With the return of Shonda Rhimes‘ monopoly of ABC Thursday night television, I thought it could be interesting to see how the leading ladies in her shows are portrayed in relation to typical “American Beauty Standards”. It’s pretty well-established at this point that the female stars in most American TV shows and films are slender, cis-gendered, heterosexual, wealthy, white women. Evidence? A quick google search can show you IMDb’s current top 25 Hollywood actresses. Notice any striking similarities? The first, and pretty much only break in the norm comes with Viola Davis at #18. All but Davis are white. All but Melissa McCarthy (#22) are slender. And all but Jodie Foster (#25) and Ellen Page (#24) are heterosexual. Interesting.
This brings me to the three ABC shows currently dominating the Thursday night market: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM). Let’s take a look at the female leads on these shows one at a time, starting with a personal favorite of mine, Grey’s.
For those who have never seen an episode of one of Grey’s Anatomy‘s 13 seasons before, let me give you a quick summary: the show focuses on a large group of doctors employed at a Seattle hospital and all the crazy, sometimes-medicine-related chaos in their lives. The woman who ties everything together is one Meredith Grey. A quick glance at the image above can tell you that Meredith is white, blonde, and slender. A brief viewing of the show can tell you that she is also cis-gendered, heterosexual, and wealthy/powerful. She essentially embodies the main qualities that American media portray as “attractive”. Of course there is more to her than meets the eye, but for the purposes of this post I just want to focus on external attractiveness.
(Disclaimer: While Meredith falls right into place with American beauty standards, Grey’s also has a plethora of other important characters who do not embody these features and are still portrayed as beautiful and successful.)
The middle Rhimes child, Scandal, is drama set in the world of politics. It centers on leading lady Olivia Pope, a lawyer who, with her team, helps clients “cover up” any dirty secrets that could ruin their public image. She also has romantic ties to the President of the United States. On the surface, Olivia is slender, powerful, and, notably, black! A quick viewing of Scandal tells us that Olivia is also cis and straight. While the variation from whiteness is a highly welcomed change, Ms. Pope still has every other characteristic that American media deems “ideal”–skinny, rich, and straight. Plus, every other major character on this show is white, which could play a role in “muting” Olivia’s blackness, and making the show more marketable to the American masses.
Finally, the most recent show in the #TGIT lineup, How to Get Away with Murder. Now in it’s second season, HTGAWM focuses on Annalise Keating, an esteemed law professor, and a select few of her students who work together to defend various clients. There’s also a murder-mystery tone to the story, with this group of characters getting into some trouble of their own as well. Outwardly, Keating appears as a powerful black woman, who is still slim, but a bit curvier than the other characters we’ve discussed thus far. Where Keating really varies though is through her sexuality. Throughout the show, she is seen in romantic situations with both men and women, implying that Keating is probably bisexual. Additionally, unlike with Scandal, many of the other characters are POC, and/or LGBT+, which is refreshing to say the least.
When all is said and done, it seems to me that Shonda Rhimes (pictured above in red with her leading ladies) has done a pretty good job of representing women beyond the typical American beauty standards. Sure, Meredith Grey fits within those standards like a puzzle piece, but it’s important to remember that this show came out in 2005 aka the prime of whiteness in the media (i.e. Medium, How I Met Your Mother, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Bones, etc.). With time Rhimes’ shows have become more and more diverse, and I feel pretty confident in my belief that the American “ideal” of attractiveness will only continue to be chipped away from our media.