Diversity in film and television came into the spotlight in 2016 with #OscarsSoWhite. A USC study in 2016 found only about a quarter of speaking characters belonged to non-white racial/ethnic groups. In “Reel Representation,” columnist Olivia Mazzucato discusses different issues of race and representation in media as they relate to new movies and TV shows.
Producer and showrunner Shonda Rhimes won the 2016 Norman Lear Achievement Award in Television. During her acceptance speech, she said something I’ll never forget: “It’s not trailblazing to write the world as it actually is.”
I wanted to tattoo those words on my face and shout them to the world.
The Norman Lear Achievement Award in Television is named for the famed producer who created groundbreaking shows that showcased a diversity of opinion and cast. Lear created “All in the Family,” which dealt with controversial issues ranging from racism to abortion, and produced “Sanford and Son,” which is often credited with paving the way for other sitcoms about black characters.
It seemed only fitting that Rhimes, the powerhouse behind shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder” – also known as ABC’s “Thank God It’s Thursday” block of programming – should receive the award. Her shows are a continuation of Lear’s legacy.
Rhimes’ approach to on-screen diversity has always been one that I’ve admired. For one, she doesn’t like the word “diversity.” She prefers the term normalization, the idea that rather than doing something extraordinary, she is telling stories about the ordinary.
In her eyes, her shows are not revolutionary; they are simply reflections of the world in which we live. Her characters are an extension of this belief – they are imperfect, dysfunctional and human, and they resemble people from the real world.
The TGIT block does not shy away from flawed characters of color. Within the confines of each show, people of color are cast as heroes, villains and every shade of morality in between. This multiplicity works towards Rhimes’ idea of normalization, showing the vast array of morality within a multitude of characters, regardless of their skin color.
Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), the lead character of “How to Get Away with Murder,” is equal parts admirable and problematic. On one hand, she’s a gifted lawyer who owns any courtroom she walks into and protects her own students with tenacity and ferocity.
On the other hand, she’s a cocky, struggling alcoholic, and protects her students as a way to protect herself. Her romantic relationships are messy – she cheats on her husband, and at times it’s unclear if she cares about her police-officer lover or if she is just using him for information.
She’s allowed the complexities and flaws of a real person.
I think often, there’s a resistance toward moral ambiguity. The result is a stark dichotomy between the good guys and the bad guys, rather than a gradation. A person of color is either demonized or put up on a pedestal without the nuance afforded to many white characters. For me, this distinction makes characters much harder to relate to because I feel limited by their dichotomy. As a woman of color, I’m not allowed to be the imperfect person that I am; I have to confine myself to a limited binary idea.
An antihero is a protagonist who isn’t conventionally good or heroic. Of late, antiheroes have come to dominate the television landscape, with many shows being built around the character of the complicated antihero. However, antiheroes are predominantly played by white men – from the original antihero, Tony Soprano of “The Sopranos,” to more recent iterations like Walter White of “Breaking Bad” and Don Draper of “Mad Men.”
It’s as if white men are allowed the privilege of moral dubiousness with the possibility of redemption, while women and people of color are confined to a binary of good and evil. Of late, there has been a trend towards creating white female antiheroes, like Carrie Mathison of “Homeland” and Claire Underwood of “House of Cards,” but people of color are often conspicuously missing from the role.
Both “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder” feature antiheroes as the focus of the show, and both are women of color. It’s empowering to watch Annalise and Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) of “Scandal” be fluid and nuanced – rather than rigid and flat – because it gives us as an audience permission to be imperfect. As time has gone on, we’ve seen more antiheroes that break the mold.
Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) from “Grey’s Anatomy” is an example of an unconventional character who appeals to me on a personal level. In many ways, she defies stereotypes placed on Asian-Americans.
She’s demanding, ambitious and ruthless, but she’s also passionate about medicine and fiercely loyal to her friends. When I first watched the show, her character spoke to me in a way that I had never experienced. For the first time, I saw a strong-minded, capable, selfish Asian-American woman on screen who was allowed to make mistakes. I felt a deep connection to her fallibility and her depth.
Lessons can be learned from the TGIT lineup, both for other television shows and Hollywood as a whole. Through her normalized writing and producing, Rhimes conveys that a woman of color can carry a show and a narrative, so long as the writers do the character justice. Who’s to say if Annalise or Olivia would be as compelling or successful in the hands of another writer or producer?
Rhimes’ outlook on diversity and representation is the future of Hollywood.
She acknowledges that there’s still progress to be made. Her insistence that she be recognized for her achievements as a storyteller rather than a forerunner of on-screen diversity is valid. She doesn’t set out to make groundbreaking television – she just creates the type of television she wants to see, representative of a world she knows to exist.
But until television as a whole becomes more inclusive, until diversity is normalized, it’s important to continue to celebrate the successes and achievements of someone like Shonda Rhimes, who is leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the industry.