It’s hard enough landing a job as a show-runner in Hollywood on a major TV network. However, being a black female show-runner is almost unheard of. Although don’t mention that to Rhimes, who crossed out the words ‘female’ and ‘black’ from a draft statement for an event, which called her the “most powerful black female show-runner in Hollywood.” And rightly so, Shonda Rhimes is arguably the most powerful show-runner in Hollywood.
Nevertheless, as a creator of two hit shows and the executive producer of another, Shonda Rhimes doesn’t feel like she’s broken any glass ceilings. While accepting The Hollywood Reporter’s Sherry Lancing Award, Rhimes paid tribute to the many women who came before her who created a path to get to where she is now.
Her shows, medical drama Grey’s Anatomy and political thriller Scandal, were both instant hits and critically lauded. While many believe Rhimes is reserved when it comes to voicing her opinions, she uses her shows effectively to outline issues that reflect current times. Racism, sexism, gay rights, women’s rights, equality, intersectionality, you name it, Shonda writes about it.
Rhimes has redefined what is possible for actors of colour, normalising television screens to reflect real life. When casting characters, Rhimes asks her casting director to cast characters the way she “sees the world.” The exception to this rule was the casting of Olivia Pope, lead character in Scandal, who is inspired by real life political fixer Judy Smith. But Rhimes has recently hit out at the use of the word “diversity” to describe her shows’ casts. Instead, she prefers the term ‘normalising’ to reflect the various stories of ethnic minorities and not make them seem rare or unusual.
Even with the many leaps modern television has taken with the help of Rhimes, there are an exceptional few who seem incapable of distinguishing Rhimes’ ethnicity from her work. An article penned by a journalist reviewing How to Get Away with Murder referred to Rhimes as an “angry black woman.” Rhimes was quick to point on Twitter that she was only an executive producer on the show and that the actual creator of the show, Peter Nowalk, is a white male. Instead of asking for a retraction, Rhimes thinks it’s important to have these reminders showing that casual racism and misogyny still exist, showing that there is still work to be done on mainstream television to reflect real life.
With two shows under her belt, as well as back catalogue of screenwriting feature films and directing television episodes, it may have seemed that there’s little left for Rhimes to accomplish. Instead, Shonda Rhimes harnessed her abilities and entrepreneurial instincts by forming ShondaLand, a production company designed to house and cultivate new talents and continue her legacy. Just last year, one of her protégés, Peter Nowalk, sold the above-mentioned legal thriller How to Get Away with Murder to ABC network. The talented cast is led by two-time Academy Award nominee Viola Davis.
Shonda Rhimes continues to inspire and nurture new generations of talent making it clear that there is a space for everyone. In an inspirational address to the 2014 graduating class of Dartmouth University, Rhimes said that she spent a long time dreaming of becoming just like Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison. Rhimes realised that she could either continue dreaming, or finally do and apply to enrol into the USC Film School (where she went on develop her craft). So in the words of Shonda Rhimes, “ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer”.