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TV can spark social change. These big names just urged Hollywood writers to embrace it

Halle Berry got the memo.

At “A Day of Unreasonable Conversation,” a conference at the Getty Center in Los Angeles on Monday, the star regaled an audience of TV and film writers, Hollywood executives and activists with a deeply personal episode: About three years ago, when she experienced excruciating pain after sex with her then-new partner, Berry’s doctor diagnosed her with “the worst case of herpes he had ever seen,” she recalled.

Event co-chair Kerry Washington had opened the proceedings by urging speakers to be not just unreasonable but also brave in tackling hot-button topics — from artificial intelligence to climate change to the throbbing bass line of the day, political polarization — and Berry’s shocking revelation was certainly brave.

It was also funny, informative and clearly more than a little surprising to her onstage conversation partner, First Lady Jill Biden, who joined the event to tout her husband’s recent executive order investing $12 billion in women’s health research.

“I’m not making any comment,” Biden said with a slightly uneasy laugh as Berry’s testimony gained steam toward the big reveal: The cause of her post-coital misery was not herpes — for the record, not herpes — but the hormonal changes that come with menopause. Menopause is a focus of the new White House health funding.

“You’re going to have so much to write about,” Biden told the Hollywood scribes in the room.

But will they?

‘The answer to this is better TV shows?’

“A Day of Unreasonable Conversation,” spearheaded by social impact agency Propper Daley, with partner organization Invisible Hand as creative directors, was meant to “unlock progress through the power of narrative and creative expression.” As in, inspire Hollywood creatives — TV writers in particular — to embrace their role as change agents and tell stories that amplify urgent social and political issues, stories that reach audiences across the ideological spectrum.

“We’re facing tremendous obstacles, whether it’s the climate crisis, the need for affordable care, wars in Israel, Gaza and Ukraine, an epidemic of loneliness, shattered ideas of what reality and truth are. It’s a lot,” Washington said to the crowd, which included Emmy-winning writer Jason Katims, producer Stacey Sher and FX executive Gina Balian. “Now some people might say, ‘So you guys think the answer to this is better TV shows?’ And I say yes! I do! I think at least that’s part of it, because … for many people, television is the only way that they meet people who are different from them.

Read more: Halle Berry's perimenopause was misdiagnosed as 'worst case of herpes' her doc ever saw

Energetically emceed by comedian and actor Phoebe Robinson, a self-declared “low-budget Oprah,” the program was a fire hose of conversations between creators, activists and politicos. Adam Conover, a comedian and member of the Writers Guild of America 2023 negotiating committee, kicked off the first panel (topic: “The Labor Understory”) by going off-prompter to rail against the billionaire class. That included the Getty family, whose patriarch, J. Paul Getty, funded the Brentwood campus hosting the day's events.

Cord Jefferson, the Oscar-winning writer-director of “American Fiction,” interrogated Americans’ exhaustion around discussing race alongside “One Day at a Time” showrunner Gloria Calderón Kellett, psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl, journalist Michele Norris and comedian-filmmaker W. Kamau Bell. Nobelist Maria Ressa, the Filipino and American founder of digital news site Rappler, sounded the alarm on tech’s existential threats to journalism and our human rights. Christine Blasey Ford, the Brett Kavanaugh accuser whose memoir came out Tuesday, and sexual assault survivor Chanel Miller explored the risks and rewards of truth-telling.

There was gloss and sass to leaven the tough stuff. Kesha shared her songwriting journey. “Who wants to listen to an angry woman?” she said of her 2017 hit, “Praying,” that arose from her long legal battle with producer Dr. Luke. “Turns out, a lot of f— people do.” Joining U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy for a discussion about loneliness, Paris Hilton was vulnerable in her studded Valentino stilettos (and generated just the faintest cynical murmur across the auditorium with an opportune mention of her production company). Even TikTok empress Charli D’Amelio took a turn onstage, for a crowd older and smaller than her typical target demo, with her own message on mental health.

It was a briskly paced and tightly run show. It was entertaining, illuminating and galvanizing. And, to borrow Washington’s phrase, it was a lot.

My friend Stacy Rukeyser, a writer and showrunner, took it all to heart and wondered how she would deploy what she was learning. As the daughter of a woman with Alzheimer’s, she related to a discussion between “Maid” and “Class” author Stephanie Land and actor Yvette Nicole Brown about sandwich-generation caregivers. As a storyteller, she sparked more to the day’s characters, imagining back stories for speakers like Dawson Holle, a 20-year-old dairy farmer turned North Dakota state representative with “I Love Dairy” socks peeking out from under his cuffs. Or Sharon Lavigne, the grass-roots crusader battling petrochemical plants in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, whose anguish for her community was palpable.

Hollywood under threat

Hanging over the proceedings was the possibility of a second Trump presidency, though his name wasn’t invoked much until an afternoon session with the Guzmàn family — conservative Mexican immigrants Bernardo and Lupita, who voted for Trump in 2016, and their liberal daughter Mónica, author of "I Never Thought of It That Way: How To Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times."

The Guzmàns told moderator Krista Tippett how they communicate with love and respect across the red-blue divide, despite some raging arguments over the issues. At this point the audience was well into its seventh hour of active listening, and I found myself wishing for more demonstration of the Guzmáns’ “good, juicy conflict” (a Robinson coinage), but Tippett kept the focus on the tools of detente.

Read more: For Black women, the world of hip-hop has always been a minefield of misogyny

Among the unreasonable conversations that did not happen, at least onstage, was the one about a contracting entertainment industry where fewer TV series are being greenlit. The writers in the Getty auditorium were already on board, game to use their platform to change hearts and minds, but as production grinds all too slowly back into action after last year’s strikes, plenty of them don’t yet know what their next platform will be.

Still, non-TV-writer me was struck by futurist Sinead Bovell’s forceful comments on artificial intelligence, perceived by many Hollywood writers as a potentially uncontainable beast poised to ravage their livelihood. “It is impossible to build towards futures if you are only shown examples of futures that you don’t want,” Bovell said. “Tell the stories of technology and evolution, the co-evolution with people, that you want to see … the stories where we do get our future with it right.”

Environmental activist Sage Lenier made a similar, if more confrontational, case for an end to glorifying “hyper hyper consumerism” on screen. “I don’t want to see any more ‘Wolf of Wall Street,’ I don’t want to see the luxury fashion shopping sprees,” she said. “You need to tell better stories about what living sustainably would mean, about what a sustainable culture would mean, what a decarbonized culture looks like, that’s not just, like, ‘Oh, the Escalade is electric, I swear.’”

Read more: Almost everyone in Hollywood wants to get back to work. What's taking so long?

In an era when horror is the surest thing at the box office and dystopia dominates TV drama, are creators really going to take this kind of direction from do-gooders outside the industry? “I’m inspired to be as out loud and proud as Halle Berry was about menopause,” said Rukeyser, who created “Sex/Life” for Netflix. She won’t shy away from hot flashes next time she writes a middle-aged female character, Rukeyser added, “and I’ll make the point that her life and career are far from over.”

At the conference’s cocktail reception, Lynn Renee Maxcy, whose writing credits include Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” cited the loneliness panel as a highlight before flipping open her notebook from the day: several pages of eye-bleedingly dense notes. “I focus on something called protopias, which is somewhere in between dystopia and utopia, where there are serious problems, but we’re making them better a little bit at a time,” Maxcy said. “And we have to get everybody involved; you need the community in action.”

Michael Kelly, vice president of social impact at Participant, a studio where social change is embedded in the mission, was also looking on the bright side. “I’m a nerd, so I love ‘Star Trek,’” he told me. “And what I appreciate about Gene Roddenberry’s ‘Star Trek’ is, it presented this picture of the future and what it looked like — when you look at the bridge of the Enterprise, it has women in leadership, it’s got different ethnicities, and I think his vision was, ‘Hey, if we can show you what’s possible, maybe we’ll get there.’”

So Hollywood, storytell the change you want to see in the world, while you still can.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.