Behind the Scenes in Shondaland

Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes’s new memoir, talks about the year that turned a writer and role model into, finally, a star.

Shonda Rhimes arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills in 2015. (Danny Moloshok / Reuters)
“I really hate the word ‘diversity,’” Shonda Rhimes declared in a speech at the Human Rights Campaign Gala earlier this year. “It suggests something … other. As if it is something … special. Or rare. Diversity! As if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV.”
The thing is: There has been something unusual about all that. But Shonda Rhimes has been making it significantly less so. And not just in front of the camera, in the Matt Damonian way, but behind it. In her already iconic speech at the Emmy Awards this year—“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there”—Viola Davis, star of the Rhimes-produced How to Get Away With Murder, echoed this idea that “diversity” is becoming, in the best sense, banal. “Here’s to all the writers,” Davis said, the people “who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.” She then name-checked, on that Emmy stage, TV writers and producers and executives: Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, and Shonda Rhimes.
This is a moment not only when a black actress can (finally) win an Emmy for a leading dramatic role, but also when the role of writers themselves—the people who work, behind the scenes, to create new worlds, and in the process a new world—has been elevated. Writers, on television in particular, have for the most part been isolated and infrastructural and invisible. They have made the machinery of Hollywood, the logic used to go; other people, however—the actors, the directors—have made the magic. Which is another assumption that Rhimes has helped to change. She is creating new worlds that look more like the real world than TV has before, and yet they are distinctly her worlds. Shondaland isn’t just Rhimes’s production company; it is also a declaration of authorial intent. It is an insistence that writers deserve recognition in the same way that actors and directors do. It is a quiet, but determined, bid for celebrity.
Given all that—and given, too, the fact that Shonda Rhimes is at this point a bonafide star—you would not know that Rhimes is also, by nature and for a long time by practice, incredibly shy. Not just in the would-rather-stay-home-and-watch-Game of Thrones-than-go-to-the-party kind of shy—though it’s that kind, too—but also the crippling, pervasive kind of shy that is sometimes diagnosed as “social anxiety” and that can, as the pathology-focused epithet suggests, limit one’s life significantly.
Her self, however, is another thing Rhimes has changed. Her transformation from withdrawn workaholic to celebrity—one that took place, roughly, during the course of 2014—is the subject of Rhimes’s new book, Year of Yes: a memoir that doubles as a later-in-life bildungsroman. What happened, Rhimes writes, was this: On Thanksgiving in 2013, she was chatting with her sister Delorse as they cooked the family meal. Rhimes mentioned a party invitation she had gotten; she mentioned, too, that she was turning it down. “You never say yes to anything,” Delorse replied.
It was one of those off-handed comments that sticks and pokes and itches; Rhimes realized, eventually, how true it was, how it had infused a life that on the surface seemed complete—a crazy-successful career, three crazy-awesome daughters, lots of crazy-loyal friends—with subsurface sadness. Rhimes, she realized, had gradually become tired and overweight and withdrawn, in a way that prevented her from truly enjoying her success. She was “miserable,” she writes. “Truly, deeply unhappy.”
And she realized that “losing yourself happens one no at a time.”
So: She decided to will herself, essentially, into happiness by overcoming the anxiety and the fear and the isolation. She decided to start saying “yes” to stuff. To, specifically, pretty much everything that came her way.
From that decision sprang, among other things, an appearance on Kimmel, and a cameo on The Mindy Project, and the delivery of a widely shared and much-beloved commencement speech at her alma mater, Dartmouth, and appearances on several magazine covers, and the acceptance of many, many awards, and also that speech at the Human Rights Campaign Gala, and also her general conversion from a Writer to a Star. From it sprang her decision to lose the weight she had put on while workaholicking and single-mothering—127 pounds in all. From it, too, sprang her decision not to marry a man who was otherwise, she writes, “an incredible human being.” And her recognition that she simply does not want to get married. And her further recognition that that desire is 100 percent okay.
Rhimes is, unsurprisingly, a fantastic memoirist: Her writing is conversational and witty and lyrical, inflected with the supple human breathiness you might expect from a person who spends her days writing dialogue. It features lots of great punchlines. (“And then we had one of the most honest and interesting conversations I’ve ever had with a complete stranger while suffering a deficit of oxygen to my brain due to the tightness of my Spanx.”) It features occasional, chatty, second-person asides. (“When I meet you, let’s hold hands and weep for humanity, okay?”) It will probably make you extremely envious of the people who have actually gotten to meet Shonda Rhimes.
But Year of Yes, as its name would suggest—and as the outlined icon of the Golden Leaping Lady on its cover makes unmistakably clear—is also in many ways a side-door self-help book. It features the kind of genial advice-giving that you’ll also find in books from Rhimes’s fellow Successful Women of Hollywood: Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, Tina Fey. Year of Yes is full of, as Amy Poehler put it in her own Yes-titled memoir, “light emotional sharing.” It is also full of advice on how to—in words borrowed from the lexicon of Grey’s Anatomy—“dance it out, stand in the sun, and be your own person.”
In all that, though, are buried pieces of advice that concern not just Rhimes’s readers, but everyone. Society. Rhimes mentions how much she hates being asked, usually by reporters, questions that begin, “As an African American woman, how do you feel about ____?” (“Here’s a tip. The answer, no matter how you fill in that blank, is always the same: I don’t know. Since I’ve never been anything other than a black woman, I can’t tell you how specifically anything feels any more than someone could tell someone how things feel as a white woman. It’s a creepy question. Stop asking it.”) She also mentions how much she hates being asked how she accomplishes so much as a single mother. And that “I find it offensive to motherhood to call being a mother a job. Being a mother isn’t a job. It’s who someone is.” She mentions the dizzying expectations placed on people who are what she calls F.O.D.s: “First. Only. Differents”—the people, like her, who are saddled with the heavy pressures of cultural trailblazing. “It irritated me to my core,” she writes, “that we live in an era of ignorance great enough that it was still necessary for me to be a role model, but that didn’t change the fact that I was one.”
Despite and because of all the changes, she remains one. Year of Yes is a book about the shifts taking place in Hollywood right now, and in the world right now, in the guise of a friendly memoir. It is, like Shondaland itself, making a statement. It is insisting that it is time for the people who used to be invisible to come forward and be seen.
Here is another passage of that Human Rights Campaign speech, the one in which Rhimes downplayed the value of “diversity.” It offers, in the hope for a better world, a better word:

I am making TV look like the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal WAY more than 50 percent of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary. I am making the world of television look NORMAL.

I am normalizing television.

You should get to turn on the TV and see your tribe. And your tribe can be any kind of person, any one you identify with, anyone who feels like you, who feels like home, who feels like truth. You should get to turn on the TV and see your tribe, see your people, someone like you out there, existing. So that you know on your darkest day that when you run (metaphorically or physically run), there is somewhere, someone, to run to. Your tribe is waiting for you.

You are not alone.

The goal is that everyone should get to turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them and loves like them. And just as important, everyone should turn on the TV and see someone who doesn’t look like them and love like them. Because, perhaps then, they will learn from them.

Perhaps then, they will not isolate them.

Marginalize them.

Erase them.

Perhaps they will even come to recognize themselves in them.

Perhaps they will even learn to love them.