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Girls on the Bus Creator on Critiques of Sadie’s Sex Life: Guest Column

Girls on the Bus Creator on Critiques of Sadie’s Sex Life: Guest Column

The first several weeks in the writers room of The Girls on the Bus, the Max series about female journalists covering a presidential campaign, went like this: “Oh, what if Sadie sleeps with a candidate?” Me: “Absolutely not.” “How about a Democratic strategist?” “Hard no. She cannot sleep with a source.” “Well, what if she falls for the bartender at the Marriott?” Me: “Doesn’t work. They’re in a different Marriott every night.” Finally, my co-creator Julie Plec said, “Amy, it’s TV, she has to fuck someone.”

The more we brainstormed the romantic storyline of our protagonist, Sadie McCarthy, a reporter for a fictional paper of record played by Melissa Benoist, the more it started to feel like onscreen female journalists couldn’t catch a break in love. If we wanted our girl journalists to be taken seriously, they had to be celibate, scouring through FOIA requests in their hotel rooms. We set out to make this show like Sex and the City on the campaign trail — not No Sex in a Different City Every Night.

Plec, who co-created The Vampire Diaries, knows how to write a love triangle better than just about anyone. As a New York Times reporter, I knew I didn’t want to fall into the tired Hollywood trope of the female journalist sleeping with a source in exchange for information. Funny how onscreen male journalists always use their unimpeachable character and charisma to get the scoop. (They also always seem to be wearing bad ties and short-sleeved collared shirts and cradling a landline in the crook of their neck so they can type, but that’s another column.)

And yet, it didn’t seem fair that men in journalism movies and TV could have as much sex as they wanted, whereas the ethics police were ready to pounce if a female journalist had so much as a crush. (And we cast Scott Foley as a candidate, so how could you not?) One critic called Sadie “slutty” for having sex with one guy, one time (OK, three times, one night). I never read a single think piece calling out the guy.

The double standard isn’t just on TV. When Abe Rosenthal, the legendary New York Times executive editor, fired a female journalist for sleeping with a source, he allegedly told her, “It’s OK to fuck the elephants, just don’t cover the circus.”

When I was a media reporter, I was investigating a damaging story about a powerful publisher, and he tried to dig up a conflict to discredit my reporting, reciting that Rosenthal adage to my own editor to try to prove that I was unfit. (My editor told him to essentially fuck off. It was not remotely a conflict.) I’ll never forget an orientation for the Times campaign team when the paper’s veteran political journalist warned us all not to hook up on the trail, publicly singling out a young female journalist who met her then-boyfriend (another reporter) on the campaign trail. She was mortified. We all were. When a young Washington reporter had a relationship with a senior aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the dalliance was splashed all over the front page of the Times, and Twitter spent weeks shaming an Axios political reporter for dating a Biden spokesman.

I almost never saw male journalists experience this kind of public flogging for consensual romantic imbroglios … and trust me, they’ve had their share of inappropriate hookups. (At least once in the bathroom of Air Force One. You know who you are.)

The Girls on the Bus is inspired by a chapter of my book, Chasing Hillary, about covering Hillary Clinton, who, despite her Tracy Flick exterior, relished any tea about who was hooking up on her campaign plane. The show’s title is a riff on The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse’s classic about covering the 1972 campaign. Can you imagine how much inappropriate (and allegedly not always consensual) sex Hunter S. Thompson had? One reporter pal really drove this dynamic home when he gave me a hard time for Sadie’s fling with an ex-boyfriend turned campaign spokesman. I had to (lovingly) remind him that he used to frequent strip clubs with sources. Oh, men.

Which brings me to a central premise of our show: By the time women claimed their rightful spot on the campaign bus, they couldn’t be like the boys on the bus, they had to be better. They have to file 25 times a day to feed the web, get trolled on X and trail candidates who hardly speak to them. They’d be eviscerated for mixing work and love. But weren’t female journalists still human? Couldn’t we still have emotions? Couldn’t we still fall in love (with a partner or candidate) and follow that love to our own personal and professional peril? After all, if you don’t think journalists have complicated romantic entanglements, you’ve never been to Washington or met a journalist.

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So, what did our writers room settle on? To be clear, Sadie does not sleep with a source in order to get a story. But she does use terrible judgment and commit a fireable offense. In the three years since Sadie and Loafers (aka Malcolm, played by Brandon Scott) broke up, he’s gone from bag man (not a conflict) to campaign press secretary (a big conflict). Loafers is unemployed, and they’re both drunk when the hookup in a Des Moines hotel room happens. But still, when Sadie’s bosses at The New York Sentinel call her into a disciplinary hearing by midseason, she deserves it.

When Sadie learns, post sex, that Loafers has landed on his Prada feet, accepting a press secretary job for the female candidate whom she is now covering, she’s livid. She rips him one. Doesn’t he know that this could destroy her career? As Sadie says, “Female journalists have zero margin for error.” She proceeds to go out of her way to avoid Loafers and any semblance of a conflict or special treatment. And, because this is TV, she gets to speak her heart (aka, my inner dialogue about that Abe Rosenthal anecdote).

“What did he [Rosenthal] tell the boys? Could they fuck the elephants?” Sadie says in her disciplinary hearing. “He didn’t tell them anything because whether it was spoken or not, the boys could fuck whoever they wanted.”

This story first appeared in the May 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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