Shonda Rhimes doesn’t believe she’s broken the glass ceiling. Instead, she feels that she followed in the footsteps of the countless and hardworking women in Hollywood who chipped away at it and helped pave the way for her to get to the other side.
Rhimes — the influential executive producer behind ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and Pete Nowalk‘s How to Get Away With Murder — was honored Wednesday at The Hollywood Reporter’s 23rd annual Women in Entertainment Breakfast. She received the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award, the annual prize created in 2004 that recognizes a woman who is a pioneer and a leader in her industry. She joins a roster of Sherry Lansing Leadership Award recipients that includes Oprah Winfrey, Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Halle Berry, Jodie Foster, Glenn Close and Barbara Walters.
Ahead of her mentorship program announcement, Lansing tipped her hat to Rhimes — whom she met for the first time Wednesday. The diehard Scandal fan confessed to sending Rhimes a fan email a few years prior and praised the showrunner for pushing both TV’s and society’s boundaries.
“I am a huge fan of Shonda’s. I’m totally addicted to Scandal — and I think all of us are,” Lansing said. “Shonda has redefined the role of women in television, and, in doing so, society as well. She has given us complex and diverse characters and she has made all of us want to be Gladiators. Thank you for accepting this award; it means a great deal to me and I am truly honored.”
Rhimes was introduced by Scandal leading man Tony Goldwyn, who recalled meeting Rhimes for the first time when he directed an early episode of Grey’s Anatomy. “Every day I am amazed by the force of her intellect, her clarity of focus, her humor, her compassion and her ability to spin stories that are fantastically, addictively entertaining,” said Goldwyn, who is one of the many Shondaland family members to serve in multiple roles. “And at the same time deeply, sometimes uncomfortably real and emotionally honest. I have had the honor of watching Shonda redefine the television landscape with creation of so many beautiful, brilliant, dynamic, powerful, and empowering female characters. That is why she is so deserving of the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award.”
Goldwyn then introduced a taped message from first lady (and self-professed Gladiator) Michelle Obama, who recalled plowing through the first seven episodes of Scandal on a plane during a family trip. She credited Rhimes, whom she called a close friend, with pushing boundaries and breaking new ground with strong characters “that reflect who we are as a country.” “[Shonda] has proven that successful TV shows can be built around and by a women, and she’s paving the way for our next generation.”
“Make no mistake, she’s nowhere near writing her own story just yet and I have a feeling that by the time she’s done, the ground she’s broken is going to feel like ancient history — and that’s going to be her greatest legacy of all,” Obama said. “So congratulations, Shonda. I can’t wait to see all the stories you’ll tell in the years ahead.”
The prolific producer — responsible for ABC’s entire Thursday night #TGIT lineup — covered THR‘s annual Showrunners issue in October and was visibly moved after Obama’s remarks as she took the stage. Ever the storyteller, Rhimes confessed during her acceptance speech that she was initially surprised to have been selected for the annual honor and demanded to know specifically for which qualifications she was being singled out. “I made him call and ask for some written reason why … because I was really and truly worried that there might have been some kind of mistake,” she said. “It said many nice things but the main thing it said was I was getting the award in recognition of my breaking through the industry’s glass ceiling as a woman and an African-American.”
The incredibly guarded Rhimes then told the powerful audience at Milk Studios in Los Angeles that she came from a large and incredibly competitive family where nobody gets trophies “for being you.” So to get an award for being a woman and an African-American, Rhimes said to laughs, “to get all Beyonce about it, people, ‘I woke up like this.'”
“I know this isn’t an award because I’m a woman or because I’m African-American. I know that it’s really about breaking the glass ceiling that exists in the face of being a woman and being black in this very male, very white town.,” said Rhimes, who was surrounded by Shondaland favorites including producing partner Betsy Beers, Kate Walsh (Private Practice), Darby Stanchfield (Scandal), Jesse Williams (Grey’s Anatomy), Portia de Rossi (Scandal), Geena Davis (Grey’s Anatomy) and Dan Bucatinsky (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy). “But I haven’t broken through the glass ceiling.”
” ‘Do they know I haven’t broken through any glass ceilings,’ I asked my publicist. He assures me that I have. I assure him that I have not. I have not broken through any glass ceilings. If I had broken through any glass ceilings, I would know,” said Rhimes, whose speech could easily have been one of Grey’s Anatomy‘s or Scandal‘s monologues about women in society. “If I had broken through a glass ceiling, I would have felt some cuts, I would have some bruises, there’d be shards of glass in my hair. … If I’d broken the glass ceiling, that would mean I made it through to the other side, where the air is rare. I would feel the wind on my face.
“The view from here ?— ?way up here where the glass ceiling is broken? — ?would be incredible. Right? So how come I don’t remember the moment? When me with my woman-ness and my brown skin went running full speed, gravity be damned, into that thick layer of glass and smashed right through it? How come I don’t remember that happening? Here’s why: It’s 2014. This moment right here, me standing up here all brown with my boobs and my Thursday night of network television full of women of color, competitive women, strong women, women who own their bodies and whose lives revolve around their work instead of their men, women who are big dogs, that could only be happening right now. Think about it. Look around this room. It’s filled with women of all colors in Hollywood who are executives and heads of studios and VPs and show creators and directors. There are a lot of women in Hollywood in this room who have the game-changing ability to say yes or no to something.”
Rhimes used examples of the progress of women in entertainment: 15 years ago, there were very few women in power. And if she had a shot at a TV show, it would have included powerful women with important jobs and families, three-dimensional LGBT characters or multiple characters of color in the same scenes — as that was something, Rhimes said, that existed only on sitcoms. Thirty years ago, she said, there might have been scores of secretaries and maybe two women in Hollywood who could say yes. And, Rhimes said, she “would have been serving those two women breakfast.” Fifty years ago, she continued, women would be talking about charity work or children — with Latino women in one room and white women in another.
“From then to now, we’ve all made such an incredible leap,” Rhimes said. “All of the women, white or black or brown who woke up like this, who came before me in this town. Think of them. Heads up, eyes on the target. Running. Full speed. Gravity be damned. … Running, full speed and crashing. Crashing into that ceiling and falling back. Crashing into it and falling back. Into it and falling back. Woman after woman. Each one running and each one crashing. And everyone falling.”
“How many women had to hit that glass before the first crack appeared?” Rhimes said. “How many cuts did they get, how many bruises? How hard did they have to hit the ceiling? How many women had to hit that glass to ripple it, to send out a thousand hairline fractures? How many women had to hit that glass before the pressure of their effort caused it to evolve from a thick pane of glass into just a thin sheet of splintered ice? So that when it was my turn to run, it didn’t even look like a ceiling anymore. I mean, the wind was already whistling through? — ?I could always feel it on my face. And there were all these holes giving me a perfect view to other side. I didn’t even notice the gravity, I think it had worn itself away.
“So I didn’t have to fight as hard. I had time to study the cracks. I had time to decide where the air felt the rarest, where the wind was the coolest, where the view was the most soaring. I picked my spot in the glass and called it my target. And I ran. And when I hit finally that ceiling, it just exploded into dust. Like that. My sisters who went before me had already handled it. No cuts. No bruises. No bleeding. Making it through the glass ceiling to the other side was simply a matter of running on a path created by every other woman’s footprints. I just hit at exactly the right time in exactly the right spot.”
“So I’m breaking my family’s rule today,” said Rhimes, who received a standing ovation. “This is a trophy for participation, and I am beyond honored and proud to receive it because this was a group effort. I want to thank all the women in this room and I want to thank all the women who never made it to this room. Thank you to all the women in this room. Thank you to all the women who never made it to this room. And thank you to all the women who will hopefully fill a room 100 times this size when we are all gone. You are all an inspiration.”
Rhimes’ comments came nearly three months after the New York Times controversy in which TV critic Alessandra Stanley described the uber-producer as an “angry black woman” in a column intended to put the spotlight on her work spotlighting diversity and sexuality on her multiple shows. Rhimes famously casts her shows colorblind, always choosing the best actor for the part. Her efforts — with Scandal and star Kerry Washington as well as How to Get Away With Murder and Viola Davis — have helped usher in a wave of diverse programming as broadcast networks look to broaden viewership. And the Rhimes-inspired effort has worked: ABC has a hit in rookie comedy Black-ish; Nowalk’s Murder is the breakout drama of the fall and NBC’s State of Affairs reimagined its white male president of the United States for actress Alfre Woodard, and so on.
The Women in Entertainment event was presented by Lifetime and sponsored by Gucci, Samsung Galaxy, Audi, Roberto Coin and Gersh.