Woman power

Viola Davis. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Viola Davis. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Diverse characters: Shonda Rhimes’ shows Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal, starring Kerry Washington (above). -- PHOTO: STARHUB
Diverse characters: Shonda Rhimes’ shows Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal, starring Kerry Washington (above). -- PHOTO: STARHUB
Diverse characters: Shonda Rhimes’ shows Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice (above) and Scandal, starring Kerry Washington. -- PHOTO: ABC
Diverse characters: Shonda Rhimes’ shows Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice (above) and Scandal, starring Kerry Washington. -- PHOTO: ABC
Diverse characters: Shonda Rhimes’ shows Grey’s Anatomy (above), Private Practice and Scandal, starring Kerry Washington. -- PHOTO: ABC
Diverse characters: Shonda Rhimes’ shows Grey’s Anatomy (above), Private Practice and Scandal, starring Kerry Washington. -- PHOTO: ABC
Shonda Rhimes is exasperated by the fact that hiring women and minorities is still considered so groundbreaking that she has to be singled out for praise for doing so. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Shonda Rhimes is exasperated by the fact that hiring women and minorities is still considered so groundbreaking that she has to be singled out for praise for doing so. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Producer Shonda Rhimes is noted for featuring females and minorities in her TV shows

As the creator of popular television shows such as Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, Shonda Rhimes has received numerous accolades, including being named among Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2013 and, last year, one of Fortune magazine's 50 most powerful women.

These plaudits have come not just because she runs these top-rated series. Time praised her shows for reflecting gender and racial diversity, with central characters who are high-achieving and also female, black, Asian and gay, while Fortune cited her impact on popular culture at large.

Yet, even though she is arguably doing more for diversity than any other writer-producer in Hollywood, Rhimes is slightly exasperated by this - by the fact that hiring women and minorities is still considered so groundbreaking that she has to be singled out for praise.

Neither does she actively try to create a particular kind of female character to challenge likeability and other traits stereotypically associated with women on screen.

All she does is "try to make human beings", she tells Life! and other reporters at a Los Angeles press event for her newest project, How To Get Away With Murder.

"I think it's interesting when people say, 'You've created complex characters' or 'You've created strong women'. And I always say, 'The alternative, I guess, is weak or simple women?'"

As far as she is concerned, "they're just women", says the 44-year-old single mother of three girls, two adopted and the youngest born last September via a surrogate.

"Women are complex characters, people are complex. To me they're just human beings, I'm just trying to write people as they are. That's the goal."

The strong women she apparently did not go out of her way to create for the screen include Scandal's brilliant crisis manager Olivia Pope played by Kerry Washington and the gifted surgeons of Grey's Anatomy.

Both shows are widely viewed primetime TV series - each occasionally accused of veering towards the soapy end of the dramatic spectrum, but nonetheless notable for deviating from the usual all-white, all-male and all-heterosexual leadcharacter template.

Before Grey's Anatomy premiered in 2005, there was nothing like its African-American, Asian and gay surgeons on TV, and it won Rhimes the Golden Globe for Outstanding Television Drama two years later.

When she unveiled Scandal in 2012, critics noted that it had been almost four long decades since a black woman was the lead character on a major hour-long TV show in the United States. The last time a black woman, Teresa Graves, headlined a major US TV series was 1974's Get Christie Love!, a show about a policewoman.

The continued success of both Grey's Anatomy and Scandal have seen Rhimes transform from a single mother who wrote scripts at home in her pyjamas to one of the most powerful people in Hollywood.

Her screenplay credits include the Britney Spears movie Crossroads (2002) and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004). But it is in TV that she reigns. The advertising revenue from her shows, which also included the Grey's spin-off Private Practice, have made the shows a golden goose for the Disney-ABC TV network.

Scandal at one point drew more than eight million viewers a week to become the most watched drama among American adults aged 18 to 49 last year. The feat is even more remarkable given that this is a time of declining primetime viewership.

Scandal is up for three acting Emmys this year, including Best Actress for Kerry Washington, while Grey's Anatomy already bagged an Emmy for Katherine Heigl and a Golden Globe for Sandra Oh in 2007.

How To Get Away With Murder, which debuts in the US next month, revolves around a classic Rhimes protagonist: the charismatic and manipulative law professor Annalise Keating, who ropes her students into defending her clients against homicide charges and becomes embroiled in a real-life whodunnit herself.

When actress Viola Davis, who plays Keating, is asked at the press event whether she has concerns about the character being a rather unsympathetic antihero, Rhimes immediately interjects, pointing out that "nobody ever asks male actors whether they worry about whether people will sympathise" with their characters.

This is in line with Rhimes' reaction to receiving the Diversity Award from the Directors' Guild of America in January this year, when she and producing partner Betsy Beers were honoured for their "outstanding commitment to and leadership in the hiring of women and ethnic minorities".

Former Guild vice-president Steven Soderbergh, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning director behind films such as Traffic and Behind The Candelabra, spoke to Life! recently about Rhimes' reaction to the award.

"You know, Shonda Rhimes is probably singlehandedly responsible for hiring more women in the business than anybody put together. It's because she creates her own shows and she runs them.

"When we gave her the award, she said she didn't know whether to be happy or angry - because she's happy of course to be recognised, but angry that this is such an anomaly, that she's getting an award for something that ought to be done by everybody," he says, adding that the industry needs more people like Rhimes in positions of power.

Speaking in January, Rhimes - who studied English literature at the Ivy League Dartmouth College - said she was "really, truly, profoundly honoured, but I was also a little p***** off... because there still needs to be an award".

According to Entertainment Weekly, she added that she did not think it was a lack of female talent but rather a "a white boys' club for 70 years" that had led to the pervasive gender bias in the industry, in which only a tiny fraction of directors and showrunners are female.

"And I don't believe that that happens out of any specific racism or sexism or prejudice. People hire their friends. They hire who they know. It's comfortable. You want to be successful, you don't want to take any chances, you don't want to rock the boat by hiring people of colour," she said.

When the pilot episode of How To Get Away With Murder airs in the US on Sept 25, on the same night as the returning seasons of the long-running Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, it will give Rhimes a total of three TV dramas on air the same night - a feat few others can lay claim to.

What is more, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder both feature an African-American woman in the lead role, representing a significant achievement in terms of diversity on the screen.

Even today, such parts are few and far between, says Davis, the 49-year-old star of the 2011 movie The Help. Shortly before she was cast in the new show, she recalls that she kept saying: "Why don't they make roles for black actresses who look like me - me! And who are sexy, mysterious, messy..."

The actress' best known character was Abilene, the maid she played in the Oscar-winning movie The Help, but Davis believes the flawed and fabulous Professor Keating feels more true-to-life to her. "Abilene was a beautiful character, very nurturing, but she wasn't necessarily the truth. This seems more truthful to me."

Yet when queried about the significance of having women like these on screen and if she views having three shows on air as a victory for diversity, Rhimes, once again, refuses to be drawn.

"I'm just getting up to go to work every day and we're all doing our jobs. I mean, it's exciting and it's a great vote of confidence from ABC, and that's fantastic. But, you know, we have shows to make and that's always been my focus. I don't really think about programming and I don't think about ratings. I don't worry about those things, I just worry about the characters."

stlife@sph.com.sg

Scandal Season 3 is airing in Singapore on Star World (StarHub TV Channel 501, SingTel mio TV Channel 301) on Tuesday at 10.35pm.


The TV shows of Shonda Rhimes

Grey's Anatomy (2005 - ongoing)

The show was an instant hit, with the voiceover of the title character and trainee surgeon Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) giving it a distinctive feel and an immediate intimacy with viewers.

While the blend of medical and personal dramas was not new, Shonda Rhimes - as creator, head writer and executive producer - broke the mould by including atypical female, Asian, black and lesbian characters in the core cast, who has included Sandra Oh, Isaiah Washington, Sara Ramirez and Patrick Dempsey.

Never mind that some critics and fans have taken it to task for its increasingly soap operatic and disaster-prone story lines: As it tees up for its 11th season next month, Grey's Anatomy is still one of the most-watched shows on American television, with a slew of awards and nominations under its belt, including the 2007 Golden Globe for Best TV Series.

Private Practice (2007 - 2013)

While Grey's Anatomy was set in a hospital in drizzly Seattle, the California spin-off Rhimes created took place in a private clinic by the beach in sunny Santa Monica, California, with an even sudsier plot to match. The cast - led by Kate Walsh, Audra MacDonald, Taye Diggs and Amy Brenneman - also had to put up with some dramatic deaths and other mishaps. It was cancelled after soft ratings for its sixth season.

Scandal (2012 - ongoing)

This is the story of the Washington DC crisismanagement firm run by Olivia Pope, the impossibly gorgeous and whip-smart former White House director of communications who, it emerges, has been having a torrid affair with the US President, played by Tony Goldwyn. The sexy and slickly edited show has been a ratings juggernaut, ending its third season earlier this year with 10.5 million viewers in the US, making it the most-watched drama among 18- to 49-year-olds.

It has made a star of actress Kerry Washington, who is up for Best Actress at the Emmys later this month. Earlier this year, the show won the prestigious Peabody Award in the US, which is normally given to weightier fare such as Breaking Bad, with the awards committee describing the soapy political thriller as "part West Wing and part Dynasty".

How To Get Away With Murder (debuts in the US on Sept 25)

Rhimes serves as executive producer, with Grey's Anatomy writer Peter Nowalk as the creator. The show is named for the class that Professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) teaches her law students every week, when she ropes them into helping her defend a murder client.

It will air in the same three-hour primetime block as Scandal and Grey's Anatomy, which has led some commentators to proclaim Rhimes the most powerful woman in TV right now.

Like Scandal, it has another strong and complex African-American woman as the lead, along with other minority and gay characters, thus continuing Rhimes' record of promoting diversity in her productions.

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