This piece was written for a previous class I took and my professor at the time said that it would be a great blog post.
Shonda Rhimes is Taking Control to Normalize Television
Shonda Rhimes has proven time and time again that she is a force to be reckon with in the television industry. With Grey’s Anatomy debut in 2005, lead to a spin-off show called, Private Practice (2007-2013). Shonda then launched Scandal in 2012, How to Get Away with Murder in 2014 and in 2016, The Catch debuted. I believe with the control that she has over her shows and the control that she demands from her network has allowed her to represent the people she wants to represent. Shonda says that she is normalizing television with her television shows. Rhimes’ shows have “increased onscreen representation of diverse roles that were once overlooked and in doing so, has raised further awareness on issues related to LGBT, women and people of color” (Williams, 2015).
Shonda Rhimes is the creator and/or an executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and The Catch. All of the shows previously listed air on Thursday nights on ABC. They dominate Thursday night network television and on ABC: Grey’s Anatomy holds the 8/7 central slot, followed by Scandal at 9/8 central, and concluded with How to Get Away With Murder in the 10/9 central time slot. After the season finale of How to Get Away With Murder, The Catch made is series debut in the 10/ 9 central time slot. “Shonda Rhimes owns Thursday nights” (Goodman, 2014). As of 2014 ABC has been airing all of her shows back to back to back on Thursday nights and it has paid off. The eleventh season of Grey’s Anatomy premiered with 9.8 million viewers tuning in. The same night the fourth season of Scandal aired with 11.9 million viewers. How to Get Away With Murder had its series premiere the same night had an outstanding 14 million viewers. September 25, 2014 was ABC’s biggest night it had had in five years (Goodman, 2014). On February 11, 2016 all three shows came back for the midseason premiers. “Thursday nights on ABC have acted as a counterpoint to the network’s consistently declining viewership” (Cusumano, 2016).
In the 1950’s representation in television consisted primarily of white actors and story lines revolving around the American Dream. Back in the 1950’s the white family was the only group that was represented on television. Black, Hispanic, and Asian families were almost never dealt with (Spigel, n.d.). Now in 2016, it is a totally different story. Shonda Rhimes shows, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, have helped diversify television. All of Rhimes’ shows air on ABC on Thursday nights and are in the drama genre. The narratives consist of a strong female lead such as: Meredith Grey, Olivia Pope or Annalise Keating. Also her all of her casts are not just white actors, they are extremely diverse.
Within the past couple of years the representation on television has diversified. This past year the representation on LGBT characters on broadcast television stands at four percent which is an increase of a tenth of a percent. Which means every 35 out of 881 series regular roles is an LGBT character. Cable television went from 64 to 84 series regular LGBT characters and an additional 58 recurring. Freeform (ABC Family) and Showtime have the most LGBT characters, each having 18 LGBT characters. On another note there is no transgender characters on broadcast television while cable has four. As for the representation of blacks and other people of color, there were 145 or 16 percent of characters were black. This was an all-time high for black actors, females were underrepresented only making up 43 percent of that group. The representation of women on television also grew by three points this past year, 43 percent of series regulars were female. Females consist of 51 percent of the population, this shows that even with the increase in females having lead roles they are still underrepresented (Mitovich, 2015).
Rhimes was honored with the Ally for Equality Award at last year’s Human Rights Campaign Gala for her stellar contributions to the medium. In her speech Rhimes said, “I really hate the word ‘diversity,’ it suggests something… other. As if it is something…special. Or rare. As if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV. I have a different word: NORMALIZING. I’m normalizing TV” (Williams, 2015). “I am making TV look like the world looks. The goal is that everyone should get to turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them and loves like them. And just as important, everyone should turn on the TV and see someone who doesn’t look like them and love like them. Because, perhaps then, they will learn from them. Perhaps then, they will not isolate them…” (Bacle, 2015). Kerry Washington said “I think there’s this beautiful balance in Shondaland between escapism and presence… The shows make you think about who you are, who you want to be and who you don’t want to be” (ABC News, 2014). Rhimes, in my opinion, is totally right. People should be able to see characters on television that they can relate too. Whether it be a gay or lesbian character, a strong, smart, and independent woman or person of color.
On the following page there are the original cast photos and the current cast photos for Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder. The Grey’s Anatomy current cast photo does not include all of the current cast, that is the only picture of them that had majority of them in it and showed the diversity within the cast. I have left The Catch out because it has only been on air for roughly six weeks so there has not been much change to the cast; also the fate of whether The Catch will stay on air will be determined later in May. I have included these images because it creates a visual for who is represented.
*SPOILER ALERT! Spoilers occur in the following paragraphs.*
In 2008 Grey’s broke ground when Callie, one of the main characters, began sleeping with a woman. Later on she then married Arizona (the woman who she was sleeping with), which lead to their relationship being one of the shows main story-lines. Now in the current season of Grey’s Anatomy, Callie and Arizona are divorced but share custody of Callie and Dr. Mark Sloan’s daughter… Mark Sloan may he rest in peace. In Scandal, Cyrus, who is the president’s chief of staff, and also in How to Get Away with Murder, Connor, one of Annalise Keating’s students, is openly gay (Bacle, 2015).
From Left to Right: Callie and Arizona (Grey’s Anatomy) (Salazar, 2012). James and Cyrus (Scandal) (‘James Novak,’ n.d), Connor and Oliver (How to Get Away With Murder) (Ayers, 2014).
In the interview with NPR, NPR asks her how showing same-sex couples love scenes is different from showing straight couples. Shonda said, “It is interesting to me that we’ve done some scenes that were shot-for-shot the exact same scene as a scene that had a man and a woman in it, and had to fight for the scene if it had two people of the same sex in it — fought and won, but had to fight. But I think it becomes a matter of people’s comfort level. A lot of [Broadcast Standards and Practices] is the person who is there, it’s their taste, and you’re having to fight past in a very clear way someone else’s taste and get to what the real rules are. …I will fight very, very hard for something. I’m waiting to be censored. I’m really waiting for the moment when someone tells me that if I don’t change something they will censor me. I feel like that’s going to be an interesting moment” (Fresh Air, 2015
In the Season 12 premiere of Grey’s Anatomy, two teenage girls come into Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital with pretty severe injuries. These teens tried to kill themselves by standing in front of a moving train. You are probably thinking, why did they do that? Well they did that because they are in love and they thought that dying together was the only way to be together because their conservative parents do not believe in homosexuality. Jess’ parents, who is one half of the couple, is trying to send her to a camp that attempts to turn gay teens heterosexual. Callie, one of the doctors at Grey-Sloan points out that those camps are identical to child abuse (Bacle, 2015b)
Rhimes has not only created LGBT characters, but she has also created strong roles for women and people of color. Scandal inspires viewers to channel their inner ‘gladiator-in-a-suit.’ The leading woman in Scandal is Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington who is a lawyer, crisis manager, and communication director for the White House. Viola Davis stars as Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder, Annalise is a high-profile defense attorney and law professor. The first season of Grey’s Anatomy included four actors and actresses of color out of the nine main cast members. Chandra Wilson beat out Kristin Chenoweth for the role of Dr. Bailey on Grey’s Anatomy (Carrigan, 2016). According to the New York Times, casting Washington for her role in Scandal made her the first African American woman to have a lead in a network drama in almost forty years. By winning the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama series, Davis became the first black woman to win the award (as cited in, Carrigan, 2016).
In December 2013, New York Magazine ran an article stating that she was the ‘cure for Hollywood racism’ “for tackling the lack of diversity in writers, producers, and actresses in the entertainment business” (as cited in, Carrigan, 2016). Brandy Faulkner, a visiting professor at Virginia Tech, stated in a panel discussing the representation of professional black women in Rhimes’ shows stated, “We see so many one-sided narratives and shallow characters with hardly any depth … That’s why it’s important to increase not only the number of black women involved in the process but also the quality of the writing, acting and producing” (Carrigan, 2016). In Davis’ Emmy Award winning speech she said, “Let me tell you something. The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there” (Carrigan, 2016). Faulkner also said that the black community has been fighting for a long time to get positive representation in the media; it is also important to question if television characters perpetuate stereotypes or create opportunities for realistic and complex identifications (Carrigan, 2016).
In January, Rhimes received the Norman Lear Achievement Award in Television at the Producers Guild Awards for her work on these shows. She one again said that she should not be celebrated for creating content that she knows to be normal. In her speech she said: “There was no blazing and no trails. It’s 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” (Carrigan, 2016).
Shonda Rhimes has learned to push the boundaries in television. ABC gave her exceptional leeway from the beginning. ABC let her cast actors without character descriptions. She let every color actor read for every single part. The result of this lead to the diverse mix of residents and interns on Grey’s Anatomy. The original cast of Grey’s Anatomy consisted of: James Pickens Jr. as Richard Webber who is the Chief of Surgery, Isaiah Washington as Preston Burke as an attending cardiothoracic surgeon and Chandra Wilson as Miranda Bailey who is the attending surgeon of the interns (Bartyzel, 2014). These cast photos of Shonda’s shows indicate how diverse her shows are and she is not one to type cast her shows. Type casting is only looking for a specific actor for the part, this includes having a closed off mind and not willing to give other actors the chance to audition for the part. Ellen Pompeo said, “I think she finds the soul in the character and casts it that way” (ABC News, 2014).
There are struggles having television shows on a network like ABC. In an interview with NPR, Rhimes expressed the limits they have had over the years, “I always say we’re incredibly creative within our fences, because I don’t feel like we’re pushing boundaries. We’re very creative within our fences, and because we have the fences, they make for very creative moments. We come up with some stuff that I don’t think any of us would’ve come up with had we not had the fences. I never would’ve come up with the phrase “vajayjay” had I not had the fences. There’s a lot of other things that I wouldn’t have done visually had we not had the fences and I think they’re better sometimes” (Fresh Air, 2015).
In an interview Jason Lynch asked Shonda Rhimes, “Last year, how much pressure were you under when ABC launched a whole night of programming around you, and the TGIT marketing campaign?”
Rhimes in response said, “None. That’s not my job. I don’t have anything to do with that. I think it’s so funny because people were like, “It’s the whole night!” And I was like, “I’ve had three shows on the network before. They weren’t on the same night, but it’s happened before. I’m not that stressed about it.” I completely understood that everybody else felt like it was a big deal, and my whole job was to not take that in” (Lynch, 2015).
Shonda Rhimes has proven that she is a force to be reckon with in the television industry. Her shows, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder and The Catch have led to her outstanding success. With the control that she has acquired by being the creator and/or executive producer has allowed her to control who is represented in her shows. Shonda has without a doubt changed what the leading lady of a television series looks like. She has not diversified television, she has normalized it. Rhimes shows have a multitude narratives with LGBT characters. Also represented in her shows are women and people of color who are strong, independent, and smart. Her continuing domination of Thursday night television has proved that she is a force to be reckon with and will not be stopped. In an interview Shonda Rhimes said, “I want to take over the world through television” (Lynch, 2015). I believe that Shonda Rhimes is taking over television because of her influence over society and culture and her shows controlling the information that is shared with viewers of ABC for three hours. For those three hours audiences are able to be transported to Grey-Sloan Memorial hospital, Washington D.C. or the Law office of Annalise Keating. Also the audiences will be able to relate to someone that looks like them, loves like them and in turn see someone who does not look like them nor love like them and with that maybe they will learn from the characters in the show. As a devoted fan of all of her shows I am glad to see that she is presenting strong female leads and diversity to NORMALIZE television.
ABC News. (2014, September 15). Cite a source: Inside ‘Shondaland’ as Shonda Rhimes takes over Thursday Nights. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9B5Us9zHRc
Ayers, D. (2014, October 20). “How to Get Away with Murder; Gay Sex Scenes Making You Squeamish? Retrieved May 03, 2016, from http://www.newnownext.com/is-there-too-much-gay-sex-in-how-to-get-away-with-murder/10/2014/
Bacle, A. (2015, March 16). Shonda Rhimes says she’s ‘normalizing,’ not diversifying, TV. Retrieved April 07, 2016, from http://www.ew.com/article/2015/03/16/shonda-rhimes-hrc-gala-speech (a)
Bacle, A. (2015, September 24). ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ premiere recap: Meredith’s life is filled with sister drama post-Derek. Retrieved May 02, 2016, from http://www.ew.com/recap/greys-anatomy-season-12-premiere (b)
Bartyzel, M. (2014, April 28). How Shonda Rhimes can become TV’s most important creative mind. Retrieved May 01, 2016, from http://theweek.com/articles/447620/how-shonda-rhimes-become-tvs-most-important-creative-mind
Boone, J. (2015, March 27). This Is What the ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Cast Looks Like 10 Years Later. Retrieved May 01, 2016, from http://www.etonline.com/tv/161847_this_is_what_the_grey_anatomy_cast_looks_like_10_years_later/
Carrigan, E. (2016, March). Panel to discuss representation of professional black women in Shonda Rhimes’ shows. Retrieved April 07, 2016, from http://m.collegiatetimes.com/lifestyle/panel-to-discuss-representation-of-professional-black-women-in-shonda/article_caa2c374-dc14-11e5-b684-a7bec4dba687.html?mode=jqm
Cusumano, K. (2016, February 6). Can ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ ‘Scandal’ And ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ Save ABC’s Ratings? Retrieved February 25, 2016, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/katherinecusumano/2016/02/09/greys-anatomy-scandal-and-htgawm-return-for-abcs-strongest-thursday/#10bdfed26764
Dodge, S. (2016, January 07). Wannabe rapper caused security scare at People’s Choice Awards after being ‘inspired by Kanye’ and crashing on stage, only to be kicked by Sharon Osborne . Retrieved May 01, 2016, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3388101/Sharon-Osbourne-kicks-impostor-Talk-s-People-s-Choice-Awards-thank-speech.html
Emmanuele, J. (2015, September 03). Shonda Rhimes Admits She’s ‘Obsessed’ with Idris Elba and Spills More Fascinating Insights on Life After McDreamy and Her Leading Ladies’ Futures. Retrieved May 01, 2016, from http://www.people.com/article/shonda-rhimes-shondaland-fascinating-insights-idris-elba-kerry-washington
Fresh Air. (2015, November 11). Shonda Rhimes On Running 3 Hit Shows And The Limits Of Network TV. Retrieved May 01, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/2015/11/11/455594842/shonda-rhimes-on-running-three-hit-shows-and-the-limits-of-network-tv
Goodman, J. (2014, September 26). TGIT Ratings Prove Thursday Really is Shonda Rhimes’ Night. Retrieved February 25, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/26/tgit-ratings-shonda-rhimes_n_5888712.html
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James Novak. (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2016, from http://scandal.wikia.com/wiki/James_Novak
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Lynch, J. (2015, September 21). With 4 Shows Airing This Season, Shonda Rhimes Is Still Prime-Time’s Surest Bet. Retrieved February 25, 2016, from http://www.adweek.com/news/television/4-shows-airing-season-shonda-rhimes-still-prime-time-s-surest-bet-167004
Mitovich, M. W. (2015, October 27). GLAAD Report: LGBT Representation on TV Is Up, But Still Very White. Retrieved April 06, 2016, from http://tvline.com/2015/10/27/glaad-study-lgbt-representation-on-tv/
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Salazar, A. (2012, August 29). ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ wedding coming in season 9 • Hypable. Retrieved May 03, 2016, from http://www.hypable.com/greys-anatomy-wedding-season-9/
Season 1 Characters. (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2016, from http://scandal.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Season_1_Characters
Spigel, L. (n.d.). The Museum of Broadcast Communications – Encyclopedia of Television – Family on Television. Retrieved April 06, 2016, from http://www.museum.tv/eotv/familyontel.htm
Williams, B. (2015, March 20). Shonda Rhimes Says She Isn’t ‘Diversifying’ Television, She’s ‘Normalizing’ It — There’s A Difference. Retrieved April 07, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/16/shonda-rhimes-diversity-normalize-television_n_6878842.html
2016 PaleyFest LA Arrivals – Scandal Cast 02.jpg [Photograph found in Los Angeles]. (n.d). Retrieved May 1, 2016, from http://scandal.wikia.com/wiki/File:2016_PaleyFest_LA_Arrivals_-_Scandal_Cast_02.jpg (Originally photographed 2016, March 16).