African and African Disapora Studies Department
African and African Disapora Studies Department

Women Can't Have It All. Dr. Thompson Writes about Shonda Rhimes' Storyline's on Successful Women

Mon, February 2, 2015
Women Can't Have It All. Dr. Thompson Writes about Shonda Rhimes' Storyline's on Successful Women
There’s plenty of discussion about the intense sex in Shondaland, the fictional worlds crafted by acclaimed producer Shonda Rhimes.

Often overshadowed, however, is how Rhimes brazenly explores the consequences of sex, namely, children. She has been at the center of the mommy wars for years, crafting domestic story lines that don’t make parenting the center of the narrative.

Many of Rhimes’s powerful characters must balance their careers, children and love life. Unlike other shows, no one gets it all. In “Grey’s Anatomy,” Christina Yang, a surgeon, chooses an elective abortion instead of having a child with her husband. There was no fairy-tale ending. The decision allows her to pursue her career and life dreams, but it destroys her marriage.

And the title character, Meredith Grey, refuses to follow her high-powered neurosurgeon husband to Washington.

In “Scandal,” first lady Mellie Grant can’t wait to send her charges off to boarding school or to the nanny so she can wield her political influence.

Even Cyrus Beene’s dearly departed husband, James, struggled with the toll that child-rearing had on his career as a journalist.

This reality isn’t reflected in other shows. In “Parenthood,” Kristina Braverman has a doting husband, a charter school and three children — yet she still manages to stay fit and sane.

On “The Good Wife,” Alicia Florrick returns to work as a corporate attorney, yet still parents her two teenage children (with the help of her overbearing mother-in-law).

Even Leslie Knope on “Parks and Recreation” is running a branch of the National Park Service while raising triplet toddlers, and she never breaks a sweat.

No one ever has to make sacrifices. Marriage, children and the careers survive.

But in Shondaland, there’s no “having it all,” wrapped in a cute little bow.

That’s an important message, imparted by someone who understands these delicate issues. Rhimes herself is a single working mother; she has three daughters, two adopted and one via surrogate. In “Learning to Surrender: How Adoption Changed Me” in the Daily Beast, she explains how becoming a mother forced her to accept what she could not control.

She describes the long wait in the hospital parking lot for her daughter to be born.

It was in that car that I finally understood the surrender. That I finally fully accepted that this wasn’t my process. That something in me broke open. Because I realized that I wasn’t sitting in that car thinking about me. I was sitting in that car thinking about the scared girl heading for an operating room having a baby she would ultimately hand over. To me. This wasn’t my surrender. It was hers.

And she’s also talked about how “having it all” is a fantasy. At a Dartmouth convention address, she said:

Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life. … That is the trade-off. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel 100 percent okay; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous.

So it’s fitting that Shondaland looks beyond the decision to have children and shows how parents deal with the challenges of child-rearing once they arrive. While the professions her characters toil in are glamorous or powerful, all parents understand that pull between one’s work and one’s family obligations.

The true cost of motherhood is a central question in Shondaland, and that is an important cultural contribution.

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