“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.