I think my love for Shonda Rhimes is fairly well known. The day Grey’s Anatomy premiered, March 27, 2005, I was an unhappy, angry 16-year-old high school sophomore. I was lost as a scholarship kid, black girl, semi-intellectual, semi-creative who couldn’t quite pin down her people, her passion, her direction, or her place amid a sea of both supporting and microaggressing cast members. I felt so alone, like every teenager does, and what’s more, I didn’t have the words that I would learn in college and from the internet – words like “microaggress” and “privilege” and “blackness” and “marginalization” – that would let me properly express what I felt was happening to me, and so even with my best efforts I couldn’t find myself a way out or in or through.
Then I, or maybe my mom, decided to keep the TV on for some random new show that we would half heartedly watch. It was a Sunday, which meant it was the night that my mom put on any old crap while she was ironing clothes. And I probably did not have homework, or if I did, I had no interest in doing it. So I watched, too.
And there it was.
I, again, did not have the words for what it was I was seeing or feeling. I didn’t know about mirrors and windows. I just knew that what I was watching was revolutionary, what I was seeing was a world that actually looked like the one that I’d grown up in. But unlike mine (at least in high school), in which the ways in which I differed or deviated from others were pointed out all the time, this world looked like mine and was safer – it was more like the one I’d been in pre-private school, and it was the world that had been denied me as I was trying, like any teenager, to become myself, to become creative, to become intellectual, to become a person.
Everyone on that screen was just there. Existing and living their fictional lives and going about their business. I didn’t even know what was going to happen; I didn’t have any access to identifying with the characters’ lives, knowing nothing of college or careers or sex or romance or living on your own, but it was enough for me to know that at least in one world out there, people were finding their people and being people and not being tagged as those people.
And as the years went on, both in the show and my life, it resembled more and more the world I lived in and it more and more presented me with ways to play out and see the consequences of all the platonic, sexual, racial, and feminist conundrums I was facing in my life. If there is one thing that show does well, it is presenting like five sides of every major feminist argument or issue ever to have come up. But it also does a lot of other things well.
What Grey’s Anatomy also did for me was tell me that worlds like mine and worlds like Seattle Grace were allowed. That meant that every time I have wanted to quit writing and quit trying to get a job in television production, every time I’ve tried to tell myself that quitting my non-dream job was a bad idea because at least it was a job, every time I’ve told myself to settle (last week I had a moment in which I told myself to settle, but it was a kind of “I will settle in the fall but there’s still a chance that something big can happen), I’ve remembered that worlds like the ones I want to create, co-create, or recreate in print or onscreen – ones I’ve started working on and others I’ve just considered – are fucking allowed to exist. Shonda Rhimes may not want this credit, but she damn well broke the glass ceiling – maybe not the one in which women and people of color and women of color in particular are respected or de rigueur, but she broke the glass ceiling for girls like me who were bowing to the status quo and assuming that our identities and our stories would never be welcomed.
So every time somebody makes fun of me for my unwavering devotion to every season of Grey’s Anatomy or any other Shondaland productions (even Off the Map), I tell them that and more. I will tell them that Meredith Grey told me that you are allowed to own what makes you dark and twisty even if you don’t have a traditionally “difficult” background,
Anyway, so Rhimes wrote a book* called Year of Yes [IndieBound] and I flipped out when I heard about it, and then I got it from the library (but it’s now on my to-purchase list because I want it sitting proudly in my home library), and then I read it. And finished it.
I mean, in many ways it’s just your usual celebrity book, which is to say it’s not even a memoir so much as just a collection of chapters, not even essays. Those often make sense, but I was a bit surprised given that this celebrity is a writer, not someone famous for a different skill. It also randomly has some of the speeches she has delivered at places, which are some damn good pieces of writing.
At times I was disappointed, because it just seemed so “you go girl!” “just make it happen!” and other insulting platitudes that fill self-help books. And this was not meant to be a self-help book. But every time it started to veer in that direction, Rhimes struck back with her personality and her “fuck that!” attitude about societal norms.
BUT at the same time, she is a human being and talks about how she is very concerned with various societal norms. That’s keeping it fucking real.
What really got me was how she knows what a role model she is to people like me, and she hates it. And it made me angry and kind of sad, like I was a pathetic little idiot and maybe I should just go get my old job back and settle into a life of normality and stop having ridiculous dreams. I mean, she even says that dreaming is a waste of time, because dreamers never achieve anything. Doers do. Dreamers dream.
OUCH. Fucking harsh. But something I really needed to “hear” in my current state of life. Especially from the person who I want to be. I think I wanted to be her before it was cool to want to be her, because I didn’t even know what a showrunner was and just wanted to be whatever person it was who had made me feel so seen that Sunday evening during sophomore year of high school. Like, on Monday I was set on being whoever and whatever was responsible for that. But I digress with my hipster “I liked them before they were famous” nonsense (do we have a good noun for that yet?).
Rhimes takes her responsibility, even if it was foisted upon her, to be a role model and rocks it while challenging it, which is pretty sweet. She hates being a role model because she’s an introverted writer, she hates it because she’s a woman and as women we’ve all been trained to see any sort of compliment as a challenge to our modesty, so we deflect them instead of accepting them (she has a whole chapter on this), and she hates it because it’s always linked to being an F.O.D. – First. Only. Different. Like Mindy Kaling, for example. Because she feels like it’s never only about being Shonda Rhimes, the role model to somebody, but Shonda Rhimes, the person who is a role model precisely because of this thing that she did and now the weight of the future of diversity in television rests on her shoulders.
I felt taken aback and slapped in the face, since I have given her (and probably Kaling) a lot of nods in that way when considering my future, my role models, my television tastes, my identity. But it was a good slap, because it’s true. They shouldn’t have to constantly be the diversity people. They have no responsibility to give me a road map to my own life. Rhimes dedicates a good portion of a chapter to telling people to stop trying to be her, because she only became her when she realized she was wasting her time trying to be Toni Morrison. Nobody successful wants to give up their job. So find your own, basically.
This hits close to home also because of my work with We Need Diverse Books, but that’s not really for this review, which is not really even a review anymore so much as a rambling essay about how obsessed I am with this lady I don’t know and will probably never meet. Yes, we want diversity. But, as Rhimes noted in one of her speeches, we don’t want it to keep being “diversity.” We want to normalize it. Because it’s normal. Because more people in the world deviate from white+cis+het+abled+Christian+middle class than belong to that group.
So this book really hurt and challenged me, which is not what I expected at all. But it did so in mostly a good way, and it was a good kick in the pants. To be honest, there are points that are really quite boring and repetitive, because she’s not great at talking about herself when it comes to the quotidian stuff, but it was worth reading just because it somewhat shattered my image of a role model. Because now I’ll have to create something in my own image. Or whatever. I’m not good at language like that, you guys.
*Maybe? The copyright is to Ships at a Distance, which is an entity made up of two employees, one of which is Rhimes, and incorporated in Beverly Hills. But it kind of makes me think of Swiss bank accounts and stuff and that makes me uncomfortable, so let’s go with the idea that Rhimes wrote it, because that celebrity-as-writer is a happier narrative, and it’s not like we don’t know that she’s a good writer.