Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Shonda Rhimes: 2007 USC Honorary Degree Candidate

In our society, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Robert Zemeckis are considered three of the most important and influential filmmakers, yet they share another praiseworthy distinction: recipients of honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from the University of Southern California. Since around 1753, American universities have granted honorary degrees to Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners, inventors, government officials, peace activists, and even a muppet. Each university may have different qualifications for nominees, but any honorand chosen should reflect the nature and values of the institution. Liberal Education and the Public Interest author James O. Freedman asserts, “in bestowing an honorary degree, a university makes an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most” (117). With these considerations, the alumni, faculty, and the student body of University of Southern California have begun the nomination process for honorary doctoral degree candidates for the 2007 commencement ceremony. Beyond football recognition, USC is one of the most culturally diverse universities in America and holds the oldest and most reputable cinema school in the world. Representing these notable attributes, alumna Shonda Rhimes is an exceptional candidate for a Doctorate in Fine Arts at the University of Southern California for 2007.

When choosing an honoree, USC uses criteria that takes into account the overall career and body of work of a given nominee. This may encompass various activities and honors, including scholarly recognition, previous accolades, professional output, social awareness, or even their familiarity in culture. While seemingly overwhelming, author Mike W. Martin provides the following foundation: “We might sort professionals’ desires, pleasures, and sources of meaning into three broad categories: craft, compensation, and moral concern” (21). Regarding craft, Shonda Rhimes has an motivating academic background led to her eventual compensation. As a scholastic institution, USC supports education acquirement and considers it in the honorary degree process. It is also important to examine the academic career of a candidate because “[professional] expertise is acquired through higher education and developed throughout a career” (22). The daughter of two parents in academia, Rhimes earned a B.A. in English at Dartmouth College where she expanded upon her love of writing. Though Rhimes worked for several years, the desire to pursue a writing career led to the cinema school at USC. Recalling the days at the University, Rhimes remarks, “I loved it immediately. [There] I discovered...what I wanted to do." In 1994, Rhimes earned a M.F.A in Screenwriting and received the impressive Gary Rosenberg Fellowship for her talent in the field.

Like many post-graduation, Rhimes had difficulty finding success in the film industry, yet remained motivated and progressively honed her craft. She established valuable connections within the field interning under Debra Chase, producer of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005) and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004). The relationship allowed Rhimes the opportunity to pen the script for The Princess Diaries 2. Regarding the talent of Rhimes, Chase asserts, “She understands story. She understands how to handle emotion, action and humor and how to meld all of those pieces into one. She understands structure, which is critical to development, and she’s good with dialogue. Most writers can’t do all of that. But Shonda just gets it.” Rhimes received the big break writing the script for the HBO film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), a Golden Globe-winning biography about one of the first African-American movie stars in America. Following, Rhimes explored the feature film realm with Crossroads (2002) and the aforementioned The Princess Diaries 2. These films were critically frowned upon, but embraced by young girls for the messages about friendship and self-confidence. However, Rhimes became an important media figure with her most personal work, the hit ABC show Grey’s Anatomy.

Martin defines compensation as "social rewards in the form of income and prestige," both evident from the work of Rhimes (22). The recognition and awards for Grey’s Anatomy are commendable proofs that her work is culturally significant. Likewise, the acknowledgment follows honorary degree criteria since “the degree is given to elevate the university in the eyes of the world by honoring individuals who are widely known and highly regarded for achievements in their respective fields of endeavor.” There is no question that the American society is aware of Rhimes and her work. Grey’s Anatomy is currently the third most watched television show in America in its third season. Moreover, the show has been distinguished with nominations for numerous awards and winning Golden Globes, Writer’s Guild Awards, and Primetime Emmys. The success of the show has produced further career opportunities including a lucrative film deal with Disney and a new show on ABC next season. Awards and monetary achievements aside, Rhimes can proudly call Grey’s Anatomy her own. Having the initial concept, she is also the executive producer with control of every aspect from creating each character arc, overseeing editing, to even choosing the episode soundtrack. Embracing the freedom, Rhimes admits, “With this show, every episode is what was in my head. So, I feel very gratified creatively." She is the true voice of the show watched by approximately 23 million American viewers every Thursday night.

Furthermore, Rhimes is the first African-American woman to create and executive-produce a show in the Nielsen Top Ten. Ron Simon, curator at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York, remarks, "She’s the only black woman show runner on a dramatic show at this point on the major networks. It’s a tremendous achievement for a woman, African-American or otherwise." This feat deserves particular high praise and admiration since the industry is still widely dominated by Anglo-American men. Arguably, the most meaningful acknowledgments come from those who work with Rhimes. Actor Isaiah Washington, surgeon Preston Burke on Grey's, opines, "Shonda sees the world through the eyes of human beings. That's the bottom line." He credits Rhimes for providing a role that departs from the stereotypical "thug roles” typically written for African-American men. Likewise, co-executive producer Jim Parriot commends Rhimes through observing, “There's a great deal of courage in Shonda. She dives into the unknown. It's all forward motion with her, and that's very powerful. That's what makes her a good leader.” These extolments are noteworthy confirmations of her character and intellect especially in regards to work on-screen and behind-the-scenes.

To adequately credit Rhimes, it is necessary to see the underlying impact of her work on society as a whole. Martin argues that professionals have "inherent moral significance [that should] provide opportunities to make ongoing contributions on the well-being of others" (23). For USC, moral concern is another important factor in the deciding an honorary degree candidate. The university strives “to honor alumni and other individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the welfare and development of USC or the communities of which they are a part.” In interviews, Rhimes is constantly questioned about one specific aspect of Grey’s Anatomy: its multicultural cast. The main cast includes three African-Americans, an Asian-American, and a Mexican-American, making the cast one of the most diverse on television. Likewise, the week-to-week hospital patients and background staff are consistently varied in ethnicity. For Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes follows blind-casting, hiring the best actor for the role by having no racial specifications in the script. Though initially met with slight protest, she was particularly insistent, “This assumption that a character can only be played if they’re White or Black or Asian in a certain way is ludicrous to me. I just feel there are lot of shows that are happy to portray certain ethnicities in a certain [stereotypical] light…In my world, we don’t do that." Grey’s Anatomy also stands out for its cast because the characters have well-rounded personalities. More importantly, their flaws go beyond the clich├ęd “race problems” common on television like drug addiction and violent gang activity . There are progressive interracial relationships on the show, like the pictured Callie and George, that have normal dating problems. The show promotes positive minority images, encouraging future depictions of diversity on television. Rhimes has personal hopes for the show, “If you’re watching TV in middle America and have never seen a person of color in your life, you are going to come away with a different perspective [watching the show] than what they’ve normally given you.” It is an admirable goal that has been favorably recognized within the industry.

While promoting diversity, Rhimes also depicts strong, well-rounded women with realistic flaws in her films and Grey’s Anatomy. Females spectators may use these characters as examples for how one should or should not act. The screenplays for Princess Diaries 2, Crossroads and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge all feature female protagonists who make difficult choices and deal with the consequences. Regarding television, the cast of Grey’s Anatomy features six major female characters who are well-educated and hold important rank in the hospital. Equally important, they all have different body shapes and have strong self-esteems. Eager for a change, Rhimes was annoyed with the routine female roles: "They seemed to exist purely in relation to the men in their lives. Women I knew were competitive and a little snarky and had their share of bad days. There wasn't a show out there about women who seemed like them." With Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes reflects the real female population working in the surgical field, contrasting the "males-only" cultural assumption about surgery. This imagery is also supportive to women who are involved or interested in the career. The show addresses women's health issues like a recent episode featuring a patient dealing with breast cancer occurring in October, National Breast Cancer Awareness month. A commercial break also featured a Public Service Announcement about breast cancer performed by actress Kate Walsh, Grey's Dr. Addison Montgomery. Rhimes is dedicated to creating positive images for women and plans to continue with Disney’s All-American Girl starring Raven Simone and an untitled ABC pilot about female war correspondents. Lastly, Rhimes does not “bash” men to encourage her gender. She explains, "It's fabulous to have a partner. But if you don't, you're going to be fine. I think a lot of women spend a lot of time waiting to have a life until they have a man.” As an independent African-American woman and single mother, Rhimes herself stands as wonderful role model for women and young girls.

USC considers alumni support and involvement especially vital for the future success of the university. As stated in the Role and Mission of USC, “The Trojan Family is a genuinely supportive community. Alumni, trustees, volunteers and friends of USC are essential to this family tradition, providing generous financial support, participating in university governance, and assisting students at every turn.” Rhimes is a wonderful example of the supportive alumni network available for future graduates. She has encouraged female students to pursue careers in cinema. For example, Rhimes was involved in the inaugural event for Women in Cinema, a USC student organization. Along with fellow grads Josh Schwartz and John Singleton, Rhimes is a member of the USC Cinema-Television Alumni Development Council. Among other duties, the council works to help transition recent graduates into the industry through internships, interviews, or other placement. Elizabeth Daley, Dean of the USC School for Cinematic Arts, asserts, “[the council] is another demonstration of the close relationship between the school and its alumni. I can’t think of a better way to help guide the school’s future than to have this group share their wisdom and experience with us and our students.” Furthermore, Rhimes employs fellow USC Trojans like Susan Vaill, editor for Grey’s Anatomy and graduate of the M.F.A. Film Production program (2001). Conferring an honorary degree to Shonda Rhimes would acknowledge and honor her continual involvement in the university. Her work is outstanding proof of the Trojan Family tradition.

Though the work of Rhimes merits praise, undoubtedly some will oppose the nomination due to her popularity. Notably, Freedman argues against lauding famous persons as “the original purpose of honoring distinguished personal achievement has widely been modified—some would say blighted—by institutional desire to…garner a fleeting moment of public attention by awarding an institution’s ultimate accolade to mere celebrities--who are often famous principally for being famous” (126). He is greatly opposed to awarding honorary degrees with a seemingly selfish, superficial backing. Agreeably, it is unfair to focus solely on her compensation for the nomination. But as Martin points out, craft, compensation, and moral concern "are mutally reinforcing, interwoven, and fused, [and] sometimes compensation motives and goods support moral concerns" (25). Admittedly, Rhimes is extremely popular, but it is erroneous to assume USC would grant her honorary recognition solely due to her familiarity rather than her work and social contributions. Along with personal success, she is an outstanding illustration the great education and skills USC offers to students dedicated to their field of study. Her films and TV show integrate the values of the university as the Mission Statement states, “USC is pluralistic, welcoming outstanding men and women of every race, creed and background.” The promotion of gender equality and racial diversity on Grey’s Anatomy is the statement in application.

Still, critics may presume the honorary degree will be yet another award for the famous show. Others may question her nomination since she has only one significant piece of work. While Grey's Anatomy is extremely popular, it is should not be seen as another mindless form of entertainment on par with racy talk shows or wild reality shows. Rhimes is using one show to make a difference as she argues, “The way people look at people on television is the way they perceive the world…The idea of the show, part of it, is that we can change…the assumptions that people have simply by the images that they see in the background.” Regardless of critics, the desire to represent her personal, positive point-of-view on television is venerable in its own right. Furthermore, having only one considerable work should not undermine the worthiness of an honorary candidate. Krista Vernoff, staff writer for Grey’s Anatomy, contends, “What Shonda has done in terms of race…is revolutionary…And she does this in such an unassuming way. Not coming in to scream and change the world but coming in to reflect the world as [she lives] it. That’s going to have far-reaching ramifications.” If a single work is of exceptional craftsmanship or social effectiveness, the fact that it is unaccompanied should not be a deterrent for commendableness.

If honored, Rhimes would have the opportunity to speak to the graduating class of 2007. According to Freedman, the commencement address should “persuade our students and commencement guests that each honorand’s character and attainment were worthy of emulation and admiration” (132). Fittingly, Rhimes is an exceptional representative of anyone who has faced professional and personal struggles to achieve success without sacrificing integrity and core values. Unfortunately, our society propagates misleading myths like the “rags-to-riches" tale and "instantaneous" millionaire. This has led to generations having misconceived notions about their careers when they enter the professional world. For our graduates, it will be enlightening to hear from someone whose great accomplishments came from rigorous study, willingness to work, and unwavering dedication to her craft. Equally admirable, Rhimes is pursuing a career she enjoys while spreading positive messages to the public. While the world may not change over night, she is setting example by injecting personal values and a personal diverse background into her work. In presenting a willingness to change the face of television and film, Rhimes will hopefully persuade graduates and commencement guests alike that the voice of one person can make a difference, regardless of the professional medium. Lastly, her personal motto is universally honorable and applicable: “As long as I’m writing things that make me happy and I’m enjoying [myself], it doesn’t feel like work. That’s pretty much my only goal: to make it not feel like work.” For her outstanding contributions towards presenting and encouraging diversity and gender equality on television and film, USC should bestow its highest award to Shonda Rhimes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A Worthy Honor! I am a new viewer to Gray's and love it!!! I pray that Ms. Rhimes receives this honor! She has been blessed by God with this incredible gift and talent. She has captured the human condition in the light of our simplicity and complexity.