Above: Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder‘s iconic wig removal scene, which captures the pressure many black women feel to disguise their natural hair.
Here Janet Mock shares her personal take on the way Shonda Rhimes’s characters continually defy race and gender to create a reflection of our world and shape the evolution of network television—making room for Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating and, yes, even Empire’s Cookie.
When I moved to New York in 2005, I shared a three-bedroom apartment with two fellow graduate students. None of us knew the neighborhood or one another well. My roommates clicked quickly, despite my own reluctance to BFF-dom. The sight of them sitting hip to hip in front of our television and giggling or screaming to House, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit or America’s Next Top Model never failed to induce an eye roll from me. I’m pretty sure I came off like the girl models on ANTM, the ones who always — without fail — scream, “I’m not here to make friends!”
My aloof front shattered that fall, when I broke with convention, squeezing myself between my roomies on the sofa to watch the season premiere of Grey’s Anatomy. Our love of Shonda Rhimes’s first TV baby was the only thing we all shared aside from our sixth-floor walkup. The sex, surgeries, and struggles inside the fluorescent-lit halls of Seattle Grace Hospital opened up pathways of commonalities for three very different people (a white girl from the Bay Area, an Egyptian girl from Memphis, and me, a black girl from Hawaii).
Shonda Rhimes photographed by Patrick Ecclesine
We were devout citizens of Shondaland, and could’ve easily been a Shondaland production ourselves. My allegiance only grew when I discovered that my favorite series was created by a bold black woman — one who not only looked like me but also made history as the first African-American woman to create and executive produce a prime-time drama for television. In the span of a decade, Rhimes has become one of the most influential showrunners in television. At a time when race in America is again on the front pages and a subject of critical national debate, Rhimes — a black woman — is the first and only producer to ever have an entire broadcast network night of her own with three hit shows — Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder — airing in consecutive time slots. Two of those shows are headlined by black women, and all feature prominent gay characters. As network TV struggles to be central in viewers’ minds, the woman behind the camera and scripts finds herself at the beating heart of the cultural conversation.
I CAME OF AGE in the 1990s, in Honolulu, and was one of only two black kids in my school. The other was my younger brother. My mother worked while raising five kids alone, giving us a lot of free time to argue over the remote control. Watching Sister, Sister, Living Single, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I had access to images of people who looked like me. The TV provided me with friends and let me know that I was not alone, that my voice and experiences mattered, and that I, too, could be a protagonist.
When Gina Rodriguez accepted the best actress Golden Globe for Jane the Virgin in January, she echoed my own core belief about representation: “This award is so much bigger than myself. It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.”
As we entered the new millennium, networks muted this vital message as sitcoms like Moesha and Girlfriends faded to black. Actors of color retreated to the background, serving as tokens in supporting roles for white protagonists. Audiences of color were no longer a factor, yet I still remained loyal to television, finding fellowship in shows about any girl protagonist, even if she didn’t look like me.
One such TV heroine was Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), a surgical intern who was balancing saving lives and steamy elevator rides on Grey’s Anatomy, a midseason replacement that premiered in March 2005. The show was centered on her, but characters who looked like me didn’t merely blend into the background. There was the ambitious Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), the intimidating Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), and the sharp and cocky Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington). Collectively, they were the kind of people who not only reflected me, but the kind I wanted to hang with.
In Shondaland, white, straight, and male is not the presumed default. Out the gate, half of Grey’s Anatomy’s regulars were actors of color — just the way Rhimes, who held an open audition for all races for each character, saw the world. Washington, for example, auditioned for both Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd (ultimately played by Patrick Dempsey) and Dr. Burke, the role he secured.
“When I cast the pilot of Grey’s, Shonda didn’t give anybody a last name,” casting director Linda Lowy recalled in the HBO documentary Casting By. “She just said, ‘Linda, I want you to cast it the way you see the world.’ ”
The multicultural halls of Seattle Grace allowed me and the rest of American viewers to see ourselves. We are human beings who just happen to be products of difference, and the visible difference on Grey’s proved to be successful. By the end of its first season, the show drew nearly 20 million viewers a week and dominated the coveted 18-49 demographic. It was proof that if you build an integrated world where all races, genders, and sexualities are welcome, people from all walks of life will tune in.
“Gay, straight, single, divorced, lost, searching — everybody gets a seat at Shonda’s table,” Oprah wrote in Time magazine in 2013, adding that Rhimes “understands that every dream is valuable and every identity deserves inspection through the looking glass of television.”
Shondaland is the inclusive, multicultural roller coaster ride that Rhimes created. As her logo, which airs at the end of each episode, boldly illustrates, there are the super intense twists and turns, but at its center is a big, red, thumping heart.
SHONDA RHIMES was an eager smarty-pants, the black girl version of Tracy Flick. She grew up the youngest of six kids in a Chicago suburb with parents who centered education in their work and lives (her mom earned a doctorate in educational administration in 1991, the same year Rhimes graduated from Dartmouth College). Rhimes came of age with the progressive soundtrack of “Black power!” and “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” as her own voice told stories into a tape recorder, just like TV’s Felicity. She took her passion for storytelling to Dartmouth, where she studied English literature and dreamed of becoming Toni Morrison. The celebrated American novelist provided minority writers with a mission to write what you know while refusing to be limited by your race and gender.
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” Morrison once said. Rhimes did just that by becoming her own kind of writer, one obsessed with popular culture, melodrama, and diversity. It’s a potent mix.
In 1994, Rhimes graduated with an MFA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and turned her thesis screenplay into her golden ticket to Hollywood. Her first big project was the 1999 HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry as the first black woman to receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination. In return, Berry won an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a SAG Award. Rhimes entered the tween feature film market with the Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads and The Princess Diaries 2. When she became a mother in 2002, Rhimes developed an insatiable appetite for television, which led to an epiphany, she later told Oprah: She was going to take over the world through television. Her first pilot, a drama about war correspondents, was put on the back-burner after the start of the Iraq War. Her next project was about sexy, high-strung, fast-talking surgeons.
Grey’s Anatomy was an instant staple of watercooler talk, earning Rhimes an enthusiastic audience, including one of her heroines. “I had dinner with Toni Morrison,” Rhimes recalled during her 2014 commencement address at Dartmouth. “All she wanted to talk about was Grey’s Anatomy. That never would have happened if I hadn’t stopped dreaming of becoming her and gotten busy becoming myself.”
Unlike her hero, though, Rhimes doesn’t warmly embrace (at least publicly) qualifiers like “black woman writer.” In Shondaland, people just happen to be black or female. “I find race and gender to be terribly important,” she told The Hollywood Reporter last year. “They’re terribly important to who I am. But there’s something about the need for everybody else to spend time talking about it…that pisses me off.”
Identity markers contribute to character, but Rhimes’s characters are human above all. To point out a character’s identity is to admit that you are surprised by the existence of difference. In Shondaland, a black woman can fix any political scandal while sleeping with the white president of the United States; the wedding of a Latina and a white woman can be a season’s marquee event; and an openly gay Republican can be the White House chief of staff.
SCANDAL HAD me the first time I watched Olivia Pope strut into her Beltway office during its April 2012 premiere. Pope, the most powerful fixer in Washington, D.C., prefers a neutral cape and trouser palette and survives on fast-paced conversations, make-out sessions in the Oval Office, and a diet of red wine and popcorn. She also has the bounciest blowout and most trembling lip quiver in TV history, courtesy of Kerry Washington — the first black actress to lead a network drama since 1974, when Teresa Graves played an undercover cop in Get Christie Love!
The pilot — Shondaland’s only chance to win over ABC, as well as a finicky and fragmented American TV audience — made many bold statements, testaments to Rhimes’s deeply held belief that characters, no matter their race, gender, or sexuality, are worthy of being seen. The episode featured the coming out of a closeted, decorated Marine; a White House chief of staff who is gay and conservative; and, of course, the Beltway’s most powerful conflict manager, who happens to be a black woman pining for her former boss who happens to be the president of the United States. Scandal became an instant ratings gladiator (winning its time slot while reaching highs in each of the key women’s demographics) and set the benchmark for must-tweet TV (its season two finale produced 2,200 tweets per minute).
Rhimes hit the jackpot with a prime-time gamble that paid off big, and ABC handed over Thursday nights to the showrunner. The #TGIT (Thank God It’s Thursday) three-hour Shondaland programming block of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and the newcomer How to Get Away with Murder (starring Viola Davis) solidified her stature as a television powerhouse. In 2014, #TGIT helped its freshman drama (written and created by Grey’s alum and former Scandal producer Peter Norwalk, an out gay man) pull in 14 million viewers.
Shondaland is a world where two black women — after nearly four decades of acting in the background — are front and center, number one on the call sheet of a prime-time network.
“Working in Shondaland makes me feel like the luckiest broad in showbiz,” Washington said at the GLAAD Media Awards in 2012. Davis, during her acceptance speech for winning a best actress SAG Award, credited Shondaland for thinking that a “sexualized, messy, mysterious woman could be a 49-year-old, dark-skinned, African-American woman who looks like me.”
Shondaland’s culture of inclusivity embraces, writes, and portrays difference without really making that the plot. Rarely do her characters have discussions about the intersections of their identities. They just exist. Rhimes is not afraid of showing difference in her visual medium, but she ultimately writes the ways in which we’re the same: flawed beings navigating life and love.
But everyone doesn’t kumbaya with the multiculturalism mantra. On How to Get Away with Murder, the sexiest character on all of Shondaland’s shows is Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee), a gay law student who uses his sexuality to get what he wants. Connor was in the pilot’s only steamy sex scene. When viewers have occasionally bridled at the show’s bold choices, Rhimes has been quick to defend them.
After one viewer said on Twitter that “the gay scenes in Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder are too much,” Rhimes sent a series of tweets that said: “There are NO gay scenes — there are scenes with people in them. If you are suddenly discovering that Shondaland shows have scenes involving people who are gay, you are LATE TO THE PARTY. If u use the phrase ‘gay scenes,’ u are not only LATE to the party but also NOT INVITED to the party.”
For Rhimes, including people of diverse sexual orientations, genders, and colors doesn’t dilute your audience, it makes them better. Her TV domination is proof positive that representation attracts audiences yearning to see themselves while pushing the rest of America to engage in long-overdue conversations about race. The Obama presidency has reframed what’s possible for African-Americans. The #blacklivesmatter demonstrations, from Ferguson and New York to Tokyo and Paris, have put incendiary topics (racial profiling, overpolicing of communities of color and brutality against black people) front and center. The country’s rapidly shifting demographics (the Census Bureau data reveals that children of color already make up close to the majority of new births in America) are reshaping the image of the nation. It’s this political backdrop that fuels Rhimes’s emergence as a cultural force, pushing networks to tell more inclusive stories and create more spaces for black voices, women voices, diverse voices. In 2014, ABC added a slew of prime time shows promoting diversity: Black-ish, about an affluent black family; Cristela, starring Cristela Alonzo, the first Latina to create, produce, write, and star in her own network sitcom; and Fresh Off the Boat, the first show in 20 years to tell the story of an Asian-American family.
“We really wanted to reflect the changing face of America,” ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee said.
Since Kerry Washington’s historic casting in Scandal, roles available to actresses of color have greatly expanded. Nicole Beharie headlines Fox’s supernatural drama Sleepy Hollow. Tracee Ellis Ross is at the center of Black-ish. Gabrielle Union plays a TV anchor on BET’s first scripted drama, Being Mary Jane; Alfre Woodard plays the president on NBC’s State of Affairs. Taraji P. Henson is thememe-worthy Cookie Lyon on Fox’s new hit musical soap opera, Empire. She is redefining the role of leading lady. The Oscar nominee wields her character’s one-liners, shade-throwing, and tweet-bait antics to draw nearly 13 million people a week.
Empire centers on music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), who is grappling with a rare ALS diagnosis just as his ex-wife, Cookie, is released from jail after 17 years, hoping to take over the musical kingdom her drug-dealing money helped build. The show also features their three sons, all vying to succeed their father: Andre (Trai Byers) is the eldest and a ruthless, Ivy League-educated corporate hotshot juggling bipolarism and a conniving wife (who happens to be white); Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) is the baby, a bad-boy rapper who can’t help but make headlines by drunkenly insulting President Obama and dating a closeted lesbian songstress; and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is the middle child, a gay musical prodigy who refuses to let his father’s homophobia thwart his chart-topping dreams.
It’s Jamal’s close and affirming relationship with his scene-stealing mother that challenges the longstanding myth that homophobia is more prominent in black communities — a narrative that pushed Henson to take the role. “That [storyline] made me want to do it,” she told Time. “I hadn’t seen the subject matter addressed in our in-yourface, let’s-talk-about-this manner.”
Empire is ruling the zeitgeist, even besting How to Get Away with Murder as the season’s top-rated new show among viewers under 50, making it an unprecedented success, one that accomplished the rare feat of adding viewership in each of its subsequent episodes. The last time a series increased viewership from its premiere was nearly a decade ago, when Grey’s Anatomy first aired.
According to Nielsen, 61% of Empire’s audience is black — a figure that no other prime-time show, new or old, has matched. Scandal is second, with 37%, followed by How to Get Away with Murder, with 32%. Though all shows perform well in black households, they draw large audiences across all demographics, making a solid case that the elusive mainstream viewer is tuning in and embracing difference.
Empire’s sweeping success only proves that Rhimes was right back in 2005, when she chose to create and champion a diverse world on TV through Shondaland’s first production. Empire’s rise reinforces Rhimes’s cultural legacy. With Empire, Being Mary Jane, and Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, the burden and duty of representation no longer falls solely on Rhimes’s shoulders. She can sit back and actually enjoy the kaleidoscope vision of truly inclusive and entertaining television that she helped create.
“So now I am all about Empire,” Rhimes, ever the fan of television, recently tweeted. “ALL ABOUT #EMPIRE, tweeples.”