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May 22nd, 2012
08:31 AM ET

'Grey's Anatomy' creator, actress discuss media diversity

Editor’s Note: Shonda Rhimes, the creator, screenwriter and executive producer of "Grey’s Anatomy", "Private Practice" and "Scandal", spoke to CNN about identity, and diversity in television. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

By Sarah Springer, CNN

Shonda Rhimes on the diversity on her shows:

I think it’s fascinating to me that we still live in a world in which people truly believe that because someone is a different color than them, that they couldn’t relate to them or have a similar experience. That’s the most bizarre thing to me.

As a black girl on television, 90% of the women on television are not the same color as you. You’re relating to the experience of people who are not the same color as you. So why wouldn’t that work in then reverse for white people? I find it fascinating that we think that the world doesn’t work that way.

For me, “Grey’s” was about me making a statement. I was making a television show that I wanted to watch and part of that was putting people of all colors in it so that you saw people like you on television.

So  people suggesting that just because you’re a certain color that you couldn’t write something or be relatable to different characters is sort of horrifying to me at this point.

 It’s 2012: why are we still having this conversation?

On HBO’s “Girls”, and the controversy about the show’s lack of diversity:

I don’t know if there is a responsibility on the part of the creator, I mean there is a responsibility on the part of the network.

It’s very interesting to me that HBO didn’t say: why isn’t the show more diverse? We believe in diversity, so why don’t we make this show be more diverse?

I think that’s where I lay the fault.  

I’ve seen “Girls”.  I think it’s delightful, I love it. And I think Lena Dunham is tremendous and interesting and a really talented writer. She made a statement where she said [she]  didn’t want to try to represent experiences that were not [her] own, and what [she] knew was this.

The idea that she felt her experience wasn’t relatable to anybody who wasn’t white is disturbing to me. Because I watch the show- I find it delightful. So why couldn’t one of those girls been Native American or Indian or Asian or Hispanic or black and it had been exactly the same story?

I don’t understand why it would have to be a different story because the person was a different color.

On race in America:

Race matters, it does. It matters in a way that perhaps some of us aren’t totally comfortable talking about and some of us are a little too comfortable talking about.

I mean really, why does it still matter?

I think it still matters because there are people who still remember a time in which there was a back of the bus.

I also think there is an unwillingness in this country to acknowledge the fact that a lot of what people like to consider racial issues are actually economic issues.

On “whiteness” in Hollywood:

The idea that there’s this weird assumption of whiteness, that people are assumed [white] unless told otherwise, that’s very strange to me.

It’s a “Hunger Games” problem. It’s the idea that people missed that Rue was African-American, and when they had found out that they’d cast an African-American, they were like “Oh my god, how can they?”

It’s pervasive and I find it weird. I find it weird that as a country we assume people are white until told otherwise.

I don’t know how you solve people’s assumption of whiteness, that whiteness is better than anything else, or more relatable than anything else.

It’s so naïve and so ignorant that I don’t know how you overcome it.

On who should answer questions about diversity on television:

I think it’s really interesting that people always call me to ask: why aren’t there enough African-Americans in television?

My response always is: “Why don’t you pick up the phone and ask some white guys? Why ask me, the black woman who casts black women, why there aren’t more black women on television?"

I couldn’t tell you, because I’m busy casting them. Why don’t we ask some of the white guys –many whom are lovely, wonderful guys who I know and who seem well–and ask them, because I guarantee you that would actually, probably do more to change things than asking me.

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Filed under: Black in America • Race • What we think • Women
soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Phil

    I think Grey's Anatomy does a poor job of reflecting the actual diversity you would expect in a west coast teaching hospital. The only Asian continuing character is Yang (who we learned at one point is also Jewish). The last (and only) time I was treated at Stanford Hospital (ER and 23 hour overnight watch), I saw two doctors of East Asian descent and two of South Asian descent. None of the interns in the current show (or past seasons since Yang) are Asian. I realize that television doesn't need to always reflect the real world, but the lack of Asian doctors on the show seems excessive.

    April 23, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Aaron

    "As a black girl on television, 90% of the women on television are not the same color as you" That's actually a perfect relflection of the American population, of which 10 are African American.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Tracey

    I have watched tv shows from 2 1/2 men, Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond, to Martin, Living Single and Girlfriends. All shows which weren't focused on diversity. I enjoyed watching those shows because they were entertaining. And I could relate and laugh at all shows mentioned In this day and age, color shouldn't matter as much as it does.

    May 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. jk

    HBO has so many shows with diversity this issue is ridiculous (trueblood, game of thrones). Kids don't care about diversity, its when they get older they realize the color of someones skin can actually pose a problem (for a select few who have been brought up poorly). MLK did wonders for diversity and today everyone is aware already so do not knock Girls because it has an all white cast, and thank you Eva for bringing into view other shows with same race casts.

    Kids shouldn't be watching girls anyway as the subject matter is WAY too mature for anyone younger than 17 (blaming any HBO show for anything politically incorrect is foolish). Girls is a great show and race should not even be brought into question, everyone needs to give the whole diversity thing a rest... we get it already.

    May 23, 2012 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Huh?

      I'm taking a guess – but you're white, right?

      May 24, 2012 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
    • DRH

      Cable and network television programs are meant to entertain and that is why it is called the entertainment business. Do we all want to see ourselves represented in these programs maybe/ maybe not however; if you do not find the program entertaining change the channel this is a right you enjoy as an American.

      May 24, 2012 at 10:11 am | Report abuse |
  5. syzito

    Your comments are not reflective of the general Americans attitude on race and so called diversity.Your "white" doctors on the show adopting a black kid would not happen in real life,it just shows your biased and fantasy world beliefs that are not true,except maybe among the brain dead Hollywood crowd which has "never" reflected American values and opinions. Left wing loons always try to force they misguided beliefs and fantasies into the lime light. In reality America laughs at you and your type of bone heads.

    May 23, 2012 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
    • shannon

      why would they not adopt a black child?! my husband family come from well educated high paying jobs they are white and he is not!

      May 24, 2012 at 8:53 am | Report abuse |
    • laura

      Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt (both white, both wealthy) adopted a black child from Ethiopia. Others adopting black children include Sandra Bullock, Mariska Hargitay and Charlize Theron. So to say that it doesn't happen in real life is untrue.

      May 25, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rodney in Dallas

      I actually know a white couple that adopted a black kid. They specifically chose an African kid over a white kid so your thinking is wrong. Maybe you would never adopt a black kid but don't include all whites in your comments.

      May 27, 2012 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
  6. fred

    Grays sucks...it's the worst show on tv and probally has one season left in it

    May 22, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • laura

      Grey's Anatomy was just ranked the #1 drama in the 18-49 demo for the 2011-2012 season.

      May 25, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jonquil

    Kids need to see diversity, onscreen, more than anyone else. They need to see different-looking people in positions of authority and intellectual expertise. Glamorized, urban street life, is not the only America some kids should see adults they will someday look like, reflected in. They need to see kids inventing things that look like them or physicists, mathematicians and doctors, who look like the adults in their lives.

    When I was a kid in the 80's and 90's, skincolor was the same as hair color or eye color; a nice variation in a sea of different looks. Skin color was put in the same group as people who had red hair, or blue eyes. It still astonishes me when some still think of it as anything other than that. But here we are, in 2012, still dealing with this stupid "problem".

    May 22, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
  8. eva

    In response to, "[she] didn’t want to try to represent experiences that were not [her] own, and what [she] knew was this... The idea that she felt her experience wasn’t relatable to anybody who wasn’t white is disturbing to me."

    I don't think she meant that her experience as a Caucasian female wasn't relatable to other cultures and races. I think she didn't want to cast a Native American or Asian or Indian girl in a role inspired by a white friend, and make people think she was accurately representing something of which she didn't have the true experience. Her characters are all products of different cultures and upbringings, and I believe that she was simply trying to represent what she knew what a character who looked like the person they were based on. Just because they are an all white cast doesn't mean there is no diversity. Just because there are no African-American girls cast doesn't mean they couldn't relate.

    And while I'm at it, Lena is relatively brand new in the scene. Why is she the scapegoat for media's "lack of diversity" hot topic? Where are all the critics picking apart shows like Perfect Couples (all white) or Girlfriends (all black) or Ni Hao Kai Lan (all Asian?)

    May 22, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • laura

      Perfect Couples was not all white. Olivia Munn who is Asian was one of the women on Perfect Couples.

      May 25, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
  9. TVAddict

    The shows that many white producers come up with don't always paint females in the best light. Young girl with man old enough to be her grandfather, or females dressed up in slips [like prostitutues]. I wish male producers would remove their personal 'fantasies' when choosing a script. I would prefer women to have real roles that don't require showing cleavage everyday even though they are [i.e. playing a cop].

    May 22, 2012 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
  10. Steve, New York City

    I am intrigued that some in Hollywood have begun seriously discussing diversity on television and in the movies.

    For the most part, there is none – the Bachelor, Sex And The City, Friends, Dawson's Creek, Smallville, Gossip Girl, Twilight (or other silly vampire shows) – virtually everybody is white.

    In movies, one can also see the "glorify the white man" streak – the Last Samurai, Bend it Like Beckham, the entire James Bond series . . and the list goes on (no offense to white males, but popular media reinforces the perception that white males are the smartest, the best-looking or always walk away with Asian "trophy wives") – it would be refreshing to see Hollywood's policies on casting, starting to reflect 21st century America.

    May 22, 2012 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |