This piece serves as a laudation of the fine work Shonda Rhimes does for women of color in media. These words, in part, are a response to Alessandra Stanley’s shallow account of Shonda Rhimes’s credibility as media powerhouse.
When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be titled in a manner that congeals her long lasting impact on pop culture.
A 19-year television veteran, Rhimes serves as creator, screenwriter, showrunner, and executive producer of the wildly popular Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. Her latest production, How to Get Away With Murder, stars Oscar nominee Viola Davis, and premiers this Thursday on ABC.
ShondaLand is in full force and effect, with three consecutive shows broadcasting on primetime. Rhimes dominates ABC’s Thursday night lineup; a remarkable feat, especially given her bold inclusion of women of color as leading ladies.
On Grey’s Anatomy, Chandra Wilson plays Miranda Bailey, an attending physician who’s in charge of five seemingly sex-crazed interns. An authoritarian, her crass attitude is, at times, a point of friction, and leads to chilling nickname “The Nazi.” Throughout the series, Dr. Bailey’s underlying warmth and compassion are developed as a caregiver, both to her son and her patients. Wilson continuously receives widespread acclaim for her portrayal of the stern doctor, with numerous television critics praising her emotional range and character development.
Following the immense and overnight success of Grey’s, Rhimes was tapped to create a show to fill ABC’s midseason void. Thus, Scandal, was created. The political thriller stars Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, a fearless lawyer and communications expert, who runs the crisis management firm Olivia Pope & Associates. As one of the most sought after crisis managers in the world, Olivia must balance her auspicious career with a messy affair with the President of the United States.
A sleeper hit, Scandal, is one of the highest rated shows, attracting over 10 million viewers, and sparking enthusiasm on social media, and an affordable fashion line inspired by Pope.
The stakes are high for Viola Davis and her role as Annalise Keating. She plays a seductively manipulative criminal law professor. Given Davis’ celebrated talent, we can expect a powerful performance marked by sharp delivery and compelling presence.
Rhimes is a monumental force for Black women in television. Unlike other shows that tokenize us and perpetuate tropes about women of color, Rhimes creates potent Black female characters who define the essence of versatility. Her characters, irrespective of race, class, or gender, are all three-dimensional. They register a jarring range of emotion and credo, which blurs the demarcation between good and evil.
But in terms of race, Rhimes succeeds in her ability to coax it, not confront it. Very rarely does Rhimes take race head on; instead its interwoven in and around veiled language, reflective of the politically correct society we live in today.
We saw it in Scandal, season 3, when the brutal and enigmatic Papa Pope, delivered a gut-wrenching monologue to Olivia about being twice as good to be half as great; a sentiment my own father expressed to me when I was in high school.
And we also saw Papa Pope allude to race and white privilege in a robust tongue-lashing directed at President Grant. I urge, no, implore you to watch below. The context: As Papa Pope sits tied to a chair captured, demoralized, and embittered, Grant taunts him with disrespectful sexual innuendo about his daughter, Olivia. But Pope responds thusly.
Rhimes plays racialized interactions that a multitude of minorities (particularly, women) find themselves in. Her ability to center entire universes around Black woman-ness, without desperation or arrogance, is what makes her shows so captivating. Where many have failed, Rhimes fostered a dedicated Black following, without compromising any of the principles that make Blackness so fluid.
Shonda created characters outside of her own perceived image. She does not justify Black woman-ness with the same, tired storylines we’ve seen time and time again; the sassy Black friend, the mammy, or the maid. Instead, she creates and cultivates diverse and dynamic Black women, full of rich histories, heavy contexts, emotional range, and personal development. Her Black female characters are not specters or spectacles, they’re tangible, concrete, and relatable.
As more Black women achieve professional success, our mainstream representation needs to reflect our reality; we’re employed, educated, and in control of our sexual appetites.
Shonda Rhimes reminds us that we are dimensional, astute, stylish beings in ways similar to Phylicia Rashad’s work with the seminal Claire Huxtable. Claire, who’s the very definition of a culturally strong Black women, was the bilingual mother of five, who balanced her household with a high-powered legal career. Stylish and sensual, she was unafraid to take down and call out racism and sexism. We all remember this fierce clip.
Similar to The Cosby Show, Rhimes’ appeal to diverse audiences resides in her ability to cloak racialism with wit, thrill, and drama. Race isn’t given a front row seat or a standing ovation; but it is a supporting character with significance.
Shonda Rhimes exposes the secrets of Black woman-ness; about how diverse, fluid, and versatile we are. She explores the nature of Black female identity; the numerous hats we wear, our unique politic, our sensibilities, and our vulnerabilities. Rhimes allowed us an accurate voice in pop culture dialogue; a depiction that disavows the prevailing misrepresentation of us as one-dimensional angry Black women.