“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity” – Viola Davis

Shonda Rhimes

Stereotypes of gender and race permeate our everyday discourses from classrooms to politics and throughout the media. When we aren’t viewing individuals through the impressions granted by stereotypes, we are commonly white-washing our outlooks across matters; from mental illness, physical health, poverty, education and so much more, we downplay the intersections of race and gender. There is typically little room in society for minority groups to speak up for themselves, to challenge the stereotypes allocated to them and to reinforce positive change; in the case that this does happen, societal ignorance hinders our ability to listen and understand. More often than not, stereotypes are perpetuated in these spheres more than they are challenged. Moreover, even when race is at the center of discussion, how often do we hear from (and listen to!) Black women?

Myself being an avid Shondaland-lover, it wasn’t until recently that I realized how my eyes had been opened by Shonda Rhimes’ oddly unique approach to television. I say “oddly unique” as she produces multiple compelling television series that challenge conventional divisions of status and power, simultaneously defying social stereotypes of gender and race. Shonda Rhimes is an incredibly talented television producer, screenwriter and author. Some of her most popular shows such as Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder are so compelling that they border addictive. Most importantly, Rhimes’ shows are reflective of the minority experience and — as is otherwise obscured on television  — take on the representation of minority groups in positions of prowess and power. Rhimes has used her platform to actively defy stereotypes and reinforce positive conceptions of people of color and of women.

Where the media realm preoccupies itself with associations and stereotypes of poverty, of welfare and of brutality, Shonda Rhimes has made advancements towards diversifying our frames of mind. Grey’s Anatomy’s Dr. Miranda Bailey (played by Chandra Wilson) serves as an otherwise unrepresented figure of a Black woman in power: from the series’ beginning, she was being primed to act as Chief of Surgery. The portrayal of Dr. Bailey’s character embodies many circumstances which we often ignore; she is a petite Black woman who struggled long and hard to get her voice heard; she frequently grapples with her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in the operating room and most recently, her character shed light on the oft misidentified symptoms of women experiencing heart attacks. She does not lower her voice for the comfort of others, is both maternal and professional, compassionate and competitive in her field. Her character development shows the arduous task of simply being heard: once an abashed Black, female intern, she had to work harder than any of her white female and male peers to achieve her indomitable success. Without question, Rhimes has been sure to incorporate the common, everyday disadvantages that accompany Dr. Bailey’s racial and gender identities while viewers watched her overcome them all. Though a plight that she shouldn’t have to face, the very representation of these circumstances is vital to an ever-growing understanding.

How to Get Away With Murder’s Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) is another incredible representation of a powerful Black woman. Davis’ figure, the series protagonist and a staunch lawyer and law professor, is a well-respected, widely known, and fierce-with-confidence woman in and out of the courtroom. She is dark-skinned and sexy, quick witted and brilliant, and she does not shy away from a challenge, like addressing the deeply-rooted racism in our criminal justice system to the supreme court judges (I know it’s not real, but the monologue was phenomenal.

The upsetting truth is that this isn’t real life. In real life, Black women and men are subject to harmful stereotypes that lead to diminished respect, diminished opportunity and an absence of optimistic, constructive representation. Black women, despite their strength and power, remain largely unheard. Shonda Rhimes is doing incredible work by creating characters that have never before been televised; time and time again, she represents and advocates for the capability and strength of women and particularly women of color. Rhimes is working towards altering the script, changing the narratives, and diversifying the outlook, but we can’t expect television series to do the job for us. When will this become a reality? How can we spur a new social dynamic and transform the conventional structures of power?

2 thoughts on ““The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity” – Viola Davis

  1. Shonda shows are the best shows! Unfortunately, they are fairly unique. I recently did an analysis of the portrayal of Winston and Coach, the two main Black characters on New Girl. In one episode, they were given so many tropes and representations that stem back to minstrelsy and pre-civil rights era stereotypes. Watching Shonda shows, these tropes are confronted head on; while Annalise Keating is a representation of the “strong Black woman,” she exhibits weakness again and again on the show. Her character is much more complex and layered than most other representations of people of color on television now.

  2. WOW, WELL DONE JULIA. Being a lover of all things Shonda Rhimes myself, I related to this blog post on so many levels. I think that these positive changes show Black women and power and strive to disavow the negative attributes and perceptions that they often receive in society. At the beginning of Grey’s Anatomy, the interns working directly under Dr. Bailey referred to her as “the Nazi”. This nickname was meant to define Dr. Bailey as rude, loud, aggressive, bossy, and even bitchy. As the episodes and series continued, the interns (and other surgeons) form a closer bond with Dr. Bailey and learn that she is none of those things, rather, she is qualified, hardworking, an effective leader and doctor, and responsible. I think that this shift that was executed on Grey’s could be the way that society itself changes. As we listen to one another and hear the perspectives of women of color that have been put on the back burner for far too long, the structures of power will change.

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