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Ten Times Shonda Rhimes Slayed Us With Social Justice

*Content warning: Brief mention of sexual assault, abortion. Spoiler alert as well!*

Let’s be honest – being a feminist and finding TV shows and movies that don’t make you want to cry while holding your Rosie the Riveter poster is a tough task. If there are any characters besides white cis straight men, they are usually written and performed to fulfill a stereotype surrounding one or more of their identities. For example, the “gay best friend” trope is often used in plots to spice up the main character’s life. Instead of writing a well developed, complex, queer character, the easier route is to create a flat but “fabulous” character. The character doesn’t exist with their own personality and depth, but as a tool to drive someone else’s story… and to be gay. Some of you might be thinking: well, what’s the matter with that?

The problem arises when those overly imagined stereotypes are the only representation we are shown.

When we turn on the television, we see one of two things: Little to no representation or a stereotypical one, and with this we are being deprived of authenticity and diversity. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche said it beautifully: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” But enter Shonda Rhimes: our feminist Jesus, God’s gift to nighttime television, and an all around bad ass human:

Rhimes became a TV favorite when she created Grey’s Anatomy, a medical drama known for it’s emotional scenes, sex, and groundbreaking topics. More recently she has written and produced two of the most popular TV shows of the moment: Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder. Not only are these shows entertaining (Presidential level drama and murder coverups? Come on!), but Rhimes gives us the diversity and authentic representation we’ve been craving that other television shows have been depriving us of. The three protagonists in Grey’s, Scandal, and HTGAWM are all complex women in positions of power with issues other than the people they’re dating, married to, or sleeping with. Even further than that, two out of the three are black women. And one is even (canonically) bisexual!

On top of this representation, she serves us social justice and relevant topics in every episode. Here’s ten times she slayed social justice.

1. Calling out forms of privilege

Whether it be Laurel calling Frank “Mr. Mansplain” (and constantly checking people on EVERY classist, sexist, or ableist thing they say), or Olivia Pope standing in a #BlackLivesMatter protest, to episodes dedicated to mirroring current, real life social issues, you cannot watch a Shonda Rhimes show without being schooled on at least one type of injustice.

2. Transgender issues featuring an ACTUAL trans person.

Recently on How to Get Away with Murder, Rhimes centered an entire episode around a trans woman escaping her abusive husband. She did not shy away from addressing numerous forms of transmisogyny specifically, within the criminal justice system. The best part? A trans actress, Alexandra Billings, played a trans character. It might not seem like a big deal, but in the world of “Let’s Have Cis Men play Trans Women and invalidate their experiences” (I’m looking at you Danish Girl, Dallas Buyers Club, and the upcoming film Anything), this was a breath of fully thought out representation.

3. Normalizing and representing people who get abortions.

The first time I saw an abortion portrayed on a television show was on Grey’s Anatomy. I was a senior in high school and didn’t realize the importance of Rhimes’ choice to have Cristina have autonomy over her own body and choices. Not only that, the decision to not just simply have the character say “I had an abortion,” but to show the process, both physically and emotionally, was an incredible one. More recently, Olivia Pope had an abortion at the end of this season. These scenes and storylines give representation to people who have had or are going to have abortions, as well as help fight the stigma surrounding the topic.

4. Allowing black women to be complex.

Rhimes makes it clear that black women don’t have just have one narrative or attribute. Both Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating are fully developed characters who don’t spend time apologizing for their complicated identities. They defy and complicate the ways we are socialized to view black women. Olivia and Annalise are powerful women: beautiful, in control, smart, unapologetic, sexual, vulnerable, black, and none of those qualities are mutually exclusive.

5. Callie Torres v. Biphobia

Grey’s Anatomy character Callie Torres is constantly confronting biphobia in her relationships and among her coworkers. Through her relationships with men and with women, her identity as a bisexual person was visible throughout. While family members, coworkers, and partners tried to invalidate her identity, she constantly fought back.

6. How To Get Away With. . .Slut Shaming.

When Annalise is called to the stand to testify in her husband’s murder case, the prosecuting lawyer instantly jumps to slut shaming as a tactic to discredit her. By asking her invasive questions like, “How long after you first had drinks did you [two] have sex?” and “Was the sexual attraction immediate?” Things that Rhimes made clear, through later dialogue and plot, would not be asked of a man in Annalise’s position.
7. Rape in the military.

Scandal did not shy away from the tough issues when it comes to the increased amount of sexual assault in the disproportionately high amount of sexual assault in the military. When VP Susan Ross meets a young military service woman, Amy Martin, who was raped by her superior officer, the situation plays out on screen similarly to how it does in real life. The victim was blamed, given no power, and was told not to file a report against her rapist. Although the episode ended with Martin’s attacker being found guilty, it was made clear that too often there is no justice or fully carried out punishment for rapists in the military. 

8. “Dog Whistle Politics”

When word gets out on Scandal that Olivia Pope and the President are having an affair, the blame (as always) is put on the woman. Her credibility is in question not only because of her gender and its affects on her position of power, but also her race. This is where Rhimes fights back. She has an entire episode devoted to calling out the idea of “Dog Whistle Politics,” a type of coded language that appears to mean one thing to the majority of people, but have a specific, marginalizing message to the targeted subgroup. Watch the Gladiators destroy the racist, sexist media here.
9. She promotes friendship among women, not thoughtless competition. 

We live in a world where we constantly pit women and girls against one another. The Bachelor, Bad Girls Club, Desperate Housewives are just a few examples. It’s refreshing to see meaningful and healthy friendships and relationships between strong women. Although they exist in all of her shows, of course I have to talk about Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang. They were more than best friends and coworkers, they were each other’s “person,” soulmates, number ones. Their friendship was celebrated and emphasized more than ANY romantic relationship they were in.

(Watch here for some of their best moments: Meredith + Cristina 4EVER.)

10. In every character she writes.

Cristina Yang, Quinn Perkins, Eli Pope, Annalise Keating, Meredith Grey, Connor Walsh, the list goes on and on. Rhimes not only gives us representation of diverse, individual people, but she lets those characters encourage and perform social justice in their careers, their personal lives, and just by existing. It’s not just about writing diverse characters but allowing them to live diverse lives.

Thank you Shonda Rhimes, for writing about people like me. Messy, imperfect, pretty queer, strong, complex, and completely bad ass. And thank you for always feeding our activist appetites every Thursday night. #TGIT. Don’t forget that Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder are currently back with all new seasons! Check them out Thursday’s at 8 and 10PM.

 

Deanna is a graduate of Fredonia State and a current student at Oswego. She is a Beyonce lover and seeker of justice. She enjoys writing about pop culture, advice, powerful women, and good books to read.
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