I recently listened to the audiobook of Shonda Rhimes, My Year of Yes. A kind of American celebrity version of ‘Yes Man’, the painfully-introverted Shonda spent a year saying yes to invitations and to being true to herself. She dropped friends who were trying to use her, accepted awards in person for the first time, agreed to do an acting gig, lost 100 pounds, and anything else that normally terrified her.
If you’re unfamiliar, Shonda Rhimes heads up Shondaland, a production house pumping out blockbuster dramas including Gray’s Anatomy, How to Get Away with Murder, and Scandal. ABC lined them up one after another to the point that, as Shonda unabashedly puts it, she owns Thursday night. Filled with plot twists and turns that defy expectations, a hallmark of her shows are her “diverse” casts. Casts vary in their ethnicities and sexual orientation, a features that’s won her awards and gotten her talked about in the press. But the accolades are not entirely welcome: Shonda hates the word ‘diversity’ because it’s the norm. Shonda bristles at the idea that making shows that look like America is considered revolutionary in this day and age.
Her discomfort is understandable. Shonda Rhimes was the first to routinely put female leads who were people of color, including the first African American female lead on a network TV show in almost 40 years. 40…..years. After these debuts, we saw an explosion of African American women on television, as leading ladies and love interests including Sleepy Hollow, Gotham, Minority Report, and The Flash. These roles simply didn’t exist previously for African American women.
Not just providing people of color in a new light, Shondaland’s LGBTQ characters are rendered as three-dimensional, layered characters with complex lives and romances varying from steamy to committed. For the first time on network television, LGBTQ characters had deep relationships, one-night stands, crushes and yearnings. The essence of their character wasn’t their sexual orientation any more than the essence of a straight character wasn’t their relationship status.
What Shonda proves in the book is that representation matters. Seeing characters who have something in common with a viewer- especially a young one- matters. It makes people feel a little less alone, and a little more connected to the rest of society. For years, whitewashing and straightwashing shows left many people isolated. It also left them vulnerable to being misunderstood, or worse, targeted in hate crimes. A gay friend of mine who grew up in Europe once told me that he didn’t know he was gay until his 20’s. Asking how that was possible, he shrugged and said “I saw all the images of gay men on TV and thought ‘I’m not like that.’” Representation matters.
And the change has been immediate. Fueled by the storylines on shows like Gray’s Anatomy, parents have learned more about their children’s sexual orientation, women who didn’t want a traditional lifestyle were given a new champion, and young LGBT kids connected with each other in Gray’s chatrooms and be a little less alone.
Shonda’s own rocket-fast rise to the top may have appeared smooth, but as she states in a speech accepting the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award ‘if I was able to break through the glass ceiling….[it’s because I was] running on a path created by every other woman’s footprints. I just hit at exactly the right time in exactly the right spot.” So many women before her had tried and failed, tried and failed, each time making a dent that the glass ceiling had evolved into ‘a thin sheet of splintered ice….the wind was already whistling through’.
In other words, Hollywood was finally ready, and she had the benefit of coming along at the right time. This doesn’t diminish her brilliance, but rather highlights what the world almost lost by not being ready sooner.
It also begs the question how many Shondas never got their chance because the timing wasn’t right?