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Female showrunners in 2015: Shonda Rhimes, Mindy Kaling, and more

EW celebrates the women at the helm of some of the year’s best television

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Ron Batzdorff/ABC; Jordin Althaus/Universal Television; Craig Blankenhorn/HBO; Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

Perhaps because we are living in an age of “too much television,” or perhaps because network heads are finally beginning to see the value of presenting more diverse outlooks, 2015 was an incredible year for women in television. As Shonda Rhimes continues her dominance of Thursday nights and Julie Plec extends her reign over The CW, this year saw the introduction of two (!) female superheroes, a ballet drama, an Asian-American sitcom with a stellar female lead, and a series that chronicles what goes on behind the scenes of shows like The Bachelor, which somehow cater to women by devaluing them both onscreen and off. 

Yes, we have a long way to go. Yes, going into the actual ratio of female to male TV showrunners is a dire, depressing exercise. And yes, the matter of cultural diversity and representation in television is a situation we must also consider and strive to better. But as part of EW’s Best of 2015 series, let’s take a moment to celebrate the women who are at the helm of some of the best, most well-rounded series on television — both the relative newcomers and the powerhouses that paved the way. Below, some of our favorites, in no particular order.

1. Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, Girls

Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

It’s amazing that, in 2015, it’s still controversial for Dunham to co-create and star in a comedy about a somewhat unlikeable character who’s inspired by Dunham herself. Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and Louis C.K. have all been praised for doing the same thing. “When men share their experiences, it’s bravery,” Dunham once told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “And when women share their experiences … people are like, TMI.” So it’s exciting that, this year on Girls, Dunham and co-creator Konner doubled down on both the self-reflection and the cringe-worthiness by putting Hannah (played by Dunham) in a creative writing program where she must deflect criticism that Dunham has faced about her writing in real life. Konner and Dunham also deserve credit for dispelling the myth that ambitious women are too competitive to work together successfully, and now they’re supporting others who want to be like them: This year, they launched A Casual Romance, a production company that focuses on projects that advance conversations about gender and sexuality. —Melissa Maerz

2. Michelle Ashford, Masters of Sex

Michael Desmond/Showtime

You’d think a show about sex in the mid-1900s would be full of lady-shaming, but Masters of Sex is the complete opposite: Ashford’s take on the true story of sex researchers Virginia Johnson and William Masters is a proud statement on the importance of sex for everyone, not just men. One of the more touching threads features Margaret Scully (Allison Janney in a heartbreaking, admirable turn) prioritizing her own sexual needs for the first time, which means breaking off her marriage to her gay husband. It’s an empowering, powerful plot that acknowledges the shame society tells women they should feel about their sexuality and then rejects it. The drama does this over and over again, and not just with women: Masters (Michael Sheen) struggles with impotence for much of the second season, stressing that sexual dysfunction is a very real problem and, more significantly, one worth fixing. —Ariana Bacle

3. Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, UnREAL

James Dittiger/Lifetime

UnREAL takes place behind the scenes of a fictional reality dating show, but it’s not a show about the reality of reality television — it’s a show about two women who orbit each other, harm each other, support each other, and do everything in between. Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer’s performances as smart-yet-emotionally bruised anti-heroines Rachel and Quinn captivate, and — despite the sometimes soapy twists through its first season — the fact that the drama fully illustrated not one, but two women, is revolutionary. No wonder the show’s been called a game-changer over and over again

All that, in the end, is thanks to showrunners Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who knew they wanted the show to focus on the women’s perspectives from the start. “It’s The Quinn and Rachel Show,” Shapiro told EW in June. “The other stuff comes after that.” —Shirley Li

4. Moira Walley-Beckett, Flesh and Bone

Starz

This powerhouse writer-producer’s career proves that there’s no such thing as “TV for women.” She earned an Emmy for her writing on Breaking Bad, a show that ruthlessly explores modern masculinity. And this year, she created the Starz miniseries Flesh and Bone, a dark psychodrama that suggests there’s nothing particularly delicate or girlie about the cutthroat world of ballet. Focused on Claire (Sarah Hay), an ingénue with a tragic past, it’s the rare gothic fairy tale whose heroine tells her story on her own terms, refusing to shy away from the most visceral, uncomfortable parts. Walley-Beckett’s treatment of subjects like self-harm and sexual abuse will be controversial to some, but, to paraphrase another female showrunner on this list, part of being a feminist is allowing female characters to make choices you might not agree with. —Melissa Maerz

5. Jackie Schaffer, The League

Byron Cohen/FX

Jackie Schaffer and her husband Jeff lead The League, an FXX comedy about a group of unethical, all-around horrible friends who spend most of their time talking trash and football. Jackie and Jeff write every filthy joke and every amoral story line together, bucking the obviously flawed but all too common belief that women are sweet and serious while guys are the only ones who can be funny and obscene. The rejection of this stereotype is reflected in the show itself, where the league’s one female member (Katie Aselton as Jenny MacArthur) is just as vulgar and corrupt as the rest of them. —Ariana Bacle

6. Nahnatchka Khan, Fresh Off the Boat

Jordin Althaus/ABC

When Fresh Off the Boat debuted last year, it was the first Asian-American-led TV series to hit the airwaves in 20 years. With just a 13-episode order, the series had a lot to prove. But Nahnatchka Khan rose to the occasion not just by creating a stable of well-rounded characters that defy stereotypes, but by handling issues of race and gender in careful but uniquely hilarious ways. In an early episode, the series tackles date rape when matriarch Jessica (played by breakout star Constance Wu) shoves a stuffed bunny in her son Eddie’s face, asking him, “Like that? No! Well, girls don’t either. No means no — respect girls!” It was a standout moment unprecedented for television and one that made perfect sense to those who know Khan’s work as the creator of gone-too-soon Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23: “My favorite thing is writing strong women,” she previously told EW. “Women who don’t apologize is the thing that I love to do the most. … Certainly on network sitcoms in the past, the wife character has been sweeter or more matronly, and Jessica is not about that.” —Amanda Michelle Steiner

7. Melissa Rosenberg, Marvel’s Jessica Jones

Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

Jessica Jones is not your typical comic. There’s language, there’s a clear rape story line, and there’s a PTSD-riddled superhero whose habits include alcoholism and not paying her rent. It would have been easy for any showrunner to take those aspects and toss them onto television without much thought, but Rosenberg would have none of that. “For me, if I never see an actual rape on a screen again it’ll be too soon,” Rosenberg told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s become lazy storytelling and it’s always about the impact it has on the men around them.” Jessica Jones treats the aftermath of these events from a woman’s viewpoint, and does it in a commendable way. —Andrea Towers

NEXT: Mindy Kaling, Shonda Rhimes, Julie Plec, and more

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8. Mindy Kaling, The Mindy Project

Jordan Althaus/NBC

Long before playing Kelly Kapoor on The Office, Mindy Kaling lent a hand directing, writing, and producing the series. But it wasn’t until she put herself front and center on The Mindy Project that 36-year-old Kaling secured her spot as one of Hollywood’s top boss ladies. As Mindy Lahiri, she portrayed an everywoman with clear professional and personal goals: Someone who loves Beyoncé, carbs, and designer clothes, but hates spin class and chauvinists.

When Fox gave her Project the axe after three seasons, Kaling quickly moved the show to Hulu, where Dr. Lahiri tackled birthing options, balancing motherhood with growing her new business, and public breastfeeding. Off-screen, Kaling added best-selling writer to her resume, while using social media to speak up for women and Indian people in Hollywood, and exposing what it’s like using zit cream in your 30s. —Dana Rose Falcone 

9. Maurissa Tancharoen, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Eddy Chen/ABC

Coulson may be “the boss” of Marvel’s show, but between Daisy, May, Simmons and Bobbi, Tancharoen makes it clear who’s really in charge. And although the show is hailed for its diversity of female characters, Tancharoen didn’t go out of her way to bring that to television. “The characters May and Skye weren’t designed to be Asian-American,” Tancharoen said in an interview. “They were designed to be strong, complex, kickass women.” Andrea Towers

10. Ali Adler, Supergirl

Darren Michaels/CBS

After producing shows like Chuck, No Ordinary Family, and Commander in Chief, Ali Adler knows how to work with super-powered — and just plain powerful — characters, but taking on Supergirl alongside EP Greg Berlanti (Arrow, The Flash) proved a challenge. Among the myriad questions before the show premiered: Would it be similar to SNL‘s Black Widow trailer sketch? Would it knock viewers upside the head with a feminist angle every week? How, ultimately, can you blend super power with girl power?

By stating the show’s thesis in the pilot with a speech about the word “girl” — while also quickly moving on to focus simply on Kara (Melissa Benoist) — Adler allowed the message to come across through storytelling. As Adler put it to EW before the show premiered, “She’s just a powerful person” — and a flawed one, too, just like her male counterparts. —Shirley Li

11. Shonda Rhimes, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal

Greg Gayne/ABC

From day one of Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes was ready to give the world female characters who were diverse, confident, and unapologetic about the way they choose to live their lives. Whether it’s Meredith Grey’s tendency to drink tequila and sleep with strangers or Cristina Yang’s realization that she is a woman who doesn’t want kids, Rhimes presented strong women who didn’t necessarily fall into any stereotype. They were dark and twisty when necessary, and they were bright and shiny when they needed to be. There was Bailey, the “Nazi” who didn’t take anyone’s crap. And there was Izzie, the former model who had both an inner ferocity and an overbearing sense of compassion. Then there’s Scandal, headed by Olivia Pope, the type of woman who answers to no one. If anyone knows how to create women for TV, it’s Rhimes. —Samantha Highfill

12. Julie Plec, The Vampire Diaries, The Originals

Annette Brown/The CW

When The Vampire Diaries began, the show was pitched as a love triangle between two brothers and a central heroine. That meant Julie Plec had to make sure that said central heroine wasn’t just “some girl” in the middle of two complex, beautiful men. Elena Gilbert had to be powerful in her own right, which was a challenge considering that she was a human in a vampire world. And yet, Plec made sure that Elena stood on her own two feet. She had her own beliefs, and as much as she loved any man, she loved herself and her friends just as much. From there, Plec continued to give television a plethora of strong females on both The Vampire Diaries and The Originals, whether they’re vampires, humans, witches, werewolves, or hybrids. Women are created equally in the supernatural world. Or rather, they’re created equally in Plec’s world. —Samantha Highfill

13. Jenji Kohan, Orange Is the New Black

Netflix

Kohan cut her teeth writing for shows like Sex and the City and Gilmore Girls before creating her very own in 2005: Weeds, a Showtime comedy-drama about single mother Nancy Botwin (played by the consistently charming Mary-Louise Parker), who sells weed to make a living following her husband’s sudden death. All eight seasons of Weeds showcased Nancy in all her messy glory without casting any (okay, much) judgment, a quality that Kohan’s Orange is the New Black went on to embody tenfold. The diverse — both in race and sexuality — cast of characters in the Netflix series are all deeply troubled, and that’s part of what’s made the prison-set drama such a success: Inmates are typically treated like others, but Orange’s stars are every bit as human as anyone else — the only difference is they’re behind bars. —Ariana Bacle

14. Liz Meriwether, New Girl

Ray Mickshaw/Fox

New Girl could have been a show with a nerdy-but-cute woman at its center whose sole purpose was to do quirky things. Instead, New Girl is a show with a nerdy-but-cute woman at its center who, yes, does quirky things, but is also just as complicated as any other woman: She has a scarily relatable aimless unemployment period after getting fired from her teaching gig, struggles to regain her sexual confidence after getting out of a years-long relationship, and tries her best to be a good friend to everyone she can. Although her more idiosyncratic characteristics can come off as cartoonish — she tends to sing instead of speak, for example — the other main characters get the same treatment, with each male roommate having his own strange, silly habits. In New Girl, it’s not just the new girl who’s a weirdo — and therein lies the sitcom’s strength. —Ariana Bacle