Shonda Rhimes’ impact on television

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Haley Taylor, Contributing Writer

With the release of the second season of the Netflix show “Bridgerton” on March 25, which has recently hit 193 million viewing hours, the spotlight is once again on television producer and writer Shonda Rhimes. 

Rhimes’ legacy in pop culture has been cemented for years. She is the brain behind many hit shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “How to Get Away With Murder.” Her career has defied the narrow expectations put on Black women in the entertainment industry. 

Kristen Warner, a UA associate professor in communication and information sciences, focuses on television and film in her research and classes. As a critical race theorist in the creative media sphere, Warner examines race’s role in the entertainment business. 

Warner said there is a disparity in the number of Black women who are showrunners, executive producers, compared to the people who have power and leverage in the industry. 

As of 2020, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media reported that women of color accounted for 36.6% of staff writers, 15.1% of co-executive producers, 7.4% of executive producers, and 6.9% of showrunners.

A Black woman reaching the level Rhimes has is an anomaly in the entertainment space. 

Rhimes skyrocketed into the pop culture lexicon with the premiere of “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2005. She is the creator, executive producer and head writer of the show. The hospital drama is still running, although Rhimes no longer writes for the show.

In 2019, “Grey’s Anatomy” broke the record for the longest-running medical drama, beating out “ER.” The first four seasons of the show ranked top 10 among all viewers on the Nielsen ratings.

Rhimes later created a spinoff, “Private Practice,” which ran from 2007 to 2013. 

After several other shows that did not get picked up by the ABC like “Inside the Box” and “Off the Map,” Rhimes’s next hit show was “Scandal.” 

“Scandal” debuted in 2011 and starred Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope. The lead actress was a Black woman, something that was not typical for prime-time dramas. 

There has been a long-standing problem with the representation of Black women on TV shows, especially as leads. Black girls and women make up 6.5% of the United States population, but only 3.7% of leading roles in the 100 top-grossing films of the last decade

Another Shondaland creation, “How to Get Away with Murder,” starred Oscar winner Viola Davis. The show ran from 2014 to 2020. All of these shows are under Shondaland, the production company that Rhimes started after the inception of “Grey’s Anatomy.” 

Through Shondaland, Rhimes also created initiatives to help other aspiring writers and producers. In 2019, she launched the Women’s Directing Mentorship. There are a small number of production companies owned by Black women, including HOORAE by Issa Rae and ARRAY NOW by Ava DuVernay.

Shondaland had a partnership affiliation with Disney-ABC, which is why the shows ran on ABC Network. In 2017, Rhimes landed another partnership, this time with the streaming service Netflix.

The multiyear, $100 million deal entails that every future production of Shondaland will be a Netflix Original. Previous seasons of “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy” are also now on Netflix.

Rhimes released “Inventing Anna” and “Bridgerton” on Netflix. Bridgerton is a regency-era show based on Julia Quinn’s novels. The second season was also on Netflix’s top 10 in 92 countries. 

Rhimes has made a conscious effort to cast Black people and people of color in major roles on her show. 

Her most recent show, “Bridgerton,” is set in regency-era London. Instead of casting Black people or people of color in servant roles, many of the actors of color play high-class nobility. Rhimes took preconceived notions about that era and flipped them on their heads. 

The power of media is its ability to shape a population’s opinion on something and create a “social reality.” There is this idea of “normalizing” in television: taking something deemed unbelievable or not commonly done and placing it at the forefront. 

Rhimes is impacting the industry both on and off the screen. She is creating an environment that will lead to more Shondalands in the future. 

Questions? Email the culture desk at culture@cw.ua.edu.