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Breaking Down TV Barriers with Jenji Kohan CC’91

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Jenji Kohan - Pari Dukovic for The New Yorker

Photograph by Pari Dukovic for The New Yorker

Executive producer and screenwriter Jenji Kohan CC’91 made a splash in the September 4, 2017, issue of The New Yorker thanks to an in-depth profile that explored her early struggles in writing rooms and with sexism in Hollywood, how she continues to push the envelope and what lies ahead.

  • “As Kohan put it, ‘I’m fascinated by people interacting with the Other—forced to interact with people they’d never have to deal with in their day-to-day lives.’ Her specialty is exploring ‘crossroads,’ which are often found in underground economies. ‘Attraction or repulsion, it’s great for drama,’ she said. ‘It’s something that interests me in my life. I want to meet all sorts of people, not to live in my bubble. And, right now, the world is just ‘Everyone back to their corners.’ In the Trump era, Kohan sees an urge to hunker down with one’s own, ‘to just put your loudspeaker up and say, “This is me, and this is my world view, and I don’t want to know from yours.”’”

The profile was also keen to note Kohan’s tremendous influence on other leading writers in the TV industry. Among those interviewed by writer Emily Nussbaum was Shonda Rhimes (who in an email exchange with Nussbaum called Kohan “one of the few showrunners with whom [I] can talk honestly about career strategy”) and Emmy Award winner and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner:

  • “Weiner told me that Kohan rarely gets enough credit as a pioneer. ‘She’s braver than I am,’ he said. ‘She’s a truly iconoclastic person who does not believe in B.S. She’s a deep feminist, she’s a humanist, she’s very educated, but she’s really—and so quietly, without putting her personality in front of her work—she has consistently talked about what’s fair, about race, before anybody, about the trans world before anybody. About class, about privilege!’ Her gift, he said, was to write about difficult subjects without ‘jingoism,’ with a rich sense of psychology. She was ten years ahead of everybody.”
Jenji Kohan at 2017 John Jay Awards

From left: Columbia College Dean James J. Valentini, Jenji Kohan CC’91 and Jonathan Lavine CC’88.

Photograph: Bruce Gilbert

Prior to running the multi–award-winning shows Weeds and Orange Is the New Black, Kohan wrote for several network hits: Friends, Mad About You, Gilmore Girls, Sex and the City and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In 2014, TIME Magazine called her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, and last March she received a Columbia College John Jay Award for distinguished professional achievement. (Photograph: Bruce Gilbert)