Drawing by @HannahSky
Behind every monumental shift, there’s always a force that’s driving it forward. A driving force that’s pushing it out of the space it’s grown accustomed to. Pushing it to adapt, to meet the needs of a new space, to strengthen. That’s what Shonda Rhimes is to TV. She’s the unbeatable driving force pushing it to go further.
Although her story begun way before she started sharing stories of her own, it’s those that she’s shared that have left a mark. In the wider sense of things, I suppose the pivotal turning point was when Shonda Rhimes was brought into the world. But I won’t go that deep. Instead, I’ll refine things. More specifically, I’ll refine things to March 27th 2005.
For those of you who have a life outside of TV and aren’t sure of the significance of that date, I have two words for you: Grey’s Anatomy.
Where the shift really begun.
Shonda Rhimes made her first move in the TV game when the Grey’s Anatomy pilot, “A Hard Day’s Night”, aired in 2005. I’m going to put it out there as a quick disclaimer and confess that Grey’s is probably my favourite show of all time. When you’ve lost count of how many times you’ve rewatched a 10+ season series, you know it’s good. You know that Shonda Rhimes has a hold on you.
I’ve known that for a while now.
Grey’s Anatomy is a stand out show for a number of reasons. The first episode I ever remember seeing was Season 2 Episode 9, where a man thinks he’s pregnant (and has the bump to prove it). I wonder why that one stuck with me? I was probably only about 9 years old when I used to watch the odd episode and because of that, I was never fully committed to it. But as I was growing up, it was something I’d always be reminded of if I saw it’s name pop-up. I always had these small memories of a show that I was eager to watch again one day. Thankfully, that one day came about 4 or 5 years ago. I sat down. I started from the beginning. I got hooked.
If you’d have put the words “women” and “TV” side-by-side in a sentence before Shonda Rhimes made them stick, it’d probably have been described as a contradiction. That’s not to say there weren’t powerful women working in TV before, but those on screen were typically directed by men. The stories written for them were written by men. Basically, men made up the television industry and to a large extent, they still do.
Today, women make up only 27% of those working behind the scenes (in 2006 this was 26%) and the statistics are similarly alarming for the women on camera. The problem is very much there, and it’s women like Shonda Rhimes who are turning those statistics around.
Shonda isn’t just the creator of Grey’s Anatomy (and other shows which we will get to later on), she’s the executive producer and head writer.
Also, Grey’s Anatomy isn’t just a show about surgery. It’s a show that puts women (and diversity) at the forefront. The female characters are actually relatable and realistic and there’s someone who everyone can see themselves in. Writing 3-dimensional characters is something that Shonda Rhimes has never shied away from. These characters are so much more than “what you see is what you get” and they all bring something different that resonates with audiences.
Grey’s represents women of colour, queer women, disabled women, mothers, women with no desire to be mothers, working women, women in power – no stone is untouched when Shonda Rhimes is behind it. We’re not just seeing one side of society, we’re seeing it in its entirety.
Instead of the women being pitted against each other, the competition created between them (for example Meredith and Cristina) only uplifts them and encourages them to do better. They don’t fight over men. They’re not depicted as weak or inferior. They’re represented as women. It’s as simple as that.
Here are a few Grey’s scenes/quotes that emphasise this:
1. “You don’t get to call me a whore”
2. “How does anyone practice medicine hauling these things around?”
3. “He is not the sun. You are”
I could honestly post various Grey’s scenes all day, but I’ll show some restraint. These are just 3 scenes that emphasise the empowerment Shonda Rhimes creates in her shows. From Cristina Yang defending her right to choose, to April Kepner defending her views on sex and Callie Torres shutting down her Father for trying to “pray away the gay” – Grey’s never fails to deliver.
In 2007 when Grey’s Anatomy was in its 3rd season, Shonda’s branch started to grow and her impact expanded with Private Practice. Private Practice is the Grey’s spin-off that focuses primarily on Addison Montgomery (or as I never get tired of saying, Addison Forbes-Montgomery-Shepherd).
Addison has to be one of the most loved Grey’s characters and fans are constantly calling for Kate Walsh to return. Shonda created something extraordinary with Addison. In any other TV series, Addison would have only been seen as the evil bitch who was getting in the way of the shows main couple. On paper, you’d think everyone would hate her. But this is ShondaLand we’re talking about. That shit doesn’t fly here.
Just 2 years after Grey’s Anatomy first aired, Shonda Rhimes had already created a second series, both of which were bringing in millions of viewers every week. These are the shows that started it all for her and that completely shifted the way women, in fact people, were being written.
Shonda was creating shows that represented what the world actually looks like, so that people could tune in and see characters like Arizona Robbins and Naomi Bennett and think “it’s about time”. But this? This was just the beginning.
In 2012, when Grey’s was in its 8th season and Private Practice was in its 5th, Shonda’s new political drama ‘Scandal’ aired, which put Kerry Washington in the lead role of Olivia Pope. Olivia Pope is undoubtedly one of the most powerful women in television. She also happens to be black. Does her ethnicity matter? No, of course it doesn’t. But looking at the bigger picture in the landscape of TV (and the representation she provides), it’s pretty important.
When Shonda Rhimes cast Kerry Washington, she cast the first African-American woman as the lead in a network drama since 1974. It’s not about making a statement of diversity. It’s about acknowledging the fact that the world is made up of different people (outside of white people who are in the majority of lead roles). It’s looking at the fact that audiences aren’t being represented. It’s being inclusive.
Obviously diversity is important, but when will diversity simply just be categorised as “normality?”.
But, there’s a lot more to Scandal than that. Shonda Rhimes is a storyteller. So what would a show called Scandal be without some, well, scandal? Of course, there are the steamy relationships and the “what the hell just happened” moments, but Shonda is telling the stories that no-one else seems willing to.
Being a political drama, there’s obviously a lot to be said about American politics throughout the series. Let’s just say one of the episodes in season 5 was entitled “The Trump Card” and leave it there.
Scandal also touches on a plethora of other societal issues. One key episode that certainly stands out is season 4 episode 14, where a 17-year old black teenager is shot and killed by a white police officer, a reflection of Ferguson (where Michael Brown was killed). Most TV producers would be unlikely to consider telling such stories, but not Shonda Rhimes.
1. “You want me? Earn me”
2. “So you’re not a little bitch baby?”
Did Shonda Rhimes stop there? Of course she didn’t.
On September 25th 2014, ‘How to Get Away With Murder” aired. A legal drama starring the incomparable Viola Davis as Annalise Keating. HTGAWM follows Shondaland suit and puts an array of different characters at the forefront, whilst providing gripping storylines each and every season. Obviously, Viola Davis completely steals the show and consequently became the first black woman to win an Emmy for lead actress in a drama series.
HTGAWM pushes the boundaries of television and offers complex, representative characters who stand out against the norm.
To say Annalise is flawed is an understatement. Her morals and intentions are continuously changing, she can be reckless and her relationships and sex life gets pretty messy. But, she’s also fiercely protective and independent. She’s layered and Viola Davis executes every emotion, every line and every scene impeccably.
Through both Annalise and Connor Walsh (portrayed by Jack Falahee), HTGAWM provides some pretty significant representation for the LGBTQ+ community. What I adore most about Annalise’s representation is that her bisexuality isn’t even discussed, it’s just another part of her character. Just as any other part of her past/character would be revealed, we discover that Annalise used to be in a relationship with her friend (and fellow lawyer) Eve. That’s all there is to it. It’s a legal drama, there’s cases to solve and murders to hide. Why would Annalise’s sexuality need to be discussed?
Connor’s sexuality is however a bigger part of his character. He’s openly and proudly gay, but in no way is it the only thing that defines him. He also gets just as many sex scenes (which HTGAWM doesn’t hold back on) as any of the straight characters – which is pretty noteworthy for primetime TV.
Although Shonda isn’t the creator or HTGAWM, she is one of the producers and it is a part of Shondaland – making it a part of her empire. Collectively, How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy take over Thursday night TV – which has now been branded as TGIT (Thank God It’s Thursday).
Here are just a couple of HTGAWM’s significant moments:
I think it’s fair to say that Shonda Rhimes has taken over and transformed TV in more ways than one. From the complex characters she creates, to the stories she shares and people she puts in the limelight.
Whilst the aforementioned shows are the most popular, they aren’t the only members of ShondaLand. Her other shows are:
- Off the Map (2011)
- The Catch (2016)
- Still Star-Crossed (2017)
- For the People (2017)
I seriously don’t know how I’ll cope when her shows come to an end. Thankfully, Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away With Murder are getting a 14th and 4th season. Scandal is getting a 7th season, however it will sadly be it’s last. I’m not emotionally prepared for what Shonda has in store for us in the final episodes, but I know I’ll be there to watch ever single one of them. As for Grey’s and HTGAWM, let’s hope we still have many seasons to come.
Long may her legacy continue!