The triple threat: Celebrating the feminist heroines of Shondaland

You could be the King, but watch Queen Shonda conquer.

11:00 am EDT, September 24, 2015

Viola Davis broke barriers this week at the Emmys, but she is also only the latest in the dynasty of dynamic female leads who helm the shows of Shondaland.

This week, Viola Davis became the first African American woman ever to win the award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Davis not only took home the prize for her starring role in How To Get Away With Murder, she also made us all cry with one of the most inspiring acceptance speeches, ever.

The crux of Davis’ speech was the statement that has now made its way across the internet: “The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” Watch the full speech below, and we dare you not to tear up.

As the How To Get Away With Murder star recognises, her award is the product not only of her hard work and abundant talent, but is also a testament to the writers and producers who create roles like hers. Who is at the top of that list? The queen of Shondaland, Shonda Rhimes.

With Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and now How To Get Away With Murder, Rhimes has made a career from writing intelligent, complicated women. She has staked out Thursday nights on ABC as Shondaland’s territory, so much so that “TGIT” (Thank God It’s Thursday) is now synonymous with Rhimes’ weekly extravaganza. But what is it about these shows and their leading women that keeps us coming back again, and again? We look closer at Meredith Grey, Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating, and the incredible woman who created them.

Meredith Grey: Redefining love stories

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Meredith Grey has redefined what it means to be a leading lady. You might have missed that, amongst the plane crashes, and shootings, and weddings, and funerals. Over the past decade we have seen Meredith be many things, but through all of them she has been the star of her own story.

Meredith started as a survivor, just barely. Over the course of the show we have seen her flourish as a doctor and develop emotionally through her relationship with Derek. But critically, the key relationship in Meredith’s life was not her romance with Derek, but her passionate, indestructible, absolutely enviable friendship with Cristina. Talk about relationship goals; who wants McDreamy when Cristina Yang could be your person.

These two were the real powerhouse, and Rhimes didn’t shy away from making the audience remember this. Derek was the love of her life, but Cristina was her soul mate. More than anyone else, Cristina challenged Meredith, was honest with her, and inspired her. For these reasons, it was Cristina who was constantly the source of Meredith’s character development, not Derek.

When Derek tells Meredith, “I can’t live without you,” we are expecting her to echo his thoughts. Instead we get her self-aware response: “I can live without you. But I don’t want to, I don’t ever want to.” In an EW roundtable earlier this month, Rhimes explained the importance of this line, saying “It means: You complement me, but you don’t complete me.”

So often in television, we see romantic love presented as the ultimate path to satisfaction and happiness for a woman. But let’s not forget that this is Grey’s Anatomy, and the hero is Meredith Grey, not the combined team of Meredith and Derek. Derek was interesting, compelling, and frustrating, but as Cristina reminded Meredith (and the audience), “He’s not the sun, you are.”

Grey’s Anatomy is a love story, but it isn’t Meredith and Derek’s; it began as the love story of Meredith and Cristina. And now that she is alone without her person and her man, it will be the story of Meredith Grey loving herself.

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Olivia Pope: Redefining the damsel in distress

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Olivia Pope is always on a woman’s side. She has handled crises relating to slut shaming, sexual assault and harassment, abusive relationships, sex tapes, rape, and the everyday sexism that all women encounter. She frequently goes into battle to protect women, and to defend herself. Olivia in action is a fearsome thing to behold, and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of her stare.

This is what makes the Scandal love triangle so interesting. You can be Team Fitz or Team Jake, but before all of that, you must be Team Olivia. She knows her own value, and she won’t settle for less. Fitz could very well be the most important person in Olivia’s life, but he is second to Olivia herself. If he can’t earn her love, she won’t hesitate in refusing him. As she had told us herself, “I’m choosing me. I’m choosing Olivia.”

In the same way that Meredith redefined what it was to be a leading lady on television, Olivia changed what it meant to be a black leading lady. Before Kerry Washington was cast in Scandal, there had not been an African American woman as the star of a network drama in almost 40 years. The Angry/Sassy Black Woman trope has persisted because for so long those were the only roles black women were cast in.

Olivia is so much more than this. And Rhimes’ most subversive move was to, on occasion, allow Olivia herself to be the damsel in distress. Olivia is constantly solving the problems of everyone around her, including President Fitz (the biggest distressed damsel of them all). But if Olivia never needed help, or protection, or saving, then she wouldn’t be human. And even when she is in trouble, you can be sure that by the time one of her men worked out a way to rescue her, Olivia would already be five steps ahead with a plan to save herself. We are shown that Olivia is no less powerful or independent because she sometimes needs help.

Being black might not be the central aspect of Olivia’s character, but as with all facets of someone’s background, it has informed her experiences. As Washington explained in the EW roundtable, the power of working with Rhimes was in “being able to work with somebody who I don’t have to translate my experience to all the time.” And when for so long, black women have been relegated to the strong, angry roles, there is something miraculous about a well-rounded black female character who can survive by herself, but isn’t afraid to seek help when she needs it.

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Annalise Keating: Redefining the power of sexuality

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Unlike the previous two shows, How To Get Away With Murder was not created by Rhimes, but by Peter Nowalk. However Nowalk has been a longtime member of the Shondaland family, having worked on Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, and Rhimes’ influence over his work is clear. Annalise Keating may not have sprung from Rhimes’ own pen, but she is still one of Shonda’s ladies in every sense.

Rhimes allowed Meredith to be more than a romantic lead, allowed Olivia to be more than only strong, and through her influence has allowed Annalise to be a powerful, undeniably sexual character. Davis put her finger on it during the EW roundtable, explaining that before landing this role, “I’ve never seen ­anyone who looks like me be sexualized on television or in film. Ever.”

Of course, Annalise is more than just sexual. She is the smartest person in any room she walks into, and she knows it. She is also deeply flawed and makes good and bad decisions. Crucially, she is given space to be openly vulnerable, as we saw in the scene when she removes her wig and sits with her own thoughts. But through all of these experiences, she is so very present. Meredith and Olivia are still finding their way, while Annalise has already arrived.

The vulnerability Annalise expresses in particular moments balances the sexualised depiction of her character. In true Shondaland style, this allows Annalise’s sexual power to be shown as a subversion of the Jezebel trope, which sees black women as hyper-sexual women who, unlike white women, are punished for their sexual appetites. It is very clear that her sexuality is an expression of empowerment and ownership over her own body. This is a bold statement when we remember that she herself is a survivor of sexual abuse.

The power of a starring older (by Hollywood standards), dark-skinned female should not be underestimated. Annalise is an authority figure who embraces both her own sexuality and her own vulnerability, two aspects that most women on television are not allowed, let alone women of colour. We might not bat an eye at Annalise now, especially given the acclaim Davis has received for this role, but that doesn’t make her character any less revolutionary.

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Thank you, Shonda Rhimes

Shondaland is not a feminist utopia where nothing problematic occurs. But Shonda Rhimes has had an undeniable impact on the current television landscape, and her depiction of complicated women has been no small part of that contribution. In Rhimes’ hands, women are allowed to be the sun, to be the stars, to be everything. They are simply allowed more. They may not be perfect, but they are whole — a feminist statement in itself. And for that, no matter what other shortcomings these shows may have, for that we should be grateful.

Why do you love the women of Shondaland?

Related: Why we need the complicated feminism of UnREAL‘s female antiheroes

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