Sophia Bush on surviving “relentless” harassment in Hollywood

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey y’all, it’s Brittany. James Baldwin once said, “To be a Negro in this country and relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” And I have been trying for the sake of my own heart, to not be in a rage all of the time. But this week, that’s exactly where I am. Once again, the police have killed another Black person. 20 year old Daunte Wright was shot just 10 miles from where Derek Chauvin is currently on trial for the murder of George Floyd. I mean, y’all if the police can’t even be on their best behavior while the whole world is watching, it’s because they are incapable. I mean, seriously, this is all the institution can do and we should really stop expecting more. 

Y’all know the kind of guy who keeps doing you dirty even while you keep hoping he’ll change. You maybe go to counseling or relationship classes and he keeps promising to do better, but it’s never actually any different. Girl, leave him. We have to stop thinking the police can actually change. It’s time to move on sis’. Let’s be clear, the U.S. police force evolved from slave patrols. The roots of the tree show you the fruits of the tree. So reacting violently to Black bodies is the foundation. An institution created to control and punish can never truly serve and protect. It took me a while, but I finally came to believe that abolition is the only path forward. Sure, the road is long, but again, y’all, we — we deserve respect and basic human dignity and these are non-negotiables. We may not know exactly what the future will look like, but what awaits us on the other side is true public safety and communal care if we are brave enough to design it ourselves. So let’s stop trying to change what can’t be changed and instead go get what we deserve. 


On the show today, Sophia Bush. I’ll be talking to the actress and activist about Time’s Up and her own experiences dealing with workplace harassment in Hollywood. 

Sophia Bush And here I was being told that I was one of the most valuable women on a television network. And the moment I said, I will not stand for this, I will not be treated like this, I will not let other women be treated like this. I was expendable. I had a target placed on my back. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up, but first, it’s your “UNtrending News”.   

Y’all, I think President Biden maybe was listening to the last episode of the podcast on abortion rights because now he’s taking some more action, Biden has lifted restrictions on abortion pills by mail for the rest of the pandemic. So basically, the Trump era FDA had mandated that abortion pills be given in person at a hospital or clinic, even in a pandemic. And their rule was upheld by the Supreme Court in January. But women’s rights advocates and reproductive justice organizers kept calling out this in-person rule as medically unnecessary and a significant barrier to abortion. As Alexis McGill Johnson mentioned last week, it forced people to travel out of state, risking getting or spreading Covid just to get a couple of pills that could be sent through the mail. So this is a good step, but when the pandemic ends, people will still need safe, accessible abortions. So hopefully Biden will lift the FDA restrictions permanently. And hats off to all the advocates and organizers who continue to press the issue. 

So over in Russia, a trial has begun for a feminist artist charged with disseminating pornography. Yulia Tsvetkova faces up to six years in prison for sharing her colorful artwork online of women, more specifically, vaginas. It’s possible to have prison time in Russia, apparently for beautiful drawings of the female anatomy. The trial arrives against the backdrop of increasing anti LGBTQ repression in Russia. And Vladimir Putin has outlawed same sex marriage and ties the government with preserving, quote, “Traditional family values.” 

Yulia Tsvetkova I’ve been hearing that my work means nothing, that women do not need rights, that body positive is pornography, that I should go to jail and face a sentence and I should be murdered and I should be burned because I’m a witch. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yulia, you and your work are important and people around the world are now speaking out against her persecution. There’s a petition to have her charges dropped and it’s gathered more than 250 thousand signatures. So let’s keep up the international support, sign the petition and get the word out. And if you have time, check out Yulia Tsvetkova’s artwork. It’s really quite stunning. 

And finally, the iconic Oregon Trail video game has stepped up its game when it comes to indigenous representation. So for those not familiar, Oregon Trail was played by millions of students ever since it was first created in 1971.

Oregon Trail Ad You’ll play as a pioneer leading your family across the United States in 1848. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham The game’s storyline, which focused on the white settlers, wasn’t such a fun adventure for the indigenous folks involved. In fact, it was a brutal colonization, just like in real life. So now a new Apple Arcade version produced in collaboration with American Indian scholars is attempting to rectify that. For starters, the indigenous characters are now playable, and the game showcases their stories and culture — which, friendly reminder, existed before America was colonized. This may seem small, but I used to love Oregon Trail and there is a good chance that I learned some piss poor lessons. Nuanced representation and historical accuracy matters even in video games. So I may revisit the new Oregon Trail. I just hope I don’t keep dying from dysentery this time. 

Oregon Trail Audio Ow!

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. Coming up, I’ll be talking to Sophia Bush about workplace harassment and her advice on unlearning the white centered approach to feminism right after this short break. 

And we are back. Sophia Bush may best be known for starring in teen drama One Tree Hill or the Dick Wolf show Chicago PD, but it’s really her work off screen as a dedicated activist that probably keeps her most busy. For years, Sophia has advocated for a myriad of causes from girls education and the environment to the Me Too and Time’s Up movements which hit especially close to home. Back in 2017, Sophia spoke out publicly about her own experiences being harassed on the set of not just one but two shows she’d worked on. Yep, they’re the ones I just mentioned. This was at the height of the Harvey Weinstein allegations. And judging from the current headlines, the topic of workplace sexual harassment, unfortunately, remains just as relevant today. Sophia and I met through activist circles a few years ago, and we’ve had a sisterhood ever since. We have a lot in common, including that we both love to talk about the real and hard stuff. So I guess perhaps it’s not surprising that we both now have podcasts where we do exactly that. Sophia’s podcast Work in Progress, just returned for a new season. So before she gets too busy talking to other folks, I thought I’d have her sit down with me. Sophia, it’s so great to talk to you. 

Sophia Bush It’s so good to talk to you. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  First of all, congratulations on your podcast returning. 

Sophia Bush Thank you. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham For people who haven’t listened to Work in Progress yet, what is it about? How would you describe it? 

Sophia Bush Work in Progress really started for me as I had to give myself the advice I always wished I’d heard, which was that you are allowed to be both a work in progress and a masterpiece simultaneously. You can be proud of what you’ve achieved and still be setting goals. And what I realized is that there’s so many amazing people in my life and who I’ve met through so much of the work that, you know, you and I both do. People who I think have it all figured out and they’re still talking about what they’re learning. And it was in those conversations that I would think over and over again, I wish other people could hear this. I wish other young women could hear this. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You really like to put up folks who you call committed disruptors. You’ve spoken to Gloria Steinem, Erin Brockovich, our girl Cori Bush. I really want to get more of an understanding of how you became a committed disruptor. Where does that drive for social justice come from? Have you always identified as a feminist? 

Sophia Bush Yeah. Oh, yeah. And even as a kid, when I didn’t get it. You know, I remember one day we moved when I was 12 and I remember my dad, like, trying to help me with a box to get this box to my room. And I was like, I can do it myself. And he was like, okay, attitude. And I was like, I’m a feminist. I don’t need help from you. My dad was like, that’s not what that means. Hello. You know, I, I didn’t understand. I think I always had such a drive to want to be able to do something, to not want to be sidelined or patronized as a woman. And, you know, we experience that so early. It begins so early. The way people talk down to us, the way that they look at young boys and say, well, aren’t you strong? Aren’t you smart? And they — they bend over to look at little girls and they say, oh, you’re so pretty. And always irked me. And I think that as I’ve grown, that sort of initial fury at inequity has really prompted me to keep digging in, to keep asking where does this come from? What are the societal systems that enable it? What are the strange bedfellows in systemic oppression? Because so many of them go hand in hand. And the thing that inspires me is that there’s always more to learn. And the gift of this moment, of this generation that you and I are a part of is that we get to do this together. I mean, you and I became friends chanting for social change in different parts of the country, how lucky we are that this is our moment. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And to show up knowing that if I am more free, then that makes you more free. Right? And because this is — this is deeply personal to us. I know it’s deeply personal to you and you’ve been really open about that. And I want to actually take us back to 2017. You quit the show, Chicago PD and first fans were surprised and didn’t know why. But a few months later, you revealed that you left due to abusive behavior on set. What can you tell us about what happened? 

Sophia Bush So, this job had kind of always been a dream for me. You know, I grew up watching Mariska on SVU. I — I definitely was in that space, especially because she played, you know, the special victims detective, where I thought women who work as detectives are really the heroes. And obviously, there’s historically always been problems in policing. But there’s those people. This was a long time ago. I didn’t really understand the reality yet, which I certainly do now. But, you know, as a young woman in my 20s, she was a hero to me and I wanted to go and work in that world. And then I went to work in that world and very swiftly the energy changed. I showed up, as you know, the person who was the most recognizable on that show and everyone was excited about that being a useful tool. And then it changed because I was the one woman on set and there was a real energy where the anger and the male entitlement about that started to come out and the inappropriate commentary began and then the inappropriate physical touching began. And when I rebuffed those things, it seemed to me on the receiving end of it, like it was a double whammy of you’re refusing my advances, and I don’t like it because you’re supposed to service my ego and you’re getting more attention than I am as a performer. And you go and do all the talk shows and the promo. And I don’t like that either. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And you tried to speak up about what was going on. Right?

Sophia Bush I spoke about it a little bit to some of the people in power, and then when it became physically violent, I made my first report. Was promised that it would go up the flagpole and they would do something immediately. And actually, my boss, who I reported to when I told him what happened in this escalation, he looked at me and said, thank God he didn’t try to rape you. And it was this weird response because I thought you are relieved that the violence wasn’t worse, but you’re also telling me that because it wasn’t the worst kind, it felt like this sort of well, it wasn’t that bad. And I was like, what? And I found out a year later when there was another very violent incident in a room full of people. This person went after a 21 year old girl in our production office. I finally had had it and I said, look, I deal with this every day and there’s there’s not a day that goes by that me and the hair and makeup girls don’t talk about how if we had one of those calendars on the wall of like we’ve made it this many days without an incident, it would always be at zero. Because there’s always a commentary, there’s always an inappropriate remark. There’s always a you know, we’re working on a scene and something’s not working. And we need some — we need a turn here. And this person turns and says, I know what we need. We need you to get on your knees and blow me. Like, on set to the one, you know, female character there. It was relentless and everybody knew. And there was always a director, a producer, a someone in the room. But when it stopped focusing just on me and went into a territory where it went after this young woman, I made it an H.R. thing. And that’s when I found out none of what I’d been reporting to my bosses had ever been passed up the flagpole to H.R. or anyone at the network. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Wow. 

Sophia Bush So I went, oh, the system that’s supposed to protect me isn’t. These people were legally required to make the phone calls I asked them to make and they didn’t. Then, you know, that whole reporting experience is meant to be confidential, it wasn’t. I was ratted out instantly, so the retaliation was unbearable. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Oh my God Sophia.

Sophia Bush And then what was so interesting was that I watched the people who hadn’t done their jobs of reporting all get fired, but the abuser did not because he was considered a moneymaker. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Oh, boy. 

Sophia Bush  And all of that added up. And I just said, I’m not going to do this anymore. I’m leaving. And they said to me, you can’t. So then we had very intense conversations about what my options would be about speaking about this publicly if they did not allow me to quit my job in order to protect myself from this behavior. And then finally at the 11th hour, I was released. Then the public retaliation began, which was this person has, you know, been brought to H.R. for his anger. And now he’s in anger management classes. And I remember tweeting, isn’t it interesting when gross sexual misconduct gets rebranded as an anger management issue? 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Oh, my God. 

Sophia Bush This was all before the Harvey story. There was no precedent set. There was no help. And here I was being told that I was one of the most valuable women on a television network. And the moment I said, I will not stand for this, I will not be treated like this, I will not let other women be treated like this. I was expendable. I had a target placed on my back. And I thought so much about what happens to the girl who’s in her first year on her first TV show? What’s happening to the woman who is a domestic worker in a house that she — and she cannot get away from the man who employs her? 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Right.

Sophia Bush What happens to the woman who works in that office building and has to be on a floor alone at night? Who has access to her? What happens to our sisters who do not have the relative privilege that I do? And it just made me so fucking angry. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Before I ask the next question, I really just want to thank you for your candor in sharing that and just say that I’m sorry, like nobody should be experiencing that. And speaking of that girl on her first TV show, you were only 21 when you began starring on One Tree Hill. And you’ve also been open about the abusive behavior you encountered there. Did you know at the time that it was a bad situation or did it take Me Too and Time’s Up and the culture really, really shifting for you to recognize the abuse for what it really was? 

Sophia Bush We had a, you know, creator and showrunner on that show who was a very pervy older guy. You know, he was a man in his 40s who felt like he never got his due, which again goes back to white male entitlement. He was mad that none of the cheerleaders who he thought were hot in high school wanted to fuck him. And I know this because he would tell us this while we were 21 year old actors playing teenage cheerleaders on his television show. So what a mindfuck there. And everyone kind of acts like it’s normal. So us as young women, we look at each other and think, this is kind of weird, but I guess it’s normal. I guess this is familiarity, camaraderie. We’re — we’re a family. You know, it’s — it’s brotherly, whatever sort of thing you tell yourself, because all the adults in the room are acting like this inappropriate thing is not inappropriate. And it was years later when many of us as women sat down to share our stories of our experiences, that I found out that it had been so much worse for some other people there. And we decided we needed to speak up about that. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And you did.

Sophia Bush Yeah. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So not long after you left Chicago PD, you and 17 other women who worked on One Tree Hill went on the record about workplace abuse there. You all wrote a letter accusing show creator Mark Schwahn of sexual harassment and emotional abuse. Now, we have to say, for the record, he has not commented publicly on the claims, but the fact that you dealt with this kind of behavior on both series might seem to some like terrible luck. Or it might be extremely predictable odds in Hollywood, 

Sophia Bush These are not uncommon odds. I don’t have a single friend who doesn’t have a story. I don’t have a single friend who doesn’t have multiple stories about multiple places that they’ve worked, where they have been subjected to inappropriate behavior, inappropriate commentary. They’ve been touched inappropriately in the workplace or on the subway. We live in a country where one in four women has been sexually assaulted by the time she is 22 years old. That means one in four women that we know was raped by the time she graduated college. There are multiple women who I have encountered in many of the spaces you and I frequent together as activists who in private will say, well, the first time I was assaulted, the first time I was raped, the first time I was sexually harassed. It isn’t once. These are micro and macro aggressions that women face every single day, everywhere that they go, whether that’s getting followed by some guy in a car, cat calling you on the street or trying to change your schedule of arrival in your workplace to avoid, you know, the creepy dude in your office. Whatever it is, women deal with this constantly. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham How much do you think that Hollywood and really all of society and the wider culture has actually changed in the past few years when it comes to workplace abuse and sexual harassment? Do you think that things are getting a little better? A lot better? No better at all? 

Sophia Bush Here’s the thing. I never want to be — and this is hard because I am an optimist. And I do think as much as I am in touch with my sacred rage and I am mad as shit about what’s happening to women and what’s happening to Black and brown folks and about this pandemic and healthcare and the border and the environment and all of it, corruption in politics, you know, all of it. I still believe there’s a lot of magic here. I believe there is a lot of magic on this planet and magic and people. And so I want to be optimistic. But what I do not want to be is naive. And I am not naive about progress. I believe that we are having cultural conversations en masse in ways we never have before, that impresses me that the everyday lexicon of communities includes terms like white supremacy and patriarchy and feminist futures and human rights for everyone. The idea that these conversations can become daily feels incredibly important. But I do not mistake cultural conversation for substantive progress. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I think you’re making a critical distinction between systemic progress and smaller changes, but it’s not as if the slight changes don’t matter. 

Sophia Bush Yeah.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I know your One Tree Hill castmate Hilarie Burton has talked about wanting to do a reboot of One Tree Hill with a woman show runner this time. And I’ve heard you’re on board.

Sophia Bush I love the idea of doing something like that just for us. You know, we speak a lot about this with Rachel and Audrey, who are two of the writers on our show, who were the first people to shed light, you know, after the Harvey letter on Mark’s behavior. And we were just like, wouldn’t it be so fun if all of us took it back? So who knows? But what a gift that that we all feel that way. Because let me tell you something, when we all first stopped doing that show, we did not want to talk about it. Having to talk about it or think about it or people asking us to bring it back. It was like someone, you know, trying to choke you with cough syrup or something. It was totally gross to us. And I think the real beauty is that years later, it doesn’t feel that way anymore because the core of it is us. You know, Hillary and I talk about how we were actually the real love story of that show, these two girls who were best friends. It was our love story. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. 

Sophia Bush And all these years later, we love it fiercely because we have remained, not the scripts or the guy in charge or the memories that were really negative. Our good stuff is what we’ve distilled out of it. And now we’re like, well, what are we going to do with this? 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I love that. Take it back and maybe add some people of color and some non-straight teens this time and enough with all the mean girls. 

Sophia Bush We were horrible to each other. The scripts always had us calling each other like hoes and bitches and competing over men. And there was some very unfeminist behavior on that show. Not by our choice, obviously, but there are certainly things that would be done so differently now. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So, speaking of doing things differently, I’m going to shift us just a little bit because one of the things you and I talk the most about is about the intersectional feminism that we both deeply yearn to be reality across the board. I know you’ve done a lot of thinking about the responsibility of white women within feminist movements and the importance of unlearning a white centered approach to activism. So I’m curious, Sophia, what kinds of conversations do you have with other white women in this regard? 

Sophia Bush A lot. I have seen as this cultural conversation has, like we were referring to earlier, become more of a household experience. More and more white women will come into my DMs and say, I don’t want to ask Black women to point me in the right direction. I see Black women who I follow share your posts about stuff like this sometimes. So I feel like I can ask you. And I’m like, yes, ask me to do this emotional labor for you. Do not ask Brittany, I love this. Like, I’m like, look at this learning that’s happening. And I’m also going to say, to be frank, I vacillate between feeling so good about all of the work that we as a community do and what I understand because of the ways I have stood up and showed up and spoken up and also the ways that I have shown up and sat down and shut the fuck up and listened. And I frequently feel like I have no idea if I’m doing this right. I have sympathy for the fear of doing it wrong that a lot of white women feel. And I think there’s two things that are really important to say about that. It’s not about us or our feelings. They don’t get to be centered, and — the both and is,  I understand that the fear of doing it wrong is a fear of doing harm. You know, white women, we’ve been steeped in this like white societal tea. We have not understood historically that that affects us because our experience has been one of — of the sexism and oppression that we face. So I think there’s a duality which is a waking up to being either conscious and willing or unconscious and unwitting agents of a white patriarchy. And there is a real reckoning happening about gender and gender violence right now. So there’s a lot of people being in their feelings and reliving their trauma. And so I understand that the fear of doing it wrong is “I know what hurt is for me and I don’t want to hurt someone else. I’m so scared to hurt someone else. I’m so scared to be the bad guy because that guy who hurt me is a bad guy. And I don’t want to be that bad guy to somebody else. I don’t want to be that bad guy to Black and brown women.” You kind of have to get over that, even if it’s been unconscious, you’ve been a bad guy and you have to give yourself the grace of saying, I didn’t know then and I didn’t know better and I’m going to try better now. That’s literally all you can do. And so what I want for white women is to do their self care and their grace giving at home with themselves and then show up ready to do the fucking work and not talk so much about their feelings in rooms with Black and brown women. I want them — I want us to listen more and more to Black and brown women. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You know, Sophia, your F bombs are always righteously provocative. 

Sophia Bush When I get fired up, they really start coming out. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I love you so much my sister and I’m so, so grateful for you for having this conversation. 

Sophia Bush Thank you. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Sophia Bush is an actress, activist, director and producer. You know, I really respect how committed Sophia is to learning, to growing, to knowing when to speak up, to learning when to listen, and despite the fear of messing up or saying the wrong thing, she continues to show up. She, like all of us, is a work in progress. So those committed disruptors Sophia talked about, they’re not born. They’re made. Unlearning, decolonizing and striving for justice in our own lives and the systems we encounter is a never ending pursuit. We are continually refining and evolving our outlooks on the world and our responses to what happens in it. That’s why it matters that Sophia is gathering her own and having the sometimes difficult conversations with other white women that need to be had. It’s never too late to listen more to Black women and indigenous women and women of color to try harder at whatever your cause is. So don’t let the fear of doing it wrong stop you from doing it at all. Know better, do better, and pass it on. Let’s build the biggest choir of committed disruptors this world has ever heard. 

That’s it for today, but never for tomorrow. 


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Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. Definitely thanks for doing. 

And also, before we go, a very peaceful Ramadan to all who believe and celebrate. 

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.