As a senior at the School of Cinematic Arts, I know the film school devotes special attention toward providing an education on the titans of film’s past. Entire classes devoted to Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg detail the creation and rise of these iconic, almost mythical figures in the film industry.
More modern-oriented classes have also shifted the lens toward television — pointing to bigwigs such as Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan or The Sopranos’ David Chase, who both ushered television into its golden age and changed audiences’ expectations for the medium.
However, among the male titans of television, there also exists the female sphere — names like Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling are often repeated, but are also in the minority. Their notability was born partly out of their exception to the norm — as women showrunners and creators are few and far between. And so, as a woman, I am more than inspired by their accomplishments.
Yet, at this point in my life, I’ve found myself wondering about women who are closer to my age and working hard in the industry now. This week, I interviewed Sonia Kharkar, a USC alumna, who worked for two years as Mindy Kaling’s assistant before being promoted to a writer’s assistant on The Mindy Project in 2016.
We spent most of the hour talking about gender differences in Hollywood, and I wanted to know if she had experienced any form of discrimination or difficulty as a woman in the industry.
Kharkar, who studied creative writing and English at Macalester College, applied to graduate school per the suggestion of her screenwriting teacher. Kharkar always had a predilection for half-hour television.
After graduating from the School of Cinematic Arts in 2011 with a Master’s degree in writing for screenwriting and television, she worked at an agency for a year and a half, starting in the mail room and then working up to assisting on two separate agent’s desks.
“I liked what I got out of it but I don’t know that I liked where I was. I had great bosses, but it’s a high volume environment,” Kharkar said. “You kind of become a number when you work there.”
After leaving the agency, Kharkar worked briefly as a showrunner’s assistant on a pilot that didn’t make it to the screen. She then found her way to the NBC show The Blacklist. Kharkar did acknowledge that while she loved working on The Blacklist, the environment was predominantly male.
“All the people making creative decisions were men in their 40s and 50s,” she said. “And for them, they just want to work with someone they know they can relate to in a language they understand.”
However, Kharkar’s experience at The Blacklist not only gave her a lot of professional experience on learning how a show is run, but also led her to working for Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project.
In regard to diversity and competition among women in the writers’ room, Kharkar said that most of her friends are women and that her relationship with them isn’t exactly competitive. However, she feels that there is an unsaid stigma against women in television.
“The air [in writers’ rooms] is ‘oh we have one of them, that’s enough,’” she said. “I do think writer-wise, most of my friends who are writers here and at work are women. And I do think there is a younger generation of female writers coming up. But then it’s about the higher ups on the shows you want to get hired on, and they’re mostly men.”
When asked about her experience at USC, Kharkar believed that the program she was in provided a helpful environment for finding her place in writing comedy and being able to experience the gender differences within the classroom, noting that mostly men occupied her comedy classes and had their own language when talking about comedy.
For most of our interview, Kharkar and I discussed this relational discrepancy between men and women within the writers’ room.
“Our show is run by a woman, and I feel that a lot of women are getting more opportunities, but [the numbers are] still the reality,” Kharkar said. “Mindy Kaling started out as a writer at The Office in a room of six people and was the only woman and only woman of color. The way that that system worked, she kind of realized that the only way she could succeed in that type of environment was just to keep her head down and pretend she was one of them.”
Ultimately, Kharkar gave her final word of advice to student screenwriters.
“What happens at USC isn’t life or death. It’s just a matter of sticking with it,” she said. “The ends justify the means.”
Though her words did not sound too encouraging, her message should not be misconstrued in the least. As somebody — male or female — in the creative field, it’s clear you need the gumption to stick with it. And that seems to be the defining attribute in Kharkar’s career thus far.
Walking away from our interview, I realized that my place as a woman does not define my work. While it’s helpful to be aware of the numbers and the reality of women’s work in Hollywood, knowing these facts and living with them won’t help anyone land a job.
What will help you is your work ethic and keeping your nose to the ground, something Kharkar — and by extension, her boss Mindy Kaling — knows plenty about.
Minnie Schedeen is a a senior majoring in cinema and media studies. Her column, “Film Fatale,” runs on Wednesdays.