Shonda Rhimes: We Need a New Word for ‘Diversity’

The one-woman network-TV powerhouse favors the term ‘normalizing.’
Shonda Rhimes at the 2015 Human Rights Campaign gala in Los Angeles. (Photo: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images)
Mar 15, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

From Grey’s Anatomy to Scandal to How to Get Away With Murder, show runner Shonda Rhimes’ ABC television shows have been hailed for rendering complex characters of all ethnic and sexual backgrounds.

Just don’t call her casts “diverse”—Rhimes loathes the word and its narrow implications, Variety reports.

“It is just something other. Something special, like it’s rare,” she said in a speech Saturday at Human Rights Campaign’s Los Angeles gala. “ ‘It’s diversity!’ As if there is something unusual about telling stories about women or people of color or LGBT characters on TV.”

Instead, the Golden Globe–winning screenwriter, director, and producer favors a more progressive term: “normalizing.” Rhimes’ shows are helping to normalize storytelling from the perspective of ethnic and other minority groups, making them the standard rather than the exception in prime-time television.

Thanks in part to Rhimes, ABC, NBC, and Fox now have a higher percentage of African American actors in prime time than there is in the general population, according to an AP analysis. Blacks account for a little over 13 percent of the U.S. population and 15 percent of cast members on fall shows on ABC and NBC. Only CBS lagged behind in terms of on-screen diversity—er, sorry, Shonda—“normalizing.”

That effort to normalize minority characters and stories is deliberate at ABC, the network that boasts Black-ish, Cristela, and Fresh off the Boat in addition to Rhimes’ successful dramas. “We did go out with a mission this year to reflect America,” Paul Lee, the head of ABC’s programming, told The New York Times last year.

Through their writing and casting, show creators like Rhimes can have a significant effect on representation of minority groups. Minority show creators such as Cristela’s Cristela Alonzo, Fresh off the Boat’s Eddie Huang, or Black-ish’s Kenya Barris are all too rare, accounting for just 4.2 percent of broadcast comedies and dramas examined during the 2011–12 season, according to UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies’ 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report.

It’s not the first time Rhimes has objected to a word used to describe her television shows. She’s also taken offense at what she calls the “insulting” term “guilty pleasure,” which is occasionally used to describe Scandal, the Kerry Washington–starring political thriller.

Guilty pleasure or not, Rhimes wants her shows to look, sound, and feel the way America does. “You should get to turn on your TV and see your tribe,” she said at the gala on Saturday, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “Your tribe can be any kind of person, anyone you identify with—anyone who feels you, who feels like home, who feels like truth.”