“Like, offensive to people of Asian descent,” I said.

“I don’t see how,” he said. “I’m not offended by it.”

“You’re not of Asian descent,” I said.

“I don’t want to cut this episode, and the episode can’t work without this character. We’ve already filmed these scenes, and there’s no budget to film it again.”

None of this was my problem. “Did you just hire me to tell you what you wanted to hear?”

He looked confused. “Yes? If I hadn’t, you’d be the only person I’ve ever hired without the express intention of telling me what I wanted to hear. Why would I ever not want to hear what I want to hear - that’s a tautology. Do you know what a tautology is? Did you go to college?”

I hadn’t gone to college, but I knew what a tautology was.

 The pills had changed my personality. That’s okay - I wasn’t attached to the personality I’d had. It tore down the walls that stopped me saying exactly what I wanted to say. In the writer’s room, this helped. I was so blunt, the men were drawn to me. A word of warning - if a man is attracted to you because you “tell it like it is,” that means no one’s ever done so before, and he’s an entitled little shit who’s always gotten his way. Run away.

“We need a whole new episode,” said one, a pale, stringy UPenn grad whose mother had produced a poorly received, long-running TNT show in the 1990s. “If we can’t do the one about Chinese New Year.”

“People are so sensitive,” said another. He sent out a dirty “vibe” in my general direction. He zipped his Patagonia fleece at me, aggressively.

“Let’s stick with the Adderall storyline,” said another. “Let’s go deeper into it, mine it for as much comedy as we can get from it.”

I was angry. I wanted to throw a pencil at him. I don’t even know why - it’s not like I had to do anything. I hated waiting for something to do, but I hated doing anything even more. If I threw a pencil, though, I’d inevitably have to explain myself. And I hated talking more.

 On Adderall, I followed strict rules. I made everything more efficient. I optimized optimized optimized. The wilt of ambiguity flourished into a hard, strong, unwavering tree trunk. I could do my job without thinking. Adderall did the thinking for me. I could automate my own brain. This was ideal - all I’d wanted since I saw my dad in the garage was to get a break from my brain. For it to keep putting along while I took a nap.

It was my job to detect offensive content. Anything relating to race, gender, sexuality. I was a human keyword search. I could follow my own rules entirely without error, but I was supposed to use my judgment. As a woman, I was supposed to think about how something might make a viewer “feel.” I didn’t “feel,” though. I took Adderall specifically to avoid the whole matter altogether.

So that’s how I let it slip through my grasp.

 ABC Cancels ‘The Smart Guys’ Following Outcry About Their Glorification of Addiction

 Was I entirely to blame? A room full of writers had been equally stupid, and they made more money than me. It just wasn’t their job to be smart, I suppose. There’s no connection between income and intellect - this is capitalism, after all. They’d hired me so they wouldn’t be to blame. I was smart so they wouldn’t have to be. I was offended so they wouldn’t have to be. Except I hadn’t been offended in years. I just had indiscernible, constant anger - I could never have picked out what was specifically wrong.

I had stopped caring, too. Or, as much as I ever had. The Adderall had taken that when it automated me.

 I tried to explain myself to the head of the network.

“See, it’s okay, because I am a drug addict,” I said. It wasn’t a good defense, but I wasn’t good at my job. I twitched, and he noticed. For the first time, he was staring intently at me. Now that I’d gotten him in trouble, I mattered. It was sweet, almost. If he weren’t so pathetically successful.

“You’re a drug addict?” He said. “Then you really shouldn’t be doing this job.”

“No, I’m an Adderall addict,” I assured him. “Doing jobs is, like, what I’m good at.”

 I didn’t keep my job. I’d learned years later that I encouraged two writers to quit Adderall. I never wanted to help others. That was the reward for my status in the world - I got to be myopic, because even if I weren’t, no one would notice. It felt good, though, to make a difference. But not as good as Adderall.

  

Ginny Hogan


Ginny is a satire writer, who has written for the New Yorker, The Atlantic, McSweeney's, Cosmopolitan, and the New York Times. She is also the author of "Toxic Femininity in the Workplace," published by HarperCollins in 2019


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1 Comments

  1. deeply sarcastic and fully entertaining.

    ReplyDelete