Re-Scripting Hollywood Stories to Shift Culture

A Q&A with Sanaz Alesafar, Executive Director of Storyline Partners
Article In The Thread
Issa (Issa Rae) caring for her friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) as she sits in the hospital waiting on a family member in Season 5, Episode 5 of Insecure.
Glen Wilson/HBO
July 11, 2023

The Better Life Lab found its way to Storyline Partners in the spring of 2022, early in our exploration into how to shape entertainment-focused narratives and shift culture. We wanted to focus on helping TV and film writers “re-script” stories about gender, work, family and care—to encourage creatives to make work-family stories more visible and more reflective of people’s lived experiences.

Our interest in entertainment grew from our frustration with federal policymaking, and specifically the failure of the U.S. Senate—despite progress in the House of Representatives—to create a national paid family and medical leave program and make permanent investments in care policies. We were devastated and angry that policymakers of all parties failed to prioritize care investments, even as a global pandemic demonstrated how caregiving responsibilities and health needs resulted in harmful effects on women, families, and the economy. Our analysis was that we needed to create more public awareness that work-family struggles are not individual failings, but reflective of a society and system that fails to provide adequate support.

A friend connected me to Sanaz Alesafar, the Executive Director at Storyline Partners, as a force in this space doing unique, important cultural and content advising work with writers. Sanaz and I bonded quickly over our shared interest in advancing gender, racial, and economic justice and our interest in using entertainment media to shift narratives and culture. We found many overlaps in the work of Storyline Partners and the efforts of the Better Life Lab, given the Lab’s emphasis on reframing outdated narratives and challenging stereotypes about work, family, and care through storytelling.

In our first meeting, Sanaz asked incisive questions about how the policies we focus on at the Better Life Lab, including paid leave, pay equity, pregnancy discrimination, and policies that support paid and unpaid caregivers, affect Black and brown women, immigrants, and workers who are paid low wages. We talked about how these stories are often told without acknowledging that these communities bear the greatest harm—and how part of the Lab’s mission is to change that.

We are thrilled to be a part of and work alongside the diverse constellation of organizations in Storyline Partners, including our longtime allies and pioneers of important work on narrative change in entertainment, Caring Across Generations and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and other effective organizations like the ACLU, Amnesty International, Define American, Disabled Journalists Association, Harness, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Student Veterans of America and more.

In my Q&A with Sanaz below, she discusses the work of Storyline Partners and shares its north-star vision for more inclusive storytelling in Hollywood. I thank her and the entire SP collective for the opportunity to learn and contribute over the past year-plus!

Tell us more about Storyline Partners.

Storyline Partners is a nonprofit collective representing issue- and community-based organizations working to ensure accuracy and authenticity in entertainment narratives. We advise on scripts, support research during the development and pre-production process, curate cultural narrative programming, and produce in-house narrative readers on various issues and communities of interest. We have expanded from TV and film to support podcasts and video games. Storyline Partners is a one-stop shop for all cultural and impact needs in pop culture and entertainment projects.

The origins of Storyline Partners as a collective came about during the Trump administration. As a defensive measure, various advocacy groups who advise creatives and writers banded together to fight back against the vicious vitriol and inhumane and counterproductive policies emanating from that administration and its adherents through entertainment narratives.

Entertainment and cultural production allow people to learn and mimic language and behavior from what's broadcasted on their screens. Our efforts orient toward representing the intersectionality of issues and communities and mindfully promoting multi-racial democracy, dialogue, and understanding about the people and world around us. Our strength is in advising and guiding the confluence of culture, policy, and people in relation to Hollywood storytelling.

How does Storyline Partners decide on collaborating organizations, and what made you interested in including the Better Life Lab?

I continually meet and connect with activists, organizations, and academia to learn about issues and communities. I’m interested in understanding the gaps in knowledge and understanding in the industry and sourcing the right partners to join us in ensuring Hollywood stakeholders have access to expertise and experiences that will enrich their stories, worldbuilding, and interactions with global colleagues.

My interest in Better Life Lab is attributed to the project lead, Vicki Shabo. Vicki’s knowledge, experience, and commitment to educating the industry about how gender, family, work, and justice issues are neglected, egregiously prevalent in our culture, and affect the conditions and well-being of the home, business, and public spaces. Women, especially in the industry, have been pushed beyond capacity with the pandemic, and it was important to us that we advocate for stories and characters representing these challenges.

When you think of the work Storyline Partners has accomplished, what are you most proud of? And what’s your favorite example of collaboration we’ve done together?

This collective still stands despite being in a perpetual cycle of unprecedented times. From turbulent economic conditions, a changing industry landscape, and naysayers that labeled us as band-aids, we have proven the necessity of our work and services with our client roster, programming, and partnerships.

As part of our work, we produce in-house narrative readers targeted to writers and executives that explore a topic or community. These readers provide context, current narrative issues, and advise on areas where we would like to see narrative repair. We created a series with the Better Life Lab related to Writing About the Climate Crisis, Work, Workers and Care, Writing About Paid Family & Medical Leave, and Writing About Women, Work & Care: Long Road Back from Pandemic.

We don’t shy away from relevant topics in our contemporary experiences. We aim to unpack the feedback loop between the representations in Hollywood and policymaking in DC and provide for better reflections on our screen. Both industries borrow from each other to contextualize the world we inhabit. Depending on power dynamics and resources, certain actors are promoted to maintain the status quo or push for change. We are the intermediaries championing for our communities, issues, and the world to be presented realistically and authentically.

In five years, what do you hope more authentic entertainment storytelling will look like? What role would you have liked Storyline Partners and contributors like Better Life Lab to have played?

Authentic storytelling represents stories and creators from rich and varied worlds that reflect our society. It’s an ongoing process that must be woven into our professional practices within the industry. Our two organizations have the same aspirations, and we will continue to work in tandem to see storytelling include the invisible stories of gender, work, and justice issues, along with shifting mindsets and hopefully inspiring new narratives.

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Gender Equity