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Op-Ed: Color, Class & Queers: Shonda Rhimes Re-Writes the TV Landscape to Look Like Us

Op-Ed:  Color, Class & Queers: Shonda Rhimes Re-Writes the TV Landscape to Look Like Us

Shonda Rhimes offers television that looks like us.

I love Shonda Rhimes.

I don’t know her–although I’ve shared a few tweets with her. But I know I love her because Shonda Rhimes gave me Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal (and even Private Practice). She gave me women-centered TV that I could fall right into and characters that I would come to love and identify with. She gave me a seamless diversity of race, class and sexual orientation that not only mirrored real life, it made it bigger and just a little better.

When Grey’s Anatomy premiered its 10th season on Sept. 26, I was there waiting to see the women (and men) I have come to love over all those years. Would Callie and Arizona really break up? Would Dr. Weber really die? Would Meredith survive her risky childbirth?

And when Scandal starts its third season Oct. 3, I’ll be live-tweeting along with all the other Scandal freaks, many of whom are, like the characters themselves, working in the halls of power in Washington.

What makes Rhimes’s dramas work so well that they have remained top-rated season after season is that the characters she draws are deeply, totally real, even if the circumstances of their lives are sometimes totally over the top.

Yet despite the ratings, despite the depth, over the years I’ve been watching and writing about Grey’s, Private Practice and Scandal, I’ve heard disparaging comments about the shows: melodrama, soap opera, chick TV.

The dismissive nature of those comments and their inherent sexism illumines the problems with women and TV. When a show is about men and men’s ambitions and interior/exterior lives, it’s "golden age" TV. When a show is about women and their lives, it’s somehow much, much less. Mad Men, which garners less than half the viewers of Scandal, is "brilliant." Scandal, a "guilty pleasure."But the issues Rhimes has explored over nearly a decade of writing and creating these shows are among the most controversial in TV history.

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope 

On Grey’s, Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh)has had two abortions, the second even as her best friend, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) was struggling to conceive. The audience witnessed Cristina going through the torturous choice, and her husband, father of the second baby, nearly broken by her choice.

(On Private Practice, the spin-off from Grey’s, Rhimes also addressed abortion when Derek’s sister Amelia, who had drug and alcohol issues, gave birth to an anancephalic child; she chose not to abort her baby. On the same show, a lesbian has to come to terms with pulling life support from her partner who is in a coma. In a different episode, a gay man dying is kept from his partner by a homophobic father. And one of the key members of that show’s ensemble cast, Violet, is abducted by one of her patients who stabs the nine-months-pregnant Violet and steals her baby.)

In Grey’s early seasons Meredith’s mother, Ellis, formerly a renowned surgeon, was dying a slow death from early-onset Alzheimer’s. It was revealed that Ellis had had a long-time affair with a fellow surgeon, now Meredith’s boss, Seattle Grace’s chief of staff, Dr. Richard Weber-- who is also African-American.

Various medical cases raised complex issues. A teenage girl is in the hospital for tests. She’s been taking illicit meds to stop her puberty because she feels more boy than girl. It’s revealed she’s actually intersex–but her parents had chosen to keep that information from her. How the story plays out was groundbreaking.
In a more recent storyline last season, a young couple finds each other at their college LGBT group: one is a FTM and the other MTF, both in transition, falling in love with each other.

In one of the most compelling long-term storylines the show has ever done, Dr. Callie Torres ( Sara Ramirez) slowly shifts her sexuality from hetero to bi over the course of several seasons. She has a few stop-and-start affairs with women until she meets and falls in love with Dr. Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw).

The two marry and have a child together. Then Arizona is in a plain crash and loses her leg. It’s Callie who makes the decision to amputate in order to save her wife’s life.

There are no female amputees on all of TV except for Arizona and Grey’s has addressed the complicated body issues with depth and verisimilitude. (We’re not quite sure how the show does the CGI on Capshaw’s leg to make it disappear, but there’s amazing realism.)

Callie and Arizona are the longest running female couple on prime time. Unlike the lesbians of The L Word, they are believable as well as great looking. Arizona is a life-long lesbian, while Callie has gone from being a bed-hopping hetero to coming out as bisexual to becoming a fully committed wife to Arizona. 

Sara Ramirez as Callie and Jessica Capshaw as Arizona 

The landscape of Grey’s has always been diverse with characters of color in lead roles, not just dropped in as tokens. There are African-American, Latina and Asian characters as well as white. Interracial relationships are a given. It’s a truly multi-cultural cast.

While the show is named for the central character of Meredith, the show is really an ensemble. And although Callie and Arizona are the show’s queer couple, Meredith’s relationship with Cristina has been a defining connection that is more than a friendship–they are the platonic loves of each other’s lives–even as both women have married men. Rhimes has made Meredith’s relationship with Cristina equal to her relationship with her husband, Derek (Patrick Dempsey), pointing out the depth of female friendships.

Sandra Oh as Cristina and Ellen Pompeo as Meredith

Scandal is to politics what Grey’s is to medicine. Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is a fixer who runs her own agency populated with complex miscreants. She’s also an African-American woman having an affair with the white Republican President of the U.S. who she helped conspire to get elected. Liv’s counterpoint is Cyrus (Jeff Perry), the White House chief of staff who is also gay and a murderer.

The second season Scandal gave viewers grisly waterboarding, an assassination attempt, a mail bomb and murder. Olivia, the president’s wife, Cyrus and a Supreme Court justice conspired to secure the election. The president himself would later murder that Supreme Court justice. One of Olivia’s staff members, a CIA assassin who’s comfortable with torture, sits in on AA meetings because of his addiction to killing people.

Scandal has what no other show on TV has: a lead character who is both black and a woman. One of the three lead characters is gay. The storylines are edgy and incredibly compelling and of course rife with political intrigue.

At last month’s Emmys, Dan Bucatinsky, who plays James, Cyrus’s husband and the reporter who discovered the election scam, won for best supporting actor in a drama. He also has written for Grey’s while Perry also played Meredith’s estranged father on that show.

In December 2012, Rhimes was asked by a viewer, “why all the gay and lesbian storylines on her shows?” The viewer was obviously disapproving.

Rhimes said, as reported by IndieWire at the time, "Because I believe everyone should get to see themselves reflected on TV. EVERYONE. And because I love all my gay and lesbian friends. AND because I think same-sex marriage is the civil rights fight of our era and back when being a person of color was the civil rights fight, people like Norman Lear put black people on TV and helped change some minds. So you know, it’s gotta be paid forward. As long as we are willing to sit by while one person is not free, none of us are free.”

Rhimes added, "And FINALLY: because as long as someone feels like it is okay to ask the question ‘Why all the gay people on your shows,’ then there is still a HUGE problem that needs to be solved. It’s like asking ‘Why all the black people on your shows.’ Which is, in fact, why there are also a lot of people of color on my shows. ’Cause people keep asking. Like it’s unusual. Which means we have a LONG way to go. Okay, done preaching."
Nicely put. Intersectionality at work. Much like her shows themselves.

Because Rhimes is one of the most popular and powerful showrunners in Hollywood, what she says means a lot. There are only three other people–all white men–who have as many shows going as Rhimes. Chuck Lorre, Ryan Murphy and Seth McFarlane. For five years Rhimes has held the coveted 9 to 11 prime-time slot on Thursday nights–something no other showrunner has ever done–first with Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice and now with Grey’s and Scandal.

Channing Dungey, who oversees ABC’s drama development, was quoted in the New York Times in May describing Rhimes as "incredibly important" to the network. Dungey said, "If she came in tomorrow and said, ‘I have a great idea,’ I would jump at it."

Since Grey’s debuted in 2005, Rhimes has kept the top demographic for each time slot, putting her shows in the top 10 scripted series for nearly a decade. Scandal is the number one drama at 10p.m. on any night and every network in the key demographic of 18 to 49. On Thursdays, Scandal gets a pivotal boost on Twitter, where aficionados like myself are sending out a record 200,000 tweets per episode–surpassing the much-lauded Breaking Bad.

Sept. 26, President Obama tapped Rhimes to be on the Kennedy Center’s Board of Trustees–akin to being appointed an ambassador to the arts. There is no more powerful woman in television and the staying power of her shows clarifies that.

What Rhimes has done–which no other woman in Hollywood has done–is use her power to portray the most diverse casts on TV–not just people of color, but also the full range of LGBT people. While shows by straight white men have the occasional and somewhat random people of color and LGBT people as characters, there are few other shows with the same level of diversity that Rhimes gives us.

What makes Grey’s continue to work 10 seasons in, what keeps Scandal feeling brand new and what made Private Practice thrive until the series finale are the stories Rhimes is telling with characters we recognize as ourselves. These are real women, men and queers portraying a wide array of characters–some likable, some not.
Yet Rhimes isn’t just performing exercises in diversity; she’s putting casts together that reflect everyone so that everyone who watches her feels included. She’s also creating and re-creating strong, empowered yet emotionally open women who can be self-confident as well as vulnerable, and LGBT characters and people of color who are not stereotypes.

As Oprah, a long-time fan of Grey’s, Private Practice and Rhimes herself noted, on Rhimes’s shows, "Everybody gets a seat at Shonda’s table."

Everyone indeed. Because Rhimes–as her characters make clear when they speak–sees us all. And wants everyone to see themselves in her shows.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, as well as the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer andThe Nation, among others. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and an contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her most recent book is From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth, winner of the Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction 2012. Her novella, Ordinary Mayhem, won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012.


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Victoria A. Brownworth