This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Ms. To read our exclusive interviews with Shonda Rhimes and Jill Soloway, subscribe today!
Back in 1973, when Linda Bloodworth-Thomason was hired as a writer on TV’s M*A*S*H, the only thing she knew for sure is that her work couldn’t be ordinary.
“It was the case then and it’s the case now,” she says. As far as being a woman writer for television, “You cannot be run-of-the-mill talent, because they can find another run-of-the-mill talent with a penis and hire him. And they will.”
Shonda Rhimes, Jenji Kohan, Jill Soloway, Lena Dunham, Michelle King, Veena Sud, Nicole Yorkin, Dawn Prestwich: No one would call these women run-of-the-mill. And these days, they’re responsible for creating and/or executive producing some of the most exciting—and in Rhimes’ case, most lucrative and popular—shows on television.
The work done by these women and by Bloodworth-Thomason—who went on to create Designing Women and other shows—is now called “showrunning.” A term coined in 1992 by Variety, a “showrunner” is the person with the vision and responsibility for both writing and producing a television show. As veteran showrunner Matthew Carnahan of House of Lies described the challenging job, it’s like “painting a painting while writing a novel while doing your taxes.”
Not only have some extraordinary women risen to this challenge, but they’ve taken on topics rarely, if ever, placed in the spotlight. On Jill Soloway’s Transparent, a father of three grown children makes the decision to transition into being a woman. On Lena Dunham’s Girls, sex is shown with uncomfortable realism rather than corny romance. On Michelle King’s The Good Wife, which she runs with her husband Robert King, the lead female characters manage to be tough and vulnerable in equal measure, only reluctantly ceding power to men. On Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black, about the plight of women in prison, the showrunner has brought us an authentic (and sometimes humorous) portrait of race relations and queer relationships.
The reigning queen of showrunners, though, is Shonda Rhimes. She currently produces the entire Thursday-night lineup for ABC—Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and her latest hit, How To Get Away With Murder—thus turning it into ShondaLand (also the name of her production company). From the first episode of Grey’s Anatomy in 2005, in which a young female doctor realizes she has just had a one-night stand with the man who will be her new boss, Rhimes consistently portrays flawed but fascinating characters of all genders, races and sexual preferences. With an intoxicating combination of suspense and romance, she makes us hungry to watch her characters figure out how to get what they want in life while avoiding, as Rhimes put it at the Human Rights Campaign Gala, “the devastation of being left alone.”
In her three current series, Rhimes explored first the medical field, then the world of politics and most recently the legal world, weaving interlaced stories of romantic passion and fierce competitiveness at work. Her characters are as intentionally different in race, sexuality and aspirations as the people she knows in real life. They’re straight, gay, bisexual; some want babies, some definitely don’t. She’s taken on abortion in several story lines, and unlike other network shows that create miscarriages to avoid taking a stand, she showed Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) follow through with her decision to terminate her pregnancy in a 2011 episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
But Rhimes isn’t the only woman bringing forth characters and story lines that break tradition. Showrunners such as Veena Sud, whose show The Killing moved from AMC to Netflix, and Kohan, who created Orange for them, wholly embraced the freedom of streaming programming. Kohan’s Orange not only blew the doors off our understanding about female prisoners, but also greatly contributed to the phenomenon of “binge-watching.” Sud confirmed the value of uninterrupted viewing with The Killing, which she described as “like a 13-hour movie.”
Before Orange, Kohan had a previous hit with a controversial show about a soccer-mom-turned-pot-dealer, Weeds, which was credited for stimulating a dramatic leap in viewership for its network, Showtime. Taking her hit-making talent to Netflix, she adapted Orange Is the New Black from a memoir by Piper Kerman and, as is her wont, mixed in characters from different classes and cultures. Using flashbacks to give the imprisoned women a history and context, she shows that these are people normally pushed to the outskirts of society and drawn in TV clichés, if they appear on small screens at all—such as the character Sophia, played by breakout African American transgender actor Laverne Cox, who commits fraud to finance her transition. Kohan also lifts the rock off institutional politics and lets us watch the prison staff crawl over each other like lusty, desperate maggots.
Media innovators such as Kohan, Rhimes and their peers not only run successful shows but also are having a far- reaching effect on society. According to a study conducted by Geena Davis’ Institute on Gender in Media at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, women playing doctors, lawyers and politicos like the ones in ShondaLand, or even Amy Poehler’s hysterically funny bureaucrat Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation, have a positive effect on how women see themselves and their potential achievements.
There is another important reason for women to be doing the storytelling on TV, as co-executive-producing team Nicole Yorkin and Dawn Prestwich’s work has proven time again (most recently on The Killing). They’re far more likely to depict women characters who remain independent vis-à-vis the men in their lives. Consciously or not, the scenes written by these women showrunners pass the Bechdel Test—created by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For in 1985 as a way to gauge the active presence of female characters. The test asks three simple questions of a film or TV show: 1. Are there two or more women in it? 2. Do they talk to each other? 3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?
While the high profile of these in-charge women—and let’s not forget the sterling presence of comic show creators Poehler, Tina Fey (30 Rock and the new Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project)—is something to celebrate, we’re still far from reaching gender equity in TV writing or production. Women comprise less than 1 in 5 executive producers on TV, as evinced by a 2015 Writers Guild of America West study. In fact, the percentage of women executive producers was down in the 2013-2014 season to 15.1 percent compared to the 18.3 percent figure in the 2012-2013 season.
Given the tremendous success certain women have had, particularly lately, these statistics are confounding. If women make such great shows, drawing audiences in large numbers, why aren’t more of them being given the green light to create and run TV shows?
Taking a closer look at the culture of the industry, it’s not hard to figure out why. Showrunning is the pinnacle of a television writer’s career, achieved after years spent in the trenches as staff writer, producer, co-executive producer, executive producer and finally showrunner. But not enough women are currently at the lower rung of that ladder. Ac- cording to the Writers Guild study, women writers “remain underrepresented among staff writers by nearly 2 to 1.”
If women can’t get staff writing jobs, how can they get on track to become creators of their own shows? Carole Kirschner, whose resume includes more than a decade as a writer and development executive and 11 years heading CBS’s writers diversity program before her current position running the WGA Showrunner Training Program, traces the problem to the old boys’ network.
“When you are putting a staff together, you are looking for people you have to spend 10 to 12 hours a day with,” she explains. “People tend to choose people they are comfortable with, so that’s who often gets hired first. This is how that boys’ club environment is perpetuated. The more women in power, the more people will be in hiring positions who are comfortable hiring women.”
Kirschner quickly added, “But it’s definitely gotten better, and we don’t have to wait until there are more women in power. All it takes is for people in hiring positions to step a little bit out of their comfort zones.”
Without the insight and experience of women, the entertainment media runs the risk of telling stories that not only fail the Bechdel Test but also rob audiences of a deeper understanding of the female experience. Above and beyond the art itself, when half of the planet is women, this simply doesn’t make good business sense. As this handful of fabulous female showrunning stars has proven, there is a huge audience for storytelling that gives voice to everyone standing in line behind all the straight white men, chomping at the bit to keep us laughing, crying and learning.
Photos of Shonda Rhimes (left) and Jenji Kohan via Shutterstock
Dani Klein Modisett is a writer and comic living in Los Angeles. Her forthcoming second book about laughter and marriage is Take My Spouse, Please.