Shonda Rhimes, Jenji Kohan recognize 'lucky' position as female showrunners

Showrunners @shondarhimes, #JenjiKohan receive honor for changing face of the media #WhatAFeministLooksLike

Showrunners Shonda Rhimes and Jenji Kohan called on females to "woman up" and draw mouths on Hello Kitty knick-knacks when they were honored by the Feminist Majority Foundation on Monday night.

Rhimes, who is responsible for ABC's trifecta of female-led hits, including "Scandal," "How to Get Away With Murder" and "Grey's Anatomy," was celebrated alongside Kohan during the foundation's 10th Global Women's Rights Awards for "changing the face of media."

"Orange Is the New Black" and "Weeds" creator Kohan also drew praise for her Netflix series, which chronicles the diverse female denizens of the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary. (The SAG Award-winning dramedy returns for a third season June 12.)

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The executive producers were saluted at the the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood for showcasing complicated characters, challenging race and sex stereotypes on the small screen and being fierce champions of women's rights, civil rights and lesbian, gay and transgender rights. And when they were given the mike, they advocated for their gender and set the tone for the next crop of young feminists seeking equality for women.

"I absolutely love being a woman. I mean, I love it," Rhimes said in her speech. "It never occurred to me not to love it. I am fairly lucky and I only am recently learning this [is because of] how I grew up. I had this tremendous powerhouse of a mother who raised me to feel incredibly confident at all times. To trust in myself. To love everything about myself. I mean, I think I'm fabulous. No matter what my hair is doing or how my butt is growing. No matter what they're saying about me, my flaws are gorgeous. I think I'm cute. I know I'm smart. I believe in me. I'm a woman phenomenally. My mama, she Maya Angelou-ed the [expletive] out of me."

The showrunner also shared an anecdote about her willowy, Ivy League-educated assistant who wished that she could be a man for a day so that she could know what it feels like to "have it all." Rhimes said she decried her wish and told her to "woman up" because "we don't have time to be terrified" about being a woman and "there's no room for such an enormous lack of confidence in the next generation of feminists."

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"Living in the possession of a vagina is not a hindrance. It's not a flaw, it is a gift. It makes you stronger. It makes you fight harder, go further, do better. It makes you bad-ass. And as we say at my job, it makes you a gladiator," Rhimes said.

"Lead the life you want to lead. Be whoever you want to be. Have the babies. Be the CEO. Lean out. Lean in -- on your own terms. Just run this thing because I don't want the girls wishing they could be men for a day. I don't even want men wishing they could be women. I just want those words '[having] all of that,' I want all of that to apply to all of us."

Rhimes, who's also a writer and has worked on the screenplays for "Crossroads" and "The Princess Diaries 2," is credited with beefing up ABC's diverse programming.

When ABC made its upfront presentation to advertisers last week, the mega-producer was seemingly given carte blanche on the network's primetime schedule, dominating the lineup with her Thursday night hits that comprise #TGIT. The network ordered up another Rhimes drama for midseason: a fraud investigation thriller called "The Catch," which spotlights Mireille Enos of "The Killing" as the female lead.

The Shondaland boss was among the first to lambaste Deadline's March story criticizing multi-ethnic casting during pilot season and has repeatedly spoken out against the entertainment industry's tendency toward "unconscious bias" — stereotyping of women and people of color.

In a Q&A after the program, the 45-year-old producer said she's always looking for women when she's hiring and credits "Scandal" director and "How to Get Away With Murder" star Tom Verica for helping build up stats on female directors.

"We have really amazing producing directors in Shondaland, and one of the great things going on right now is Tom Verica is really amazing about going out and hunting down women directors and directors of color. When you hear from agencies, 'Well, we don't have anybody,' Tom found ["Selma" director] Ava DuVernay, which is crazy, and had her direct her first television episode because no one was hiring her," Rhimes said.

"We kind of joke we have the best directors because nobody's hiring them. It's wonderful for us because there's a treasure trove of women and people of color who can direct all of our shows."

Rhimes and Kohan were saluted by talent from their respective shows. "How to Get Away With Murder's" Verica and Viola Davis, "Private Practice" alum Amy Brenneman, "Scandal's" Kate Burton, Jeff Perry and Dan Bucatinsky, "Grey's Anatomy's" Chandra Wilson, Jason George, Kevin McKidd and Jim Pickens represented Team Shonda. "Orange Is the New Black's" Laverne Cox, Kate Mulgrew, Taylor Schilling and "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner represented Team Jenji. All of them said the evening's catchphrase -- "This is what a feminist looks like" -- when they hit the stage and some of Rhimes' guys even performed a choreographed routine to honor their boss. 

The show-running duo are considered "lightning rods for breaking sex and racial stereotypes" and have been commended for giving voices to minority characters in their highly viewed series.

The awards come at time when women are said to occupy only 15% of critical executive producer positions in television, according to data from the organization.

"It's very nice to be at an event with Shonda where we both get to walk away with awards," Kohan joked, later telling The Times she signed on to do the event because Rhimes was doing it. 

In her speech, the "OITNB" writer focused on her daughter Eliza's obsession with all things Hello Kitty, and her crusade to rectify the animated Japanese character's biggest flaw: "She had no mouth," Kohan said.

"I feel this toy was telling my daughter that she should look adorable with her pink bow and not express her thoughts or feelings -- let others simply project them on to her -- that's not OK. But she really liked the stuff and I had spent a fortune. So I grabbed a Sharpie and I started drawing mouths ... I defaced them all by giving them full faces."

The blue-and-purple-haired screenwriter, whose production credits also include "Gilmore Girls" and "Mad About You" and writing credits for a slew of sitcoms, also mentioned her mother Rhea Kohan, "a pushy, mouthy broad" who "paved the road for my journey to the underworld of drugs and eventually to prison."

She comes from a showbiz family and recognized that her story "is not everyone's story."

"I can shoot off my big mouth and write my shows and run my shows. And I recognize how lucky I am because my position is rare and my position is privileged and I'm going to take advantage of that. First, by supporting organizations like this one ... and second, by doing my work, by telling stories and creating characters that start conversations and get people talking and caring about people in situations that they never thought they'd" care about.

Kohan said she believes in the "power of media" and sees it as her soapbox.

"I do have an agenda because I'm enraged by the limitations forced on people by poverty, oppression, hatred, fear, and I'm saddened by the loss we all experience due to the contribution people cannot make because of their circumstances," she said.   

"My first job is to entertain, but if while you're enjoying you start to question something you never thought about before or empathize with, relate to or love somebody you only thought of as 'other' once upon a time, how awesome is that? It's all about moving the needle, a little bit, a little bit. And I also find everything funny. Inappropriately so."

The producers were also touted for progressing women both in the industry and in society, said Katherine Spillar, executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation and editor of Ms. magazine, which features Rhimes on its spring cover.

"Their commercial success reminds the studios and networks that entertainment created by women can generate huge audiences and profits, and helps open doors for other aspiring women talents," Spillar said. "They are driving cultural change through their portrayal of strong women characters in their television programs -- an essential component to advancing women's equality. And their shows, by taking on some of the most critical issues impacting women -- violence, sexual assault, sexism -- are creating awareness as they knock down stereotypes and spur conversations."

Follow me on Twitter @NardineSaad.

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