The unstoppable force that is Shonda Rhimes
Shonda Rhimes doesn't rest on her laurels waiting for things to happen, she makes them happen through her ambition and empowering self-awareness.
At the beginning of her 2016 TED talk, TV show runner extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes had this to say about the current state of her workload:
“Three shows in production at a time, sometimes four. The budget for one episode of network television can be anywhere from three to six million dollars. Let’s just say five. A new episode made every nine days, times four shows—so every nine days, that’s 20 million dollars’ worth of television. Four television programs, 70 hours of TV, three shows in production at a time, sometimes four, 16 episodes going on at all times. That’s 350 million dollars a season. My television shows are back to back to back on Thursday night. Around the world, my shows air in 256 territories in 67 languages for an audience of 30 million people.”
Just reading those stats makes me tremble with anxiety. In Shonda’s TED talk, she refers to herself matter-of-factly as a titan, as she should. When she says she owns Thursday nights on ABC, that’s not hyperbole: The woman created Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and executive produces The Catch. Her shows seem to run forever. My personal favorite, Grey’s Anatomy, has been around so long that in an early season, one episode pivoted around that newfangled phone thing, texting.
Shonda Rhimes sits at the pinnacle of TV-land achievement. And yet she sees no reason to rest on her laurels, or refrain from gobbling up the time slots, the production money, the producing credits, the Emmys, and probably one day soon, Oscars. Her disinclination to take it easy, go off and eat pray love, distract herself with a disastrous affair, or launch a lifestyle website trafficking in fancy yoga mats makes her difficult. Her ambition is a perpetual-motion machine, by which I mean she’s as enterprising as any man. Like the famous female characters she breathes life into, she keeps smacking open life’s piñata and grabbing all the candy she can get her hands on. She seems perfectly nice about it. But the woman is unstoppable, and an unstoppable woman—especially one who already owns an entire night of network TV—is a difficult one.
Shonda Rhimes’s work ethic derives, I imagine, from having grown up watching her mom earn a Ph.D. while raising six kids. Born in Chicago in 1970, she was the baby of the family, shy and introverted, and found solace in books. Her storytelling genius revealed itself early. She liked to hide out in the kitchen pantry, where she constructed elaborate scenarios using canned fruit and vegetables as players and props. That her mom allowed this, only asking her to pass a can of peas or corn when the need arose during dinner preparation, tells you a lot about the sheer excellence of her parenting.
Shonda is a difficult woman, good girl division. She works hard, achieves a lot, and mows down the competition (pretty much everyone in her path). She has compared herself to Tracy Flick, the hyper-driven anti-heroine of the 1999 film Election. She is a cheerful, self-professed workaholic and type-A perfectionist who’s happy in the overworking zone. Shonda graduated with honors from a Catholic high school and attended Dartmouth (more honors), then the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts (more honors), where she earned her MFA in 1995. Despite all the honors, once she got out of film school it was the usual thing: dull jobs that allowed her to write at night. Aspiring screenwriters can spend a decade trying to sell a script, but a mere three years later, in 1998, she caught a break and sold a script to New Line Cinema. In 1999 she was hired to co-write HBO’s Halle Berry vehicle Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. In 2001 she wrote another script, Crossroads, for Britney Spears’s film debut (panned by the critics, $60 million at the box office). On 9/11 she was holed up in Vermont working on another film script—and in a matter of days, she reexamined her life, her priorities, and what couldn’t wait. The top of the list: becoming a mother.
Perhaps surprising for a perfectionistic titan of achievement, snagging the perfect husband—or any husband for that matter—was not on the list. In fact, although she likes having boyfriends, “I do not want a husband in my house,” she told Oprah. “I have never wanted to get married. I never played bride. I was never interested.”
She did always long to be a mother, however. Less than a year later she adopted Harper. (She would go on to adopt two other daughters with equally cool literary names: Emerson and Beckett.) While home with the baby, she flipped on the TV and discovered a world she wanted in on. She wrote and filmed a pilot for an ABC show about female war correspondents (I would totally watch that), but it wasn’t a go. Her next pilot script was Grey’s Anatomy, after which came Private Practice in 2007, and Scandal in 2012, as well as the shows she executive produces under the ShondaLand banner: The Catch, Off the Map, How to Get Away with Murder, and Still Star-Crossed. In 2017, at the age of 47, Shonda Rhimes is queen of network TV’s most successful empire, the most powerful show runner in Hollywood. Not “the most powerful black female show runner,” which is how she’s sometimes described in the more boneheaded press releases. No. Most. Powerful. Show runner.
When she was creating Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes did something that in retrospect doesn’t seem revolutionary, or even that creative: She cast African Americans, Asians, and Latinas as brilliant doctors, then wrote them as fully dimensional human beings with fully dimensional lives.
Have you ever been to a hospital? Have you taken a good look at the health care providers there? They do not look like the cast of How I Met Your Mother. There are men and women. There are Asians, African Americans, Latinos. It’s a profession that attracts all races, colors, genders, and sexual preferences. It seems as if the advances of the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement should have made the diversity on Grey’s Anatomy routine—and yet Shonda was hailed as a visionary. Network TV became more genuinely diverse. When Scandal premiered in 2012, it was the first show to star an African-American woman in 38 years. Both shows enjoy consistently high ratings, and on Thursday nights Twitter is generally afire as fans of the shows share their thoughts in real time.
I’m all for hailing Shonda Rhimes for pretty much everything. She is bold and unapologetically enterprising, and she creates difficult women characters who make no bones about wanting what they want and doing what they need to do to get it. They are brilliant, determined, and complex. They are a lot like Shonda herself. Her genius further rests in making us prefer difficult women over their easier, more accommodating counterparts. In someone else’s hands Cristina Yang, the selfish, headstrong cardiac surgeon-genius of Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital played by Sandra Oh, or Olivia Pope, the whip-smart, uncompromising crisis manager and political “fixer” played by Kerry Washington, might be unlikable: the cardinal sin of both imaginary women and real women. But Shonda has managed to make them role models. Cristina Yang was written out of Grey’s Anatomy after season 10 (she left Seattle Grace to move to Zurich to commandeer a cutting-edge cardiac center). But I still summon up her wisdom, which is, of course, Shonda’s wisdom: The men in our lives “may be dreamy but are not the sun. You are.”
In 2015, Shonda published a self-empowerment manifesto/memoir called Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person. It took me a bit to get my head around the premise: Didn’t Shonda, storytelling genius and unstoppable show runner, get where she was, in part, by saying yes to all those deal memos and series orders, to pitching yet another blockbuster show, to becoming a single mom of three, and all that that entails? But it turns out that saying yes to work stuff is easy when you’re a workaholic. Pretty much everything else sent her into a social anxiety–fueled tailspin.
Like public speaking. (To deliver that TED talk was huge.)
Like refusing to answer emails after 7 p.m. (To be unavailable to everyone in the digital age takes a depressing amount of courage and discipline.)
Like losing 150 pounds. (I’m tucking this impressive accomplishment in here, without fanfare, because Shonda despises the obsession with her transformation. “After I lost weight, I discovered that people found me valuable. Worthy of conversation. A person one could look at. A person one could compliment. A person one could admire. A person. You heard me. I discovered that NOW people saw me as a PERSON,” she wrote in her newsletter, Shondaland. Take that, weight-obsessed world.)
Like saying yes to rethinking motherhood. “I find it offensive to motherhood to call being a mother a job. Being a mother isn’t a job. It’s who someone is. It’s who I am.” She’s also against the celebration of the mom as martyr, and goes on a fine rant about how perverse it is to celebrate mothers for their ability to suffer, to make themselves small and without needs for the sake of their family. She wants to start a line of Mother’s Day greeting cards that say stuff like “Happy Mother’s Day to the mom who taught me to be strong, to be powerful, to be independent, to be competitive, to be fiercely myself and fight for what I want.”
Shonda is difficult because she’s all about owning her tremendous competence and badassery. Her achievements are huge, and there’s no reason on Earth she should pretend otherwise. Let’s take a page from her book, instead of falling over ourselves to write off our great job, our promotion, our special award as good luck or the universe smiling down on us or anything else other than our own intelligence, dedication, discipline, and talent. Let’s be like Shonda and strut a little.