Shonda Rhimes has made it. She rules over Thursday nights on ABC, gets shout outs during Emmy acceptance speeches and loves to use the term “vajayjay.” As the creator and writer of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” and producer of “How To Get Away With Murder,” Rhimes has the attention of over 22.5 million people each week. Needless to say, she’s influential. But in the glamorous, exclusive and power-hungry world of Hollywood, influence is easily exploited, and just as easily lost. In “Year of Yes,” Rhimes’s self-help book detailing a transformative year of her life, she explores the intense pressure she felt as an African-American woman in a white man’s industry. Her experience has developed a unique perspective, which she showcases through her enthralling storytelling. She has a lesson to teach and a point to prove, so when she has the simultaneous attention of 22.5 million people, Rhimes unapologetically takes advantage of it. Her gift of storytelling has changed the landscape of modern television by depicting what the real world looks like on screen, featuring diverse casts and plot lines that break free from overused, monochromatic clichés.
Rhimes calls herself, and others who have exceeded societal expectations set by their minority label, a F.O.D. – a First. Only. Different. The title comes with the weighty responsibility of representing an entire population, with the risk of projecting her failure onto others. “You can’t be raised black in America and not know,” she writes, describing the incredibly high stakes that accompanied her F.O.D.-ness when creating “Scandal,” the first network drama in 37 years to feature a Black leading lady. If “Scandal” failed, the network would have evidence against breaking their risk-free structure of a non-Black successful female protagonist, and arguably invalidate her own accomplishments as an African-American showrunner with her previous hit series, “Grey’s Anatomy.” “Scandal” ’s success not only spurred discussion of race representation on television, but also gave Rhimes the opportunity to continue her mission to normalize what and who people see on the screen.
One of the greatest obstacles that stands in the way of success is lack of opportunity. “How To Get Away With Murder” star Viola Davis said in her 2015 Emmy acceptance speech for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” Davis, the first African-American woman in history to win best drama actress, demonstrates just how significant opportunity is in reshaping the demographic of network television. Shonda Rhimes has been an instrumental force in Hollywood, not only by creating deep and complex roles for minorities, but by redefining what a strong woman, of any color, is capable of accomplishing. Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington, “Django Unchained”) and Annalise Keating (Davis), her two leading ladies of color, prove that a Black actress should not be restricted to the role of a sassy sidekick when, instead, they can run the White House or kick ass in court still raw and reeling from a bullet to the gut.
While many shows boast their cast’s diversity by featuring a “token gay character,” Rhimes’s explore the spectrum of human sexuality without using “gayness” as a marker of progressiveness. Instead, all three of her Thank God It’s Thursday hit series feature regular cast members that span a wide range of gender and sexual identities, and bring pressing issues in the media and popular culture to the forefront. For example, season 11 of “Grey’s Anatomy” chronicled the coming out and transition of a transgender character, humanizing the transgender awareness movement that swept social media platforms in 2015. In an interview with NPR, Rhimes spoke to her approach towards same-sex love scenes, saying even scenes created following an identical shot-for-shot sequence as a heterosexual couple’s sex scenes were met with a heavy dose of censorship. This censorship she started was something she had to push past to show that, no matter the gender of the couples, a double standard should not exist.
Through the art of storytelling, Rhimes is able to separate her fictional people from politics, prejudices and stereotypes. Her television worlds represent what reality actually looks like. Simply put, Shonda Rhimes is normalizing diversity.