The producing superstar’s must-watch TV series reflect the world’s diversity
By her own admission, Shonda Rhimes, 46, has always been a storyteller. As a young child growing up with five siblings in Chicago, Rhimes would use her vivid imagination to come up with storylines and create her own unique worlds when she was only 3 or 4 years of age. Fast-forward to a little more than four decades later and a move to Hollywood (after graduating from Dartmouth and then film school at the University of Southern California), and Shonda Rhimes is now a successful showrunner, writer, producer, and director with her own production company called Shondaland, which has produced six shows and created three. Rhimes now oversees more than 1,500 people as an executive producer, and her TV shows are must-see weekly viewing for millions of people. As the mastermind behind the hit shows Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, and The Catch, the producing superstar has arguably altered the landscape of television; and her reported eight-figure deal with ABC will likely keep her at the network through 2018.
Although Rhimes is often considered a pioneer in the TV industry for casting people of color in her shows’ lead roles, especially her strong, complex, black female leads, Rhimes herself has claimed that she simply writes about the diversity she views as “normal” in the world around her. In fact, she wonders why this is a novel concept for so many—she is simply normalizing diversity. In her book, Year of Yes (where Rhimes committed to a year of saying “yes” to all invitations that came her way), she reexamines the diversity debate, as she explains that her ethnically and sexually diverse casts are just mimicking real life. When Grey’s Anatomy made its debut in 2005, the show was recognized for its diverse world of doctors, as almost half the cast consisted of men and women of color. Rhimes didn’t specify the characters’ ethnicities when she wrote the pilot, so she had an open-casting process and simply chose the best actor for each part. Based on the show’s longrunning success, it was clearly an approach that worked well for all involved.
After receiving the Producer’s Guild Norman Lear Award for Achievement in Television earlier this year, Rhimes delivered a notable speech, where she explained her views on diversity in television: “It is not trailblazing to write the world as it actually is. Women are smart and strong. They are not sex toys or damsels in distress. People of color are not sassy or dangerous or wise. And, believe me, people of color are never anybody’s sidekick in real life. I created the content that I wanted to see and I created what I know is normal.”
Viola Davis, the Emmy award-winning star of How to Get Away with Murder, warmly introduced Rhimes on stage at the awards show, and the actress pointed out that Rhimes was the first solo recipient of the prestigious award. Davis also touched on the controversy that developed over the lack of diversity regarding this year’s Oscar nominations when she commented, “In a year…in which everyone is talking about diversity, she [Rhimes] is living proof that the curve that many people are behind was drawn by her.”
Pushing boundaries might not be what Rhimes initially set out to do when she embarked upon her career in television, but it’s undeniable that her shows are revolutionary. Besides featuring an ethnically and sexually diverse cast of characters as she first did with Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes isn’t afraid of being bold and taking on controversial subjects in her series. Take the political thriller series Scandal, which was an instant hit when it premiered in 2012. Actress Kerry Washington, who plays the complicated Olivia Pope (a former White House Communications Director for the President of the United States who now runs her own crisis management firm), made history as the first black female lead on a prime-time network drama since Teresa Graves starred in 1974’s Get Christie Love! As a progressive drama that has taken on contentious topics such as police brutality, abortion, rape in the military, and waterboarding, Scandal has broken new ground with some of its hard-hitting episodes that have simultaneously reflected issues taking place in the real world.
Controversial topics aside, Rhimes’ series have clearly struck a chord with audiences, and her ability to portray three-dimensional characters who are dealing with real human behavior has millions of viewers anxiously awaiting the start of the fall TV season. At Shondaland, there is a camaraderie among everyone who works there, and the admiration and respect for Rhimes is clearly evident, as employees have described her as gracious, supportive, and modest.
“She’s totally self-deprecating and humble, and I think at her very core she’s a writer,” said Grey’s Anatomy star James Pickens, Jr., commenting on Rhimes in an interview with Essence magazine. “Shonda’s a storyteller who 10 years ago had this wonderful project called Grey’s Anatomy, and it changed the landscape of television.”
Rhimes herself admitted in an interview with Elle magazine that “the writing is still my favorite part. The thing that I work hardest at is carving out time to write every day—four hours that I can shut the door to my office and put on my headphones. I tell myself that that’s what ABC pays me for, in a lot of ways. I’m the storyteller. Our job is making sure the stories are told.”
When Rhimes leaves Shondaland and her beloved characters at the end of the day, she goes home to her three young daughters who help keep life balanced for the single mom. Like Oprah, Rhimes has famously said “no” to the institution of marriage and she has admitted that she doesn’t believe in divorce. However, Rhimes did know that she very much wanted to be a mother—she adopted Harper in 2002, Emerson in 2012, and Beckett through surrogacy in 2013. Spending quality time with her family is something that Rhimes will always make time for, and anytime her daughters ask her to play, Rhimes will say “yes,” even when it might be an inconvenience. As Rhimes wrote in Year of Yes, “I am devoted to knowing my children, to reading books with them, to hearing stories they tell me and to the conversations we have. To making them citizens of the world. To raising strong feminist
beings who love and believe in themselves.”
“It’s been really powerful for me to work for a working mom,” said Kerry Washington, who became a mother herself in 2014, with the birth of her daughter Isabelle. “To have Shonda as an example of somebody who is living life fully and attempting to bring the best version of herself to so many different areas of her life has been really powerful to me.”
As an influential voice with a powerful TV platform, Rhimes will continue to push the conversation on timely issues when America Divided, her upcoming collaboration with Norman Lear, debuts on Epix this fall. The mega-producers, along with the actor and rapper Common, will executive produce the documentary series, which focuses on high-profile correspondents exploring inequality in the context of their own lives. For instance, Common will headlight a segment that features his home of Chicago and the criminal justice system, while Lear will take an in-depth look at New York’s housing crisis. Among other correspondents for the series are America Ferrera, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Poehler, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Williams, and Rosario Dawson.
“The promise of the American dream was a united country where everyone is treated equal,” said Rhimes in a statement. “That promise has clearly been broken; all you have to do is look around to see that our reality has been built on the back of inequality. It’s my hope that this series will inspire audiences to be part of a change that leads us into a stronger, more equal future.”
With Rhimes’ captivating lineup for ABC and her upcoming documentary series with Lear, intelligent and thought-provoking television will be what many viewers tune into this fall season. Let’s hope the conversations initiated by her innovative TV series continue to resonate not only in Hollywood, but also across our nation for a long time to come.