Break the Rules Like ... Caitlin Riggsbee

Not all Wonder Women wear capes, and not all Unladylike role models need to sit in the C-suite to spark change. Each week, we're introducing y'all to rad women and nonbinary folks we admire. They'll offer up pointers on how we all can #breaktheruleslike they do and help them make the world a better place. If you have a role model to shout out, send hot tips to 

We became Twitter friends with Caitlin while tracking  special-election  coverage / drunk tweeting on Aug. 7, 2018. Before working on  Last Week Tonight , she worked as a researcher for   Finding Your Roots  ! (Photo courtesy Caitlin Riggsbee)

We became Twitter friends with Caitlin while tracking special-election coverage / drunk tweeting on Aug. 7, 2018. Before working on Last Week Tonight, she worked as a researcher for Finding Your Roots! (Photo courtesy Caitlin Riggsbee)

1. Introduce yourself: Who are you, where are you from and what do you do?

My name’s Caitlin — I’m 23, from NYC, and a research assistant on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver!

2. When did you first realize this was the right path for you?

I’ve been fascinated by film/TV for as long as I can remember, but when I got to film school I became very interested in watching documentaries and listening to research-intensive podcasts and radio shows. I think what initially drew me to film/TV was what also piqued my interest in non-fiction media — the idea that you have to put in many hours of work to come up with a product that’s maybe only a few minutes long (if you want to do it right). So, in college, I started making my own short documentaries, and I interned at a few production companies that did non-fiction work. I figured out that I loved going as deep as I could in whatever subjects were thrown my way, and trying to understand whatever I was researching from every angle possible. Right after college, I took a research position on the TV show Finding Your Roots, and from there I moved to my current job at LWT.  

3. What’s unladylike about you and what you do?

I don’t think there’s anything particularly ladylike about what I do. For one, film and TV are very male-dominated industries. I eventually want to produce non-fiction content, which tends to be a more diverse aspect of the industry — but women still aren’t very well represented at the top of the field, on the whole.  

As far as research goes, I think there’s a lot that’s unladylike about it. For one, it’s kind of nosey-by-nature. There’s a lot of poking around subjects that might be unpleasant, bugging people with your questions and fact-checking someone else’s fact-check.

There’s also an element of self-assuredness you have to have, which completely goes against so much of what we teach girls. My job is to help make the show as accurate as possible — at the end of the day, I need to be able to say, “I looked into this, and this is what I believe to be true,” and to be able to stand by what I found. It can sometimes be difficult to fully trust that you’ve asked all the right questions, and it can really be a process to turn off that voice in the back of your head that doesn’t want to make a fuss or doesn’t believe that she has the right to raise a concern. I think that applies to most women starting their careers, but I really felt it in the first year of my own.

4. Which of your heroes or role models would you immortalize in bronze?

Ida B. Wells. I think she was such a remarkable woman of amazing conviction. There’s actually a group that’s commissioning a monument in her honor, and I can’t wait to go visit it when it’s complete.

5. What was your feminist aha moment?

I was really lucky to be raised in a feminist household, and amongst a lot of women who identified as feminists. So when I was young I was never scared to identify that way or speak about sexism I experienced. What was always more difficult for me, having grown up in a not particularly diverse environment, was embracing my identity as a black woman, and realizing that I was downplaying a central part of my identity to make other people comfortable.

So I think, instead of having one big moment, as I’ve gotten older I’ve gradually realized that my goals for this movement are as valid as the goals of white women. I think that internalized racism can be so intense, that it’s been easier for me to advocate for myself “as a woman,” but harder to do so “as a woman of color.” I’ve been working on improving that over the last few years.

6. What’s bringing you joy right now — or at least keeping you sane?

With complete honesty, it’s my 2-year-old cat, Monkey. I have no shame in that. He’s a delightful, hot-mess of an animal, and I just adore him.

7. Aside from keys/wallet/phone, what do you never leave home without?

My headphones. I listen to music and podcasts all day long, and when I’m walking about New York, just having them on (even if I’m not listening to any music) dissuades a good amount of catcallers or creeps. Not all, but enough to make a difference.

8. How can unladies help you and/or your mission?

First, please make sure you’re registered to vote. Then please go vote in your local elections (whenever they happen for you) and the midterms in November. I know you know. But for real, please just do it.

Second, please consume some amazing women-led TV and film content. More films and shows with women at the helm will be made if networks and production companies are no longer able to say, “Wow, wish we could fund that, but films like that aren’t profitable.” Same goes for content produced by people of color. I recommend The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Crazy Rich Asians to start.

More from Caity

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More about diversity in media

  • 'Crazy Rich Asians' actors hope film's success will open more doors for Asian Americans (Marketwatch)
  • Just 16% of screenwriters in UK film are women, study finds (The Guardian)
  • NBC, FX, CW execs on supporting TV's female storytellers post-#MeToo (Variety)
  • TV is leading the way on diversity, but that's not saying much (Quartz)
  • Why diverse superheroes draw big audiences — and big bucks (Moneyish)
  • A new day in late night: Women make their mark in competitive field (Variety)
  • Why are women filmmakers finding more opportunities in documentaries? (IndieWire)