Why You Should Never Stereotype Shonda Rhimes By Gender Or Race

Shonda-rhimes

When New York Times reporter Alessandra Stanley wrote an article about Shonda Rhimes’ latest ABC show ‘How to Get Away With Murder’, she should’ve titled it “I’m going to backhandedly compliment Shonda Rhimes by focusing on her race and gender because without those her success is insignificant”.

That way there would be no confusion about whether she was trying to be positive or point out that racism is still accepted in some mediums. She opened the article with “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman’.”

She goes on to mention how Shonda has successfully carved out a sizeable portion of the TV viewing audience for herself with shows featuring lead African-American women who largely reflect her own traits as a woman of color. Errr, wrong! Perhaps that might’ve been Alessandra’s own personal observation, but to write that as an Op-ed in a huge publication like the NY Times and pass it off as cultural conversation shows huge disrespect to a woman who is a pioneer, trailblazer and has the trophies to prove it.

Let’s break it down to actual science, aka numbers: Shonda has won 12 major industry awards for her TV shows, been nominated for another 10, her current trio of shows ‘Scandal’, Greys Anatomy’ and ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ has a collective audience of 37 million, and in May signed a new 4 year deal with ABC studios which is set to make her an 8-figure salary, making it one of the richest deals in television.

Those figures above only scratch the surface of what Shonda has done with her production company Shondaland and her producing partner (don’t worry she’s a white woman) Betsy Beers. But these numbers could easily be a stand-alone fact of what to credit her with, without bringing ethnicity or gender into the equation. But since Alessandra, did, Shonda and her slew of major Hollywood stars had to respond.

Shonda spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about that atrocious article (it probably had noble intentions, but failed miserably with its opening line) and why it is just the tip of the iceberg of attitudes that still prevail in the industry. Of which she has successfully had a hand in conquering, let’s just put it out there!

“In early August, Shonda Rhimes read a draft announcement for an event where she was set to appear. It called her “the most powerful black female showrunner in Hollywood.” She crossed out “female” and “black” and sent it back,” writes THR’s Lacey Rose. Now THAT is how you start an article about Shonda!

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“They wouldn’t say that someone is ‘the most powerful white male showrunner in Hollywood. I find race and gender to be terribly important; they’re terribly important to who I am. But there’s something about the need for everybody else to spend time talking about it … that pisses me off.”

And before you go thinking “umm, angry black woman?” NO, just NO! Everyone gets angry, and if someone wrote a major article using three demeaning words to describe everything about you, you’d be a little ticked off too!

While many have come to Shonda’s defense and even went as far as telling the NY Times to retract the article, the media mogul which THR describes as “the savior of TV” sees the positive in being able to talk about this issue openly.

“In this world in which we all feel we’re so full of gender equality and we’re a postracial [society] and Obama is president, it’s a very good reminder to see the casual racial bias and odd misogyny from a woman written in a paper that we all think of as being so liberal.”

ABC Network Entertainment President Paul Lee claims “there’s no stronger voice in America than Shonda Rhimes” and we have to agree.

Across her shows she has women representing a range of ethnicies (Asian, Latina and Indian) and has included significant LGBT storylines which have become iconic pop culture moments (Callie and Arizona’s wedding in ‘Greys Anatomy’). The women in her show are doctors, surgeons, therapists, lawyers and many other high powered positions that women struggle to attain even now in American, and struggle to get paid the same as men in the same roles.

What Shonda Rhimes does with her signature style of script-writing, we feel, is not express the voice of an angry black woman, but amplify the diversity that exists in real life, whose voices have been shut out from mainstream television for far too long. So yes, THR, you are right in calling her the savior of TV because she has given a wide range of women in the world a representative on screen like never before.

Yet no matter how powerful a woman becomes, even at the top there are questions which aim to second-guess her ability to succeed on the same level as a man, because how is she going to balance all those things she is doing, oh my!

The work-life question drives Shonda nuts. “What does Chuck Lorre [creator of ‘Two and a Half Men’] say when you ask him about work‑life balance?”

A reporter asked her the same question earlier this year in the lead-up to a fundraiser she was having for President Obama at her home in Los Angeles.

“I started saying to people, angrily, ‘Did you ask John Wells any of those questions?’ “They were like, ‘No.’ And I’d say: ‘Because he was at work, right? Well, I’m at work, too.’ ”

If there is anything the NY Times article does get right is the part about some of her shows being self-reflective. But not in ways that Alessandra Stanley points out.

The first few seasons of ‘Greys Anatomy’ was plagued with off-screen scandals including actor Isaiah Washington calling co-star T.R Knight a homophobic name, and Katherine Heigl complaining about the show before she left in 2010. But it didn’t put a dent in the ratings, in fact it amplified it.

Shonda also had many back-and-forth arguments with ABC executives about various story lines they deemed to be too controversial. When those scenes also got ratings that consistently put the show in the top of its time slot, the network backed off and gave her more room.

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She says the character of Olivia Pope as the crisis manager in ‘Scandal’ is reflective of her time as an early showrunner navigating and disarming potentially catastrophic situations with the network. And therein lies the end of the autobiographical nature of her shows.

“Shonda has changed the culture of television in that more and more people can turn on the television and see themselves,” says Kerry Washington. “And the thing about her storytelling is that the humanity of her characters allows people to find the sameness in the differences.”

THR says the success of her diverse shows has allowed ABC to usher in other characters that represent more nationalities. ‘Fresh off the Boat’ is centered around Asian characters, ‘Cristela’ focuses on a Latino family, and ‘Black-ish’ explores life though the eyes of an African-American Family. The trump cards have been well and truly been laid down by ABC, and now it’s a matter of seeing how other networks will respond. We have Shonda Rhimes to thank for this!

As for Viola Davis, the woman who the NY Times says is based on Shonda herself in ‘How To Get Away With Murder’, she has some choice words about that article.

“As a woman of color, you’ve heard every label by the time you get out of the womb.”

“Shonda is a black woman, and I understand that that’s a part of what people want to write about when they write about her,” says the actress. “But here’s the thing: After you write about that, write about something else. Write about her vision, write about her courage, write about her talent, write about the fact that she’s been able to achieve something that very few people have been able to achieve. Write about that.”

Yes and Amen. We don’t want this blog post to be a hate letter or anything similar in nature toward Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times. It is about the issue of gender and race and how the media needs to stop using those two things as a justification for commending the work women of color do.

Just like Shonda crossed out the “black” and “woman” part of “the most powerful black female showrunner in Hollywood” title she was being assigned for the aforementioned event, the rest of society needs to look at the achievements and successes for what they are and celebrate the way diverse representations are being allowed to shine in mainstream television and film.

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3 Comments

  1. love it! thanks for pointing this out.. i’m obsessed with her shows and her brilliance!

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  3. Pingback: Shonda Rhimes' Powerful Speech About Breaking Glass Ceilings In Hollywood

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