The fight for gender equality in Hollywood has been long and arduous. It's by no means close to over. But this year, the gains are clear. One only has to look at the incredible success of Barbie as a box office juggernaut or the careers augmented and celebrated by companies like Hello Sunshine, Made Up Stories and Lucky Chap Entertainment to see it. The tide is turning.
But Rebecca Cutter, the show-runner and writer behind Hightown, now in its third and final season, remembers a time when that wasn't the case. During her early days on television, "...it was completely fine and normal in a writers' room for there to be one female director in a 22-episode season." Now, expectations have changed. While she doesn't always "take everything Hollywood says is changing at face value, things are moving in a positive direction and I want to applaud the change that has happened while continuing to work for the change that still needs to be made."
The existence of Hightown as a show in itself seems to further confirm a shift in the sorts of stories that are 'allowed' to be told. A couple of years ago, would a show about addiction and alcoholism with a female character at its centre who then gets tangled in a world of drugs and organised crime be greenlit? Maybe not. When I pointed that out to Rebecca and Hightown lead actress Monica Raymund, who is perhaps most familiar for her seven-season-stint in Chicago Fire, they laugh.
While Rebecca says she never intentionally set out to subvert gender expectations with the show, placing equally powerful women in stereotypically hyper-masculine roles alongside powerful men just makes sense to her. She never had a flowchart that dictated a woman should now act like a man, but just wrote the story that way because those were the most relatable characters to her. Such is the beauty of letting diverse voices tell stories.
With diverse people in control, who are at least in part led by lived experience (Raymund's character Jackie Quiñones' struggle with sobriety is informed by Cutter's own), representation feels natural. It's less about ticking a box or making a point and just about letting people exist in the world as they are. In fact, it's this very idea that makes Raymund so comfortable with the show and the places it goes. As a proud queer Latina woman, Raymund is used to occupying 'rare' space. She laughs knowingly when I teasingly suggest that maybe, just maybe, she didn't see a lot of people who looked like her onscreen growing up. "Yeah, none" she deadpans, noting that getting to fill that void is an honour.
Her favourite part about it though? The fact that her character's queerness and Latina background isn't the point of her story. "I love that Jackie's identity isn't part of the story. It's just a character description. The story is never about that but instead about the dark circumstances of the world in which all the characters find themselves. It's a progression for representation and I'm really proud of it."
And that pride shines through. It's therein every word both women say about the show, in every choice they explain to me and in every moment they're together. What the team at Hightown have created is a powerful subversive show that glitters dangerously with sharp edges and has a brutally beautiful tale of life with addiction as its beating heart. For Rebecca, "getting to make a television career out of telling personal stories is the honour of a lifetime and something she is endlessly eternally grateful for." "All of us agree that's what makes the best art and why art is made in the first place," she says.
Even though Monica finds it "difficult... and on some days heavy" to play a woman so lost to the swings, roundabouts and seesaws of addiction, the dark, the light, the good days, the bad, the sobriety and the falling off the wagon, she also relishes the opportunity. "Every time I get to play a character trying to let go of a version of themselves that doesn't serve them anymore, I use that to learn about Monica and then find out how I can relate to them as characters. It's extremely meaningful and fulfilling."
It must be hard then, I wager to know that a job you love so much, that has given you so much is coming to an end. It's the only time in our interview that their smiles momentarily waver. "I think I would be sadder if I wasn't so proud of the final season. But of course, I'm going to miss writing for these characters and working with these people," Rebecca says, the look shared between her and Monica a testament to exactly what making this show has been.
For any fans out there wondering, rest assured Rebecca tells me, "All the characters get what they deserve in a way that makes sense but is still surprising." Isn't that all we can ask of the creators of the things we love? I think so.
Personally, I'm intrigued to know where Monica Raymund and Rebecca Cutter might end up next, because those two? They're forces to be reckoned with.
Season 3 of Hightown premieres January 26 on Stan