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Shonda Rhimes is Normalizing Diversity in Television

Shonda Rhimes (Image credit: Instagram)

Shonda Rhimes is a powerful screenwriter, producer and author known for her ABC shows Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder — all shows with power-leading female characters.

Rhimes breaks free from the traditional female narrative and holds herself to a high standard. She is unapologetically brilliant, independent, and powerful.

Shonda Rhimes (Instagram)

In fact, Rhimes told Oprah Winfrey that she personally has “never wanted to get married. I never played bride. I was never interested.” She went on to adopt three children while working as an extremely successful storyteller. Rhimes has created important narratives in all her shows. She has successfully created diverse, unique, and powerful characters that separate her from all other television shows.

Grey’s Anatomy

Grey’s Anatomy was Rhimes’ first groundbreaking television success. She brought a remarkable set of characters. Audiences saw powerful black characters, Latinas, Asians, and a wide range of sexual identities and all sorts of genders. As the show progressed, complex characters were introduced and represented.

Greys Anatomy (Image credit: ABC)

In an interview Rhimes had with The New York Times, she explained how during casting she didn’t specify the ethnicities of her characters. She instead sought out actors for their acting. In the show alone, all extras are white apart from one janitor to counteract Hollywood’s stereotypes.

While the show is composed of predominantly white characters, it represents black characters by 400%. These characters are represented in roles of power. In doing this, Rhimes successfully gives traditional roles but represents them in vastly untraditional ways. Thus, we see much hidden diversity that we may not see otherwise.

Greys Anatomy does an impressive job at keeping up with political and social issues that plague America. The show discusses heavy topics such as sex trafficking, sexual assault allegations from people with power, mental health problems, disability, addiction/alcoholism, the killing of George Floyd, COVID-19 impacts on health care and sexual assault. Representing such hot topics brings awareness to these issues, keeping the show up to date making it feel even more realistic.

Scandal

Another hit series from Shonda Rhimes, Scandal which aired from 2012-2018 on ABC was a prime time show that gave us a glimpse of hidden diversity. The show was led by actress,\ Kerry Washington. Washington became the first black woman  to lead a network drama in 40 years.

Scandal (Image credit: ABC)
Scandal (Image credit: ABC)

“I didn’t know from the beginning that I wanted Olivia Pope to be a black woman, I knew from the beginning that Olivia Pope was a black woman,” Rhimes told BuzzFeed News. Taking a leap of faith by normalizing hidden diversity on screen, Rhimes proves that diverse representation in television can be successful. After all, Scandal was a seven-season-long television show.

Washington’s character is indefinitely representative of black folks. Rhimes created Pope to be professional, powerful, and brilliant. She was not soft, charismatic, or anything of that stereotype but she was a fighter, a commander and a professional. Rhimes avoided making her fall victim to the black girl tropes that can be seen in other shows.

As for the narrative, the show tackled tough topics. It discussed racial politics and sexism in the workplace (which is something Rhimes is familiar with). The show also included toxicity and power in the workplace, PTSD and torture. Rhimes created a political economy that all took place in the White House which is based on American history. Pertinent legal investigations were thrown away, intermarital scandals happened left and right, secrets were kept through intense forms of blackmail, and the U.S. government was influenced by greed, love, pride, and personal gain.

By normalizing dysfunctional, complicated and complex characters while also having a relatively diverse cast, Rhimes was able to open a lot of doors that were previously shut.

How to Get Away with Murder

Viola Davis, Shonda Rhimes, and Ellen Pompeo attended a special event presented by Toyota and co-hosted by ABC and Time Inc.’s Entertainment Weekly, Essence and People in celebration of ABC’s #TGIT line-up, Saturday, September 26 at Gracias Madre in Los Angeles, CA. (Image credit: ABC/Image Group LA / flickr. Licensed by YCC BY-ND 2.0.)

Shonda Rhimes’s production company, known as Shondaland, also created a six-season-long show called How to Get Away with Murder. This television show starred award-winning Viola Davis as the lead. Davis won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series and was the first woman of color to do so.

Just as the others, this show brought visibility to a variety of cultural differences on screen. There were characters that were DACA immigrants, there were Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and a set of racially diverse characters.

Davis’ character brought a set of struggles to the screen, from alcoholism to sexual abuse to being a black LGBTQ+ woman in America. She took on cases as a lawyer that spoke to a bigger issue in America: the mass incarceration of black Americans.

The main team of characters consisted of five law school students where each came from a different place. Whether that was foster care, Mexico, adoption or even from money. The show consists of a dark and tragic plot line making each character complex and imperfect.

Having a show with a bisexual, powerful, independent woman of color leading it is not the traditional narrative we see on television. Rather, this show reflects many social issues America faces today, breaking away from heteronormative narratives.

Shonda Rhimes and her production company Shondaland have not fallen short on representing cultural differences and racial diversity. She puts reality on our screens by adding visibility. Audiences finally get to see the world as it is but in fictional television shows. Shondaland has normalized these diverse characters, breaking stereotypes, and treating them with the same sexual freedoms and visibility as traditional white heteronormative characters.

Shonda Rhimes (Image credit: Greg Hernandez CC BY 2.0)
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