Television is the new black. Up and down the country, Netflix and Amazon Prime are homes for the majority of the population. One writer and executive producer whose programmes millions have watched repeatedly are Shona Rhimes’. Her writing, characters, production value, and all-around brilliance of the shows she makes have myself, the public, and reviewers raving. The American Broadcasting Corporation adores her so much that they have dedicated Thursday evenings to three of her shows in #TGIT (Thank God It’s Thursday). However, many have publicly attacked her writing, saying it is all incredibly similar and that she is another “angry black lady” who is “all over the place.”
Some, on the other hand, believe Rhimes’ shows are programmes that have something to say for themselves and that they push the boundaries on what is ‘acceptable.’ Others believe they are jewels in the television crown.
Strong female protagonists, particularly strong African-American female protagonists, are something that a lot of television shows lack. Often, women, particularly women of colour, play second fiddle to the leading man. However, this is not the case for the work of Shonda Rhimes. Olivia Pope (Scandal), Meredith Grey (Grey’s Anatomy), and Annalise Keating (How To Get Away With Murder) are all strong women who hold incredibly valued and important jobs. Keating is the lecturer and lawyer you wish you had. Grey’s surgery and caring skills are second to none. As for Pope, she’s a lawyer as well as being highly influential within America’s political hierarchy, and an all-round public relations guru. In the words of Ellie Goulding, these leading ladies “Don’t need nobody.” Many young women have been crying out for long lasting dramas with strong female characters that they haven’t found in Shonda’s competitors, e.g. ER and The West Wing. Rhimes has heard that call and written her shows partly to help young women feel they are represented in male dominated work sectors: education, law, politics, and health. The protagonists in Rhimes’ stories are women who’ve inevitably battled sexism (and, in two cases, racism) to get to where they are today, inspiring women who watch the shows.
With these strong, independent women, reactions and interactions between characters are inevitably different and more complex in comparison to similar dramas on television. In each show, there are different characters and groups who interact with one another in ways that characters of other dramas do not. This may be due to their social ranking, race, sexual orientation, job, gender, or reputation–all things that Rhimes touches on in her work. Meredith Grey of Grey’s Anatomy already has a reputation to live up to: her mother is an incredibly famous surgeon. This reputation instantly earns her the respect of her peers, but she most definitely has to prove herself to her colleagues who have a higher work ranking than she does. In Scandal, Olivia Pope and her father’s relationship bears resemblance to the Titanic; it crashed a long time ago and isn’t coming up for air . This isn’t due to the usual fallings-out of typical dramas. Rowan Pope is a head of a secret government organisation that has killed and hurt his daughter’s friends and lovers. Rhimes writes the interactions and confrontations between her characters as complex and individual, unlike the repeated, often stuffy repetition of dramas like Casualty or Broadchurch.
Real people are at the heart of Shonda’s shows. Though she writes fictional worlds, representation of different sections of society, particularly people of colour and the LGBT+ community, are clearly important to her. One example of this is a relationship in How To Get Away With Murder, between Connor and Oliver, who also happens to be of pan-Asian origin. By having these two in a relationship, this has allowed Rhimes to create something not many dramas have: a dedicated interracial gay couple. Whilst Rhimes so far hasn’t addressed the possible racial-based problems that interracial gay couples face from many, including from within the LGBT+ community itself, she has managed to create a storyline regarding Oliver’s discovery that he has HIV and how the couple copes with that. How To Get Away With Murder is more than just some kids and their teacher solving crimes. It infuses murder mystery and legal battles with the challenges of youth in a way that programmes like Skins and Glue simply failed to do. Discussion of HIV/AIDS and the sexual experience of gay young people is still such a taboo subject on television. Breaking down walls is one of Rhimes’ fortes. From what I have seen, she does it exceptionally well.
Whilst on the subject of humanity and realism, something that lacks from modern dramas is the presentation of social issues. Yes, dramas often feature gay couples and B.A.E.M couples, but no writer I have seen is as daring in their discussion of social issues as Shonda Rhimes. This is particularly true in Scandal, as that it is, at its heart, a show about politics. Within the programme, Olivia Pope’s race is mainly a nonissue, which is one reason that the show works so well and is so unique. Within the five seasons of the show, Olivia has helped rig an election, found out her father is the head of a nefarious intelligence agency who has kept her mother, a terrorist, in a maximum security prison for 20 years and has been kidnapped in order to force the president to go to war with an African nation, all whilst having an on/off affair with said president. Race has been mentioned very little in previous series bar Olivia’s father’s ferocious lectures to his child:
“You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.”
The episode of Scandal entitled “The Lawn Chair” was completely different, however . This particular episode aired the same week that the American Justice Department released the scathing review on how the Ferguson Police Department dealt with the shooting of the black teenager, Michael Brown. The episode in question seemed to be directly inspired by that, with the story following how Pope handles a case where a black teen has been shot by a white police officer. This episode is one of many examples of the kind of lengths that Shonda Rhimes goes to in her shows. She is able to create writing which holds a mirror up to society and makes it question whether it likes what it sees. Her writing finger is on the pulse in today’s world of fear of offending the majority and political correctness. She is shaping and recreating what drama means. Racism, homophobia, sexism, micro-aggressions–Shonda has written her shows with these things in mind. How she manages to write her shows in such a way that gets right into these issues, making them honest, raw, and personal, sends an icy shiver down my spine. That feeling is addictive.
Shonda Rhimes has conquered a niche in the television industry that many have tried and failed to take on. Her strong female characters, her representation of the LGBT+ community and people of colour, the complexities of her characters, and her ability to address social issues in a way that the public can understand all contribute to her programmes’ successes. So, when the next internet troll or journalist wishes to have a pop at Shonda, heed this warning:
Rhimes’ craft has made her one of the most popular televisual writers of our age. She has broken down barriers and does not intend to build them up again; she is taking television to an altogether brand new level. Like her shows, in an industry dominated by white men, the black lady sits atop the throne. And it’s practically Scandalous.