Last night, I was given the opportunity to attend a pretty interesting event: The Feminist Majority Foundation honored both TV powerhouses Shonda Rhimes and Jenji Kohan with the Eleanor Roosevelt Global Women’s Rights Award. Rhimes and Kohan were celebrated with an acoustic performance by Regina Spektor, Shondaland cast members doing a live lip-sync to Earth Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star” and a number of heartfelt speeches, almost all of which began with the declaration “This is what a feminist looks like.”
What does that mean to Kohan and Rhimes? And what does that mean to Viola Davis and Matthew Weiner, who presented the awards to these esteemed women? Below, find the transcripts of their speeches, which cover how their families — and Hello Kitty — have defined feminism for them.
Viola Davis (Presenter)
Shonda, when recently asked in an interview from Ms. Magazine if she identifies as “feminist,” said “Who doesn’t?” A great question, but unfortunately there are a few, which I’ve never understood. I don’t get the bad rap that the word “feminist” gets. Why would any thinking, feeling person not be for the equality of people of any sex, race or sexual orientation?
I’m not afraid of the word feminist. If you don’t know, I play Annelise Keating, criminal defense attorney and law professor on “How to Get Away with Murder.” She’s also been described as “sexy,” “glamorous,” “unpredictable” and “dangerous.” Thanks to Shonda and my unusual courage as a female in front of the camera in Hollywood, I get to play a real woman whose choices are not always perfect. The operative word there being “choice” — the freedom to fuck up. Among many other attributes that Shonda gives her female characters, probably one of the most important from a feminist perspective, is this example: The creation of real women for people around the world to witness on-screen. Women who are passionately flawed and take their weave off while the camera’s still running. Shonda smashes through the all-too-common stereotypes of women we see on television. To quote her when it comes to Shonda’s characters, “We’re portraying women as they actually are, and letting women talk about things that are actually real.” What a surprise that audiences can’t get enough of this kind of truth.
“How to Get Away with Murder” completes a trifecta for Shonda, making Thursday night on ABC Shondaland. The Associated Press called her reign of an entire night of network television “unmatched in TV history.” ABC won all four Thursdays in the adult demographic during the November sweeps period, which hasn’t happened for the network in the last 23 years.
Now her new show, “The Catch,” will anchor another night of must-watch television for ABC. All of this is to say that Shonda Rhimes is one of the most powerful and successful forces in television today — and, she’s a woman! Of those who have total creative power, less than 20 percent are women. Take that Old Boys’ Club. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Courage is more exhilarating than fear, and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes of the night. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.” It is no wonder, then, that the Feminist Majority Foundation is honoring Shonda Rhimes with the Eleanor Roosevelt Global Women’s Rights Award tonight. From her storylines to her casting and producing, Shonda consistently has the courage to challenge race and sex stereotypes. She has also been a fierce and provocative champion for women’s rights, civil rights and lesbian and gay rights. Her work is changing industry ideas of who and what can make a successful on-screen story.
And if you are looking for inspiration — and who of us doesn’t find themselves of some at time — look no further than one of the most powerful women in media today: “I’m not really worried about what anyone else is giving me or not giving me. I just keep moving forward. If you spend a lot of time worrying about what someone will or will not allow you to do, you spend your time not doing something. Just go around then, and do it anyway.” Yes indeed, my friends. On behalf of the Feminist Majority Foundation, I’d like to present the Eleanor Roosevelt Award to Shonda Rhimes.
I absolutely love being a feminist. I mean, I love it. It never occurred to me not to love it. I am fairly lucky and I only am recently learning this in 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. I don’t care what my hair is doing or how my butt is growing. No matter what they are 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’d the shit out of me.
The other day, I was talking to my assistant and she said something that shocked me, something that I have never even thought to think. She said, “I wish I was a man, just for a day. Just to see what it’s like to have all that.” Sidebar: What she actually said was “I wish I was a white man,” but that’s a whole other rant. So, “I wish I was a man for a day, just to see what it’s like to have all of that.” All of that. She wishes she was a man just for a day to have all of that. So I stood there, silent, for the longest time, trying to figure out what she meant — to have all of that. All of that. That. And my assistant is 5’11, she’s tall, she’s gorgeous. She’s whip-smart and she’s 23 years old. She has all of it!
But no, she tells me no. My assistant wants to walk through the world, just for a day, without some guy hitting on her when she runs to Starbucks to get me coffee. So as to not be called cute by the security guard. She wants to not be told that she should be a model. She wants to not take a look of surprise on someone’s face when she tells them where she went to college. She wants her boobs to no longer be a topic of conversation. She wants to not make 70 cents on the dollar. She wants to not have old men legislate her vagina’s rights. She doesn’t want to even know that a glass ceiling ever existed. She wants to not believe that having a baby will end her career. She wants everything in the world to be made for her, be about her and speak mostly to her, because that’s how it is for men.
“Everything is there,” she says. “They hold all the cards. They have the ball.” “Just for a day,” she says, “to know what it feels like to have all of that.” So there’s this really long silence. I sit there, my other assistant sits there. And finally, I lean forward in my chair and look it her in the eye and say, “That is the dumbest fucking thing I have ever heard! I’m not having it.” She wishes she were a man, because they have all of that? No. Woman up. She absolutely has a point, and that point is terrifying… but I can’t let her know that. She doesn’t have time to be terrified, and there is no room for such an enormous lack of confidence in the next generation of feminists. Giving up is not actually an option open to us.
So I tell her, living while in possession of a vagina is not a hindrance. It’s not a flaw. It’s a gift. It makes you stronger. It makes you fight harder, go further, do better — it makes you badass, and as we say at my job, it makes you a Gladiator. So lead the life you want to lead. Be whoever you want to be. Have the babies, be a CEO, lean out, lean in — on your own terms, just run with them. 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, all of that — I want all of that to apply to all of us. I would have all of that, and you’d have all of that, and my daughters have all of that and our sons have all of that, and nothing less. That’s what being a feminist means to me right now, today.
I’m here to talk about Jenji Kohan, who I have known for a while — over 10 years, I think. Who I met storming the halls of our elementary school, because we were both moms. No, I was out of work and Jenji was working like crazy, and long before — and I’m a huge “Orange” fan — but long before that, there was someone named Nancy Botwin [the lead character of Kohan’s series “Weeds.”], who I identified with.
I knew Jenji’s brother in college, and I could tell you a story about that, but all I can tell you is that Jenji and I became friends. Right away, I sensed a personality that was very complimentary to mine, because Jenji — Viola quoted Shonda, but I’m going quote Jenji here on this. Jenji has always had a saying: “If they don’t like it, fuck ’em.” She could say it in any variety of opportunities, but the truth is that Jenji was a showrunner long before I even dreamed of doing it, and when I got a chance to have my own show, I called her up and asked her for advice about “How do you do this?” I looked up to her as a writer and I looked up to her as someone who knew how to tell a story.
The weird thing is, it never occurred to me that there was anything political about what she was doing. And it’s not just because my wife is a strong, professional woman or I was raised by a strong woman and I have two professional sisters — I don’t know. I never even thought about it. But all I knew was that Jenji knew how to do something that I didn’t know how to do. I loved the way she did it, and whenever I would ask her “What do I do?” she would always say, “If they don’t like it, fuck ’em.”
Politics is a very serious thing, and it’s a duty in a way. Having an agenda, a political agenda, a philosophy in your work can be very dangerous. It can come off as angry, it can be preachy, it can be ugly, it can be irritating and, frequently, the message cannot be heard except for by the people who already agree with you. What Jenji has, and it comes from this saying, is a subversive humanity. Jenji is a playful person who happens to be really, really funny, and every time she makes a joke, there’s something there that just sticks at you. Whether it is any taboo, whether it’s the jokes that have been made tonight already — ambiguous feelings about your children, ambiguous feelings about your spouse, ambiguous feelings about your own race and that other race. Prejudices — all of the feelings that are real that we have, and they should be dealt with with conversation.
I don’t remember who said it once — it might have been Mark Twain or Sigmund Freud; I don’t know, someone we know — he said that the first man to hurl an insult at a rock created civilization. [Note: It was Freud.] I believe that Jenji is always hurling insults and also always embracing her characters. The politics comes through all of these people. I don’t want to diminish difference, to put it that way. I went to school at a time when feminism was the rule for all intellectual conversation, and then we went through a dark period of dark feminism when it looked like the Nazis had won the war. And now we’re in the time again where feminism is surging and it’s not even up for debate. It’s on the international stage and lives are at stake.
But I feel like Jenji knows people. Jenji finds a way to talk about all of the problems that we all have. You can identify with every one of the characters. You see yourself in it. You see yourself in Piper, in Red — you see yourself in Nancy Botwin. Like, “What did I have to do with that woman’s life?” Except Jenji knows what is a person, and then what is a woman and what is a man. And all of the philosophy comes out that way. And it always makes me laugh, and she also happens to be supported by an amazing husband, Chris, and she has three amazing children, Charlie, Eliza and Oscar — who is my favorite, but Jenji doesn’t have any favorites! — and she has some pretty powerful parents — let’s not pretend.
All I can tell you is that Jenji is a great writer, she’s a great friend and she is an incredible, incredibly deep person who is trying to change the world one joke at a time. You don’t even know what hit you when you see the dynamic of society, male and female, is always funny and always dangerous and always that subversive twist that she does naturally. She doesn’t worry about it.
I’m not good at this. I guess I should have worn more sensible shoes.
I want to congratulate and kvell for my fellow award winner, Shonda Rhimes, who it sucks to follow. But I do have to say it’s very nice to be at an event with Shonda where we both get to walk away with awards.
So, I have a daughter, Eliza, as well as two boys, Charlie and Oscar — but this story is about her. Feminist tip. When she was little, she had a thing for Hello Kitty. As you may or may not know, Hello Kitty is a giant white anthropomorphic Japanese cat. Actually, recently the Pope was informed that she is a girl dressed as a cat. But I don’t care. Hello Kitty is a $7 billion international business whose product line is aimed immediately at young girls, and oh what a product line it is. There’s endless Hello Kitty merchandise, from dolls to stickers to purses to toasters, and there’s a Hello Kitty vibrator. [laughing].
However, there was one thing about Hello Kitty that drove me nuts: she has no mouth. According to the company, she speaks from the heart and is an ambassador to the world who is not bound by any language. They want people to project their feelings onto the character and be happy or sad together with Hello Kitty. My motherly response, and my deep-down feeling and my feminist response, is “That’s bullshit.” I feel it’s a statement about girls. I feel that this toy was telling my daughter that she should look adorable with her pink bow, and not express her thoughts or feelings. Let others project them onto her? That’s not okay.
But she really liked the stuff and I spent a fortune. So I grabbed a sharpie and started drawing mouths. I drew mouths on every single girl-dressed-as-cat object that she owned. Open, close, smiling, frowning, sometimes just a line — but they all had mouths. I had to face them all by giving them all full faces. She complained at first but came to accept my mania. Plus, it made it easier to differentiate hers from everyone else’s at playdates. I think she got the message. She’s now 13, she’s on her school debate team, she holds office on Student Council, she has an opinion on everything that she will happily voice without provocation, and she even has the temerity to argue with her mother.
Which I did all the time too, and continue to to this day. Ria Kohan is and was a pushy, mouthy broad who never took second seat. While the signals she often gave and received about her role and my role as a woman in a society were mixed and confused and confusing. I think the example she set for me with her work and her humor and her strength and her intolerance for letting people, as she put it, “Spit in your kasha.” “Never let anyone spit in your kasha.” It paved the road for my journey to the underworld of drugs, and eventually to prison. So thank you mom.
But I understand that my story is not everyone’s story. I can shoot off my big mouth and write my shows and run my shows, and I can 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 that undertake global women’s rights campaigns and clinic access and abortion defense and voter information and myriad other, important work that you do — thank you. 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 give a shit about. I believe in the power of media. I really do. It’s my soapbox. And 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 kind of loss we all experienced due to the contributions that people cannot make because of their circumstances.
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, love someone you only thought of as “other” once upon a time — how awesome is that. It’s all about moving it a little bit, a little bit. And I also find everything funny, as inappropriately so! So thank you for this for this awesome, weird bowl. Thank you for spelling my name right, and here’s to the day every metaphorical Hello Kitty has a mouth.