It’s tough to keep a show going after ten years. Scripts start getting creative. Having a helicopter land on someone’s head becomes normal (Oh ER, when are you going to end up on Netflix?), and you lose sight of who the characters are amidst the drama.
I started watching Grey’s Anatomy in the middle of season 3 and vowed to stop watching last year when Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang departed.
Best. Laid. Plans. When the show premiered again this fall I was back, ready to hear of the happenings at Grey-Sloane Memorial Hospital including, spoiler alert, the introduction of yet another sister for Mer.
But this is not a post about Grey’s Anatomy. This is a post about diversity and storytelling from Shonda Rhimes the creator/writer of Grey’s, Private Practice, Scandal, and the executive producer of the new How to Get Away with Murder. Two weeks ago she gave an interview for the Smithsonian Associates at the National Museum of Natural History, and I thought what she had to say about diversity and storytelling was worth repeating.
Note: Any of the quotes I have in this post are paraphrased. I wrote them down but am not sure I got them verbatim.
I’m not sure when I started paying attention to diversity in television. I know that part of the reason I loved LOST was because it took stereotypes and turned them on its head. Or that I liked shows like How I Met Your Mother or Friends despite the fact that six leads in New York City would all be white, even though both shows were set in one of the most diverse cities in the country.
Early on in the interview Rhimes stated that “Marginalization is what happens when you stick people in boxes.” In creating Grey’s Anatomy her goal was to pull together a cast where one person didn’t have to be the token — the person who ends up talking about being Black, Asian, or Gay in every conversation.
She wanted Grey’s to looks like the real world.
When Rhimes created Olivia Pope (Scandal) she purposely did not want her be a role model – because in televisionland people of color in lead roles are expected to be someone others can emulate. (I’ll be the first to admit that I often fall into that trap). Rhimes said that the way she wrote Olivia, sans role model perfection, she is allowed to just be a person and not something on a diversity checklist.
I found this perspective incredibly refreshing, here is someone who is approaching diversity in television, to use a mangled preservation phrase (re: whole place preservation), in terms of “Whole Story Diversity.” Instead of just trying to insert a character here, a character there, Rhimes looks at her shows as truly color blind canvasses.
This perspective was further underscored when Rhimes intimated her aversion to the phrase “strong women.” In the interview Rhimes says she hates the modifier (strong) because the implied alternative is weak women — and who wants to watch that.
Her words had me nodding along with the rest of the audience, and while I can see why Rhimes dislikes the verbal distinction I think it is important to have conversations about pushing beyond stereotypes and to encourage stronger characters of all levels of society. So when I think about ‘strong women’ it isn’t about creating a women who is just a badass, but rather one with multiple layers beyond the surface. I would love to live in a world where we could just say “write women” but often we are stuck with these caricatures of what the networks think viewers want. To paraphrase Rhimes later on in the interview I think most shows let the story dictate the character rather than the other way around.
On occasion my regular readers know that I write for a blog called FANgirl which often looks at what ‘strong’ actually means in writing and media. Here is one take, and the one I wrote. For many it has to do with fleshing out characters to be more than one thing — which is critical in all aspects of storytelling.
“Writing for television is like writing an extended novel”
At one point during the interview Rhimes explained the following difference between Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal:
1. The Grey’s Anatomy writing room is joyful. They have baking contests and are one big happy family.
2.The Scandal room is “dark and twisty.” Scripts are often written down to the wire with a sense of frenetic energy. People don’t leave the room. They practically live there.
I like the visual that conjured up in my mind when Rhimes provided those descriptions. To some extent, both spaces mirror the shows they are for — coming up with that season ending reboot (Grey’s) or the next crazy turn (Scandal.) That being said, with both rooms, Rhimes says, one thing is the same. When plot developments occur they have to be in service of the story and subsequently the characters who are living within the story.
Both the character and the story work together. One elevates the other.
As someone who writes often for personal and professional reasons, these words emphasize the difficulty of producing any type of writing. Pulling together a narrative of any kind has to make sense, and when point A and B do not connect the gears can’t move forward.
I also was in agreement when she answered a question about show delivery – be it by television, digital applications or through services like Hulu or Netflix. Rhimes said first and foremost “the content needs to be good, then figure out how it is going to get out there.” Truth.
Whatever you write has to resonate before readers and viewers will consume it for themselves. If you write half-halfheartedly just to get the material out it won’t make the same impact as something that is more thoughtful and well produced.
When I started watching Scandal this past spring I had to stop after the second season because I felt like there wasn’t anyone to root for. I found Olivia to be a false angel. Someone who fixes things but also blurs the lines in a way that actually was antithetical to my personal morality. But now, after listening to Rhimes’ choices and intent in creating a show where there were no good guys, that they were intentionally “monsters walking around in human skin” I might be willing to give it another try.
Television is often teased as a guilty pleasure (another phrase Rhimes dislikes). That it is something to be ashamed of, to hide away. For me television is another way to make an impact in a person’s life. To elevate the spirit, create smiles, and draw out emotion. As Rhimes said in some of her closing comments,
“[I do not want to] take over the world with TV but [I understand that] there is a way to affect the world through TV.”