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Television Writer Nell Scovell Reflects on Career In Male Dominated Field

Nell Scovell responds to a question asked by Saffron Agrawal ’21.

Nell Scovell, a writer, director, and producer, visited the Mural Room on January 11 to speak about her career in television and experiences facing misogyny in a male-dominated field.

Scovell is known for her role as executive producer and creator of the show, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” She has also written her own memoir, “Just the Funny Parts,” and co-wrote “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” with Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.

Scovell’s visit was part of the Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Author Series funded by an Abbot Grant and organized by Saffron Agrawal ’21. During her visit, Scovell explained writing in underlying feminist themes in “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” The sitcom, which aired from 1996 to 2003, is about a teenager with magical powers inherited from witches.

“Under the silliness [of the show] there was a strong vein of feminism. This was both in front and behind the camera. The executive producers were all female, the writers were in a 50/50 break down of genders,” said Scovell during her talk.

Scovell continued, “‘Sabrina’ was my favorite work experience. I loved the boss, which was me. I had created and written the show and my goal was to make a series that I would have loved when I was a teenage girl.”

Jake Jordan ’20 said he was interested by Scovell’s field of work and great success in the film and TV industry.

“I found it quite impressive that Scovell was able to rise up in the industry in a predominantly male controlled environment. Her ability to make others laugh was what made her successful,” wrote Jordan in an email to The Phillipian.

In addition to creating “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” Scovell was also one of seven women in 34 years to write for David Letterman.

“What I’ve since discovered is that the ‘glass ceiling,’ it’s not actually made out of glass; it’s made out of that ‘Terminator’ metal, that shatters and then reconstitutes harder the next time. So like a lot of woman, I got into the workforce, and I believed if I just kept my head down no one would question my right to be there. And that wasn’t true,” said Scovell.

Scovell graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 1982, and was originally a journalist before transitioning into television. When she joined the workforce, Scovell, said that her career “had many stops and starts.” The first Late Night television show she ever worked on, “The Wilton North Report,” was cancelled after only a month on television.  According to Scovell, the show was so bad that the network claimed that it never existed on their channel and wiped it from their corporate memory.

“I remember I sat around with the writing team, who had the office right next to mine, and we all wondered if we would ever work in TV again. One of those guys was Greg Daniels, who co-created “The Office” and “Parks and Rec,” and the other was a guy named Conan O’Brien,” said Scovell.

Scovell’s plan after that was just to keep writing. Since 1986, Scovell has written for “The Boston Globe,” “Spy Magazine,” “The Simpsons,” “NCIS,” “Murphy Brown,” “Coach,” “The Muppets,” and Late-Night TV shows.

“It was tough. My first handful of jobs I was the only girl in the room,” said Scovell.

When Scovell worked for Warehouse 13, a television series about Secret Service agents investigating supernatural artifacts, she wrote an episode where one of the female characters had become mysteriously pregnant, joking that pregnant women had a heightened sense of smell. One of the men thought she was serious.

“There were nine people on the call and I was the only one who had ever been pregnant. And so that’s why, the reason you want gender equality and diversity has nothing to do with craft. I can write male characters, men can write female characters; you want the diversity of experience. And there are some things that women experience that men don’t. Some of its cultural, some of its biological, there’s certainly people of color experience things that whites don’t. And you really want all of the voices,” said Scovell.

In 2013, along with Sheryl Sandberg, Scovell co-wrote “Lean In,” a memoir about gender inequality in the workforce and at home. In it, she is credited for one of the more famous lines, “It is not a feminist manifesto — okay, it is sort of a feminist manifesto.”

“You can’t beat working with Sheryl on ‘Lean In.’ I mean that had the most impact. And I love, I get emails all the time from people saying it ‘changed my life.’ TV is very broad, and it’s entertaining, but it doesn’t change people’s lives,” said Scovell in an interview with The Phillipian.

In February 2018, Scovell published her first solo memoir, “Just the Funny Parts.” According to Scovell, she finds inspiration to write by observing the world around her.

“There’s a book called ‘Scaramouche, and it opens with the line, ‘He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad, and that was his patrimony,’ and I kind of like that idea. The world is mad and if we don’t laugh about it then it’s just a long dental appointment,” said Scovell.

Agrawal asked Scovell to come to Andover after seeing her speak five years ago.

“The reason I asked Ms. Scovell to come is kind of a funny story. I actually saw her speak five years ago at a program at Stanford University, which is near where I live. She spoke about her contributions to ‘Lean In,’ and her experiences in the male dominated comedy field. Her talk really stuck with me and so when I came across her memoir, ‘Just the Funny Parts’ this year, I knew instantly that she would be a fantastic speaker,” wrote Agrawal in an email to The Phillipian.

Jose Caceres Manzano ’22 attended the talk because he was interested in learning about film and using art to tell untold stories. Manzano said he found Scovell inspiring.

“I think that what is most inspiring is her dedication, you know her constant hard work. You know her dedication to getting her stories told, whether that be a teenage girl or a major voice in comedy,” said Manzano.

Scovell has directed two made-for-television movies, Showtime’s “Hayley Wagner, Star” and Lifetime’s “It Was One of Us.” She says she hopes to direct more in the future.

“Right now, I would like direct more. It’s the thing that frightens me the most, which is why I think I am drawn to it. It’s the thing I’ve done the least, and I’d like to get better at it,” said Scovell.

Agrawal said that she hopes to have more female writers represented on campus and hopes that the Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Author Series will continue to succeed in bringing strong role models to campus.

“In the spring I was hoping to invite Susan Chira ’76 to come as well. She is a Senior Correspondent and Editor covering gender at the ‘New York Times,’ and she is also an Andover alumna. I think we could have a really interesting conversation with her. Also, [Kathryn] McQuade, [Instructor in English] is going to publish her second novel soon, so I was hoping she would be willing to speak as well. I think it would be great to hear from members of the [Andover] community as well as authors from the greater Boston area,” wrote Agrawal.