Diversity is a white person’s word. According to Shonda Rhimes, it’s a term that separates people and keeps us apart. Instead, Ms. Rhimes suggests we use the term “normalization,”which includes everyone’s experiences and leaves no one out.
This is a personal matter for Ms. Rhimes, who has stated that she only writes about one thing — being alone. Watch any of her shows, like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” or “How To Get Away With Murder” and you’ll see they all deal with the complicated issue of human connection.
“How To Get Away With Murder”, for example, focuses on Viola Davis’ portrayal of Annalise Keating, a successful lawyer and teacher. Despite her status, her work, and her social circle, she feels alone and carries that burden with her wherever she goes. She attempts to connect to various individuals (her husband, her lover, her students, and her staff), but we can always see the strain of keeping everyone at a distance and while yearning to connect in a deeply intimate way.
In “Scandal”, Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, manages to avoid scandal after scandal in her work at a crisis management firm, but can’t escape her own personal crises. We see her struggle to maintain connections, even as she attempts to retain a sense of self. Her tenuous relationships bring into sharp relief the fact that she, like everyone else, brings baggage to any connection.
“Grey’s Anatomy” focuses on Dr. Meredith Grey’s rise from surgical intern to Chief of General Surgery, the relationships of the medical staff, and the heartache that comes from being a human being. Weathering through the normal human experiences of loss, grief, and death brings people together, no matter where we’ve come from or where we’re going.
In all of these shows, the ensemble casts are full of characters who don’t often appear on other shows (or networks) in such prominent placing. Lead roles are played by women, people with African, Asian and Latin heritage inhabit regular roles, and even other MOGAI people can see themselves on every one of these shows. The end result? We can see that we aren’t alone. That’s something we all need to hear from time to time.So why aren’t other television networks normalizing their stories? Why don’t they reflect the real world, as Ms. Rhimes does in her shows?
Even though we pride ourselves on being “modern” and supportive of equality, the reality is that we just aren’t there. Those of us who are privileged because of our color don’t often take others’ experiences into account because we ourselves haven’t seen or lived it. And if someone begins taking up more space, we tend to complain, even if we’ve had most of the space to ourselves until now.
There’s no reason shows have to be filled with white (most often male) characters. That doesn’t reflect real life at all. To be able to tell honest stories, we need to be honest with ourselves and recognize that being proud of “diversity” just enables those in power to pat themselves on the back for promoting “equality” without really having to raise the bar.
It’s why, as frustrating as it is for people like Ms. Rhimes to receive awards for diversity, we still talk about the inclusivity of her shows like it’s a marvel. There aren’t many other people in the business who have normalized their stories and populated them with characters who aren’t stereotypes, caricatures, or only put in to fill a quota.Ms. Rhimes’ characters are each treated with dignity, though they are flawed, broken, and raw. They feel like real people because they were created to reflect us. In making shows like “How To Get Away With Murder”, “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy”, Ms. Rhimes has carved out a safe space for people who get grouped into the “diverse” category. Even those who aren’t labeled as such watch these shows, and the hope is that they come away with a little more understanding about the human race. We’re all human. None of us are “other”.
The ABC network and Shonda Rhimes are at the forefront of the push for normalizing television. With shows like “Ugly Betty”, “Jane The Virgin”, “Fresh Off The Boat”, “The Fosters”, “Black-ish”, and “Cristela”, the commitment is apparent. With the continued success of Ms. Rhimes’ shows (“Grey’s Anatomy” is in its twelfth season, “Scandal” is in its fifth, and “How To Get Away With Murder” has begun season two), it’s also proving to be financially beneficial, which of course helps the network in deciding to promote and prolong normalizing its shows.Thanks to people like Ms. Rhimes, we are seeing a slow but sure movement toward the normalization of television. We have a long way to go, but the first steps are always the most difficult. Some of the people watching her shows will follow in her footsteps as storytellers one day, and her example will result in further progress.
Remember: we’re passionate about what’s important to us. We tell the stories we know, the ones that we live. If we can only tell a tiny percentage of the stories people experience, we’re not only discouraging healthy community today, we’re doing a disservice to future generations, who all deserve to have their stories told.Image Credits: Disney | ABC Television