In early August, Shonda Rhimes read a draft announcement for an event where she was set to appear. It called her “the most powerful black female showrunner in Hollywood.” She crossed out “female” and “black” and sent it back.
As the mastermind of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and the producer of top-rated newcomer How to Get Away With Murder, all for ABC, she didn’t believe either modifier was necessary — or relevant. “They wouldn’t say that someone is ‘the most powerful white male showrunner in Hollywood,’ ” she contends, her tone turning momentarily stern on this morning in late September. She pauses to gather her thoughts and then continues: “I find race and gender to be terribly important; 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.”
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For years, Rhimes has kept relatively quiet on such matters, preferring instead to make her statements onscreen, where she has displayed a talent for crafting complex, original characters unconstrained by such singular definitions as “black,” “Asian” or “gay.” But her own race and gender had become an unavoidable part of the conversation a few days before our meeting, when The New York Times ran an essay about Rhimes by TV critic Alessandra Stanley. It began: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’ ”
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Stanley went on to make the tendentious claim that Rhimes modeled black characters on herself, among other tone-deaf assertions, including the description of Murder star Viola Davis as “less classically beautiful” than other well-known black actresses. Social media erupted. Vulture‘s Margaret Lyons called the piece “muddled and racist”; The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum added “incendiary.” Others were less kind. Rhimes herself jumped in almost immediately, wondering to her 700,000 Twitter followers why she’s not labeled “an angry black woman” when her white characters rant, too.
When I join Rhimes, 44, a single mother of three, in her homey office at Hollywood’s Sunset Gower Studios, the furor has settled down and she’s reflecting on the positives that have come out of it. “Some really amazing articles were written that had the conversation that I’ve been trying to have for a very long time, which, coming from me, makes me sound like I’m just, ‘Rrrraw!’ ” she mimics a roar, her painted nails clawing the air. Her inbox has been deluged with notes from concerned friends and colleagues, many of whom called for the piece to be retracted. Rhimes would prefer it remain: “In this world in which we all feel we’re so full of gender equality and we’re a postracial [society] and Obama is president, it’s a very good reminder to see the casual racial bias and odd misogyny from a woman written in a paper that we all think of as being so liberal.”
The irony, of course, is that Stanley intended not to bury Rhimes but to praise her and her growing influence on the TV landscape. And for good reason: Rhimes not only has redefined what is possible for African-American actresses — before her Kerry Washington-led Scandal, a black woman hadn’t headlined a network show since Teresa Graves fronted Get Christie Love! in 1974 — but also has demonstrated how broadcast drama can thrive in a deeply competitive environment. Her shows, distinctive for their hyperarticulate dialogue, hairpin plot twists and steamy love triangles, deliver a consistent and enviable mix of ratings and real-time buzz. Grey’s rounded out the most recent season, the show’s 10th, as the No. 1 drama among that coveted 18-to-49 demographic; and Rhimes’ White House melodrama, Scandal, which is said to generate more than $200,000 for each 30-second ad, isn’t far behind. That success hasn’t translated to a shelf full of Emmys, but critics have grown more admiring with each passing season. Time‘s James Poniewozik recently wrote that Rhimes produces “smart, pulpy shows that emote like pop ballads, look like America and run like hell.”
For fourth-place ABC, Rhimes has become so valuable that the network’s entertainment president, Paul Lee, has entrusted her with the entire Thursday lineup, the most lucrative night of programming on TV. “Shonda has this ability to create television events,” he says, days before her trio of shows collectively debuts to a same-day audience of 37 million. And even at that size, she has managed to maintain an intimacy with her audience — a genuine connection at a mass scale. Adds Lee, “Shows that really pop have strong voices, and there’s no stronger voice in America than Shonda Rhimes.”