Shonda Rhimes Calls Out Hollywood on Diversity Questions: 'It's Not Trailblazing to Write the World as It Actually Is'
"It just makes me a little bit sad," Rhimes said of accepting the Norman Lear Achievement Award at the Producers Guild Awards
Shonda Rhimes is often called a trailblazer – but she sees it differently.
“It’s not trailblazing to write the world as it actually is,” said the TV powerhouse, 46, while accepting the Norman Lear achievement award at the Producers Guild Awards in Los Angeles on Saturday, where the official champagne sponsor of the evening was Piper-Heidsieck.
Speaking of the diverse characters on her ABC shows – which include Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Grey’s Anatomy – Rhimes said she “created the content that I wanted to see and I created what I know is normal.”
She continued: “Basically, you are just giving me an award for being me, in which case I totally deserve this. Really, I am honored to receive it. The respect of this award does mean the world. It just makes me a little bit sad. First of all, [writing about] strong women and three dimensional people of color is something Norman was doing 40 something years ago. So how come it has to be done all over again?”
That’s when Rhimes turned the focus to the industry influencers in the audience, asking why Hollywood doesn’t offer more examples of strong black women in America outside of her programs. “What are we waiting for? I mean, I know this is a room full of producers, so probably you’re waiting for money. Clearly, money.”
Earlier in her speech, Rhimes pointed out that setting an example for content creators was not difficult.
“I have, against no odds, courageously pioneered the art of writing for people of color as if they were human beings,” she jokingly explained. “I’ve bravely gone around just casting parts for actors who were the best ones. I fearlessly faced down ABC when they completely agreed with me that Olivia Pope should be black.”
She added: “See, the thing about all this trailblazing that everyone says I’ve been doing, it’s not like I did things and then the studio or the network gasped with horror and fought me. It was 2004.”
According to Rhimes, she didn’t hear the word “no” when pitching her dynamic characters.
“They were perfectly happy to say yes,” she said. “You know what the problem was? I don’t think anyone else was asking them. I think it had been a very long time since anybody had thought to, or tried. Maybe content creators were afraid, maybe they had been hitting brick walls, maybe they had had their spirits broken. Maybe their privilege had made them oblivious. Maybe. But for me, I was just being normal.”
Then Rhimes gave credit to the Good Times writer and producer after whom her award was named, saying, “Norman Lear had already done a bunch of trailblazing 40 years earlier.”
How to Get Away with Murder‘s Viola Davis delivered a touching introduction to Rhimes. The actress pointed out that Rhimes is the first solo female recipient of the award and alluded to the ongoing controversy over the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations.
Explained Davis, 50: “In a year, a month, hell, a week in which everyone is talking about diversity, she is living proof that the curve that many people are behind was drawn by her.”
Davis also touched on Rhimes and Lear’s upcoming collaboration America Divided, which debuts on Epix this fall.
The Emmy winner said, “Because I know you’re curious, the Shonda-Norman show is neither a comedy nor a drama, but a documentary series with a political theme, so you see she’s full of surprises.”