Shonda Rhimes’ producing partner Betsy Beers delivered a moving and revealing keynote address at the Marie Claire New Guard luncheon last Thursday. Beers, along with actress Rashida Jones, writer-director Jennifer Lee, and Netflix exec Cindy Holland, shared their inspirations and tactics for making more female-centric content for the big and small screens.
Beers recalled a moment when cable networks were seeking more shows with female protagonists: “As much as I was encouraged by the number of female-centric shows being bandied about, it feels like we’re being treated like a trend or a quota to be filled. Women on television are not a fad, we are not a trend; we are a reality! We always have been — we are the main person at home wielding the clicker. The fact that there are more shows on now than ever with compelling female voices is simply as it should be. … I hope girls all over can count on our shows on Thursday to remind them it’s OK to be strong and complicated, and they will find a reliable group of friends who will be waiting there for them. And if we can have our own night, someday they can too.”
She also revealed that a plot point in the Grey’s Anatomy pilot, when Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) arrives at Seattle Grace Hospital for the first time after a drunken one-night stand the night before, was based on her own life: “I actually arrived for my first day of work at my new job with a hangover and a spring in my step!” As you might recall, Rhimes got pushback from ABC suits for that exact storyline: “A bunch of older guys told me that nobody was going to watch a show about a woman who had casual sex and threw a guy out the night before her first day of work — that that was completely unrealistic and that nobody wanted to know that woman…. I remember sitting in that meeting and thinking, ‘Wow, they don’t know anything about what’s going on in the world right now.'”
She was also honest about her still successful but didn’t-quite-redefine-television-itself projects: “I think the network was hoping for Grey’s Anatomy: SVU [when it greenlit Private Practice]. … We sort of rushed it into production without having clear ideas as to what we wanted to say. Initially, the show really suffered for it, but luckily we got a second season, and we took a beat to really examine why we wanted to make it in the first place. And the show about moral and ethical dilemmas that we all face was born. A few years later, we actually delayed making Scandal until Shonda felt like she had the space to create the world and the characters she really wanted to write.”
Rashida Jones shared her reasons for getting into writing, directing, and producing: “I was inspired slash angry about the Judd Apatow model — which I love so much, but this was before Lena [Dunham] and Kristen [Wiig]. He was making movies with his friends where they were all just being themselves, and it was hilarious and great and a representation of their lives. Shit, why can’t I do that? What’s my version? … I realized I wasn’t gonna get any further by just waiting for other people to create opportunities for me.”
Jennifer Lee talked about how her vision and perspective shaped Frozen into a feminist revision instead of just another traditional fairy tale: “I remember the film not getting its legs, and I went to John Lasseter and said, ‘It’s not gonna work if we keep trying to make Anna some codependent who is just too madly in love and Elsa is evil but you’re gonna redeem her. … I told him the story that Anna’s ruled by love with all its flaws, and Elsa’s ruled by fear.” She added, “Frankly, Hans needs to have a bulge or I’m not gonna buy it!”
Cindy Holland laid bare her priorities at Netflix:”It’s just not an option not to — I wouldn’t think it was good, credible or compelling if it didn’t have well-rounded female characters in it. It’s sort of like second-nature for me.” In addition to Orange is the New Black, Netflix has in the pipeline Chelsea Handler’s talk show and the Jane Fonda-Lily Tomlin sitcom Grace and Frankie.