Shonda Rhimes delivered a tongue-in-cheek speech challenging writers and producers to be more inclusive while receiving the PGA’s Norman Lear Achievement Award at the PGA Awards on Saturday.
“I’m going to be totally honest with you: I completely deserve this,” Rhimes joked as she became the first sole female recipient of the Lear award. “I have, against the odds, courageously pioneered the art of writing for people of color as if they were human beings. I’ve bravely gone around just casting parts for actors who were the best ones. I fearlessly faced down ABC when they completely agreed with me that Olivia Pope should be black. And I raised my sword heroically and then put it down again when [network head] Paul Lee never fought me about any of my storytelling choices.”
She then turned serious: “It’s not trailblazing to write the world as it actually is. Women are smart and strong. They are not sex toys or damsels in distress. People of color are not sassy or dangerous or wise. And believe me, people of color are never anybody’s sidekick in real life.”
Rhimes then alluded to her “normalizing” approach to diversity, which is to simply have her shows reflect in their gendered, racial, and sexual make-up what she sees in the real world: “I created the content that I wanted to see and I created what I know is normal.”
Rhimes continued, “Basically, you are just giving me an award for being me, in which case I totally deserve this. Really, I am honored to receive it. The respect of this award does mean the world. It just makes me a little bit sad. First of all, [writing about] strong women and three dimensional people of color is something Norman was doing 40 something years ago. So how come it has to be done all over again? What are we waiting for?”
“The thing about all this trailblazing that everyone says I’ve been doing,” she added, “it’s not like I did things and then the studio or the network gasped with horror and fought me. It was 2004. Norman Lear had already done a bunch of trailblazing 40 years earlier. When I came along, nobody was saying no. They were perfectly happy to say yes. You know what the problem was? I don’t think anyone else was asking them. I think it had been a very long time since anybody asked or even tried. Maybe content creators were afraid, maybe they had been hitting brick walls, maybe they had had their spirits broken. Maybe their privilege had made them oblivious. Maybe. But for me, I was just being normal. Maybe their privilege had made them oblivious. Maybe. But for me, I was just being normal.”
Viola Davis, who became the first African-American woman to win the Best Dramatic Actress Emmy for her work on a Shondaland show (“How to Get Away With Murder”), introduced Rhimes to the stage. “In a year, a month, hell, a week in which everyone is talking about diversity,” noted Davis, alluding to the #OscarsSoWhite movement, “she is living proof that the curve that many people are behind was drawn by her.”
Davis also mentioned that Rhimes and Lear are collaborating on a politically themed documentary called “America Divided” that will debut on Epix in the fall.
As for the rest of Shondaland, the new drama “Still Star-Crossed,” from “Scandal” co-EP Heather Mitchell, became one of the first shows to receive a pilot order from ABC. Based on Melinda Taub’s novel and adapted by Mitchell, the 16th-century-set series is a sequel to “Romeo and Juliet,” detailing the family feud between the Montagues and the Capulets in the aftermath of the young lovers’ deaths.