Shonda Rhimes’ Powerful Speech About Breaking Glass Ceilings In Hollywood

Shonda-rhimes

If the term and hashtag #likeaboss were in some sort of text or dictionary-type tome, a picture of Shonda Rhimes would no doubt be next to it. This is the woman who has single-handedly changed the face of prime time television in the US, and subsequently, around the world. Creating TV shows such as ‘Greys Anatomy’, ‘Scandal’, ‘Private Practice’ and more recently ‘How to Get Away With Murder’.

These are the shows which portray a diverse array of people, closely representing people in the real world more than most shows ever have. We see women of color, women in powerful positions, women as lead characters, LGBT characters, complex and flawed characters, and most importantly, equality. There is no tokenism in the Shonda Rhimes world (also known as Shondaland, her production company with producing partner Betsy Beers).

When a New York Times reporter recently referred to her as an “angry black woman” you bet Shonda had some things to say about it. She has been called TV’s “savior” by The Hollywood Reporter, actress Kerry Washington has attributed Shonda as being the person who has changed the culture of television, simply by allowed audiences to see more representations of themselves.

It’s no surprise then that she was the recipient of this year’s Sherry Lansing Leadership Award at The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment breakfast.

“Over the past decade, Shonda Rhimes has completely redefined the way women are perceived on television — and therefore in society too,” said Sherry Lansing herself when the award was announced in November. “She’s created iconic roles for women; she’s put women front and center in the national debate; and she’s also been a pioneering force in leading the way for African-American women in the media. And what’s amazing about her is, she hasn’t just done this once: she’s done it over and over and over again. She’s a creative, intellectual and artistic powerhouse, and I’m thrilled she’ll receive the award that carries my name.”

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The Sherry Lansing award itself is pretty iconic, as it is named after the first female studio head in Hollywood. Sherry was also the first female studio head to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

At the Women in Entertainment breakfast, held on Wednesday, December 9th 2014, Shonda delivered an acceptance speech that has been called powerful, ground-breaking, and Huffpost described it as “a speech that jumped from humility to Beyoncé, she inspired everyone from executives to stars to us teary-eyed reporters”.

She posted the full text on Medium.com so that everyone, not just Hollywood elite, can read her words and understand the importance of diversity, equality and representation. These are things not just reserved for the film industry. Her words certainly ARE representative of the slow change that is happening across the industry, all you have to do is see what women are achieving today, that was not even fathomable 10 years ago. Ava DuVernay just made history by becoming the first black female to be nominated in the Best Director category for the 2015 Golden Globe Awards, for her film ‘Selma’. Talk of the town is that she will also become the first black women to receive an Oscar Nomination when those are announced.

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So if there’s one thing we’d like to say thank you to Shonda for, it’s not giving up despite the many odds that would’ve been stacked against her in the beginning. Thank you for staying determined enough that more and more doors are opening for women in the industry like never before. Here is her speech in full:

When my publicist called to tell me that I was receiving this honor, I screwed up my face and I said, “Are you sure? Me?” And he said, “Yes.”
And I said, “Why?” And then I said, “No really, WHY?”

And I made him call and ask for some written reason why I was getting this award. Because I really and truly was worried that there might have been some kind of mistake.

I want to pause for a beat here to say that I don’t say these things to be self-deprecating and humble. I am not a self-deprecating, humble person. I think I’m pretty fantastic. But I also think that The Hollywood Reporter Sherry Lansing Award is extraordinary — as is Sherry Lansing herself. So…no, really, WHY?

They sent a written reason why I was getting this award. It said many nice things but the main thing that it was said was that I was getting the award in recognition of my breaking through the industry’s glass ceiling as a woman and an African-American.

Well. I call my publicist back. Because I just don’t know about this. I mean, I’m concerned now.

I come from a very large, very competitive family. Extremely competitive. And by competitive, I mean, my mother says we’re not allowed to play Scrabble anymore when we get together because of the injuries and the tears. One of the rules in my family is you don’t ever get a trophy for participation, you don’t get a trophy for just being you. So getting an award today BECAUSE I’m a woman and an African-American feels…I was born with an awesome vagina and really gorgeous brown skin. I didn’t do anything to make either of those things happen.

To get all Beyonce about it, people: “I woke up like this.”

Seriously. I know this isn’t an award because I’m a woman or BECAUSE I’m African American. I know that it’s really about breaking the glass ceiling that exists in the face of being a woman and being black in this very male, very white town.

But I haven’t broken through any glass ceilings.

Do they know I haven’t broken through any glass ceilings? I ask my publicist. He assures me that I have. I assure him that I have not. I have not broken through any glass ceilings. If I had broken through any glass ceilings, I would know. If I had broken through a glass ceiling, I would have felt some cuts, I would have some bruises. There’d be shards of glass in my hair. I’d be bleeding, I’d have wounds.

If I’d broken the glass ceiling, that would mean I would have made it through to the other side. Where the air is rare. I would feel the wind on my face. The view from here — way up here where the glass ceiling is broken — would be incredible. Right? So how come I don’t remember the moment? When me with my woman-ness and my brown skin went running full speed, gravity be damned, into that thick layer of glass and smashed right through it? How come I don’t remember that happening?

Here’s why: It’s 2014.

This moment right here, me standing up here all brown with my boobs and my Thursday night of network television full of women of color, competitive women, strong women, women who own their bodies and whose lives revolve around their work instead of their men, women who are big dogs, that could only be happening right now.

Think about it.

Look around this room. It’s filled with women of all colors in Hollywood who are executives and heads of studios and VPs and show creators and directors. There are a lot of women in Hollywood in this room who have the game-changing ability to say yes or no to something.

15 years ago, that would not have been as true. There’d have been maybe a few women in Hollywood who could say yes or no. And a lot of D girls and assistants who were gritting their teeth and working really hard. And for someone like me, if I was very very VERY lucky, there’d have been maybe one small show. One small shot. And that shot would not have involved a leading actress of color, any three dimensional LGBT characters, any women characters with high powered jobs AND families, and no more than two characters of color in any scene at one time — because that only happened in sitcoms.

30 years ago, I’d think maybe there’d be a thousand secretaries fending off their handsy bosses back at the office and about two women in Hollywood in this room. And if I were here, I would serving those two women breakfast.

50 years ago, if women wanted to gather in a room, well it had better be about babies or charity work. And the brown women were in one room over there and the white women were in a room over here.

From then to now…we’ve all made such an incredible leap.

Think of all of them.

50 years ago trying to get out of separate rooms, 30 years ago trying to not serve breakfast or be groped by their bosses, 15 years ago trying to make clear that they could run a department as well as that guy over there.

All the women, white or black or brown who woke up like this, who came before me in this town.

Think of them. Heads up, eyes on the target. Running. Full speed. Gravity be damned. Towards that thick layer of glass that is the ceiling. Running, full speed and crashing. Crashing into that ceiling and falling back. Crashing into it and falling back. Into it and falling back. Woman after woman. Each one running and each one crashing. And everyone falling.

How many women had to hit that glass before the first crack appeared? How many cuts did they get, how many bruises? How hard did they have to hit the ceiling? How many women had to hit that glass to ripple it, to send out a thousand hairline fractures? How many women had to hit that glass before the pressure of their effort caused it to evolve from a thick pane of glass into just a thin sheet of splintered ice?

So that when it was my turn to run, it didn’t even look like a ceiling anymore. I mean, the wind was already whistling through — I could always feel it on my face. And there were all these holes giving me a perfect view to other side. I didn’t even notice the gravity, I think it had worn itself away. So I didn’t have to fight as hard, I had time to study the cracks. I had time to decide where the air felt the rarest, where the wind was the coolest, where the view was the most soaring. I picked my spot in the glass and called it my target. And I ran. And when I hit finally that ceiling, it just exploded into dust.

Like that.
My sisters who went before me had already handled it.
No cuts. No bruises. No bleeding.

Making it through the glass ceiling to the other side was simply a matter of 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 I’m breaking my family’s rule today. This is a trophy for participation. And I am beyond honored and proud to receive it. Because this? Was a group effort.

Thank you to all the women in this room. Thank you to all the women who never made it to this room. And thank you to all the women who will hopefully fill a room 100 times this size when we are all gone.

You are all an inspiration.

shonda-rhimes

4 Comments

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