How to Get Away With Gayness: Shonda Rhimes Kills TV’s Sex Stereotypes

In Shondaland—where Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder live—gays are sexy, complicated, and flawed. How one ‘Angry Black Woman’ (ugh) revolutionized gay characters on TV.

Jim Smeal/BEImages

Shonda Rhimes’ characters are horrible people.

They’re operatic sinners. They’re also open-hearted Samaritans. They’re selfish and harpy, but generous and romantic. They’re conniving sons of bitches, but they’re also vulnerable, broken, and flawed. They’re ambitious and powerful, and doubting and insecure. They’re complex and complicated—like all of us.

That’s the bold revolution Rhimes is leading, with her unprecedented takeover of ABC’s Thursday night primetime lineup: the triple-header of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder. (She created the first two series, and, as The New York Times’s Alessandra Stanley so acutely learned last week, is executive producer of the latter.)

It is both remarkable and ridiculous that these batshit dramas—in which Katherine Heigl has sex with a ghost, the president of the United States is an assassin, and law students make a pact to cover up a homicide I Know What You Did Last Summer-style—are also the most realistic and responsible mirrors reflecting actual society, especially minority and underrepresented sociocultural groups, that we have on television. But on broadcast TV, they are.

While the soap opera suds runneth over on Rhimes’ shows, she’s also serving some of the most groundbreaking portrayals of gay people and ethnic minorities we’ve ever seen on TV, and in a very simple, counterintuitive way: She makes them just as crazy, crazy-in-love, and for-the-love-of-god frustrating as their straight, white counterparts.

Because—hey—gay men, angry black women, what have you: We’re all horrible, too.

Yes, everyone’s horrible, including the aforementioned Times critic behind the now-notorious review of How to Get Away With Murder, a tone-deaf, error-riddled embarrassment that purports to be a paean to Shonda Rhimes, but in which insult is inscrutable from compliment and praise comes off as sheer racism. The outrageous opening line, as you must have heard by now, is, “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman,’” going on to suggest that the heroines of Rhimes’ dramas played by Kerry Washington and Viola Davis must be based on Rhimes herself—you know, because they’re all black—and also are versions of the “angry black woman” stereotype.

Naturally, it’s Rhimes herself who most expertly criticized Stanley’s piece, drawing attention to both its racist connotations and highlighting the equal-opportunity anger she writes her series with, tweeting: “First thing: (then I am gonna do some yoga): how come I am not “an angry black woman” the many times Meredith (or Addison!) rants?”

It’s so perfect, because it spotlights that Rhimes has done as much for shading the stereotype of skinny white bitches as she has for that of angry black women, that she’s simply interested in color-blind complexity when it comes to character. Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey is as intolerable as she easy to root for, for example. She’s a heroine who’s imperfect, just like us.

But pertaining to Rhimes’ defense of her other angry characters, one thing I’ve always found glorious about Scandal is that Jeff Perry’s Cyrus—the president’s righthand man, a walking about-to-burst forehead vein, the pitbull of the West Wing—is the show’s most unhinged, rant-y, perennially frustrated and perennially furious character. And Cyrus is also gay.

When it comes to the more nuanced portrayal of minority, and specifically gay, characters on TV, a phrase that’s used often to describe characters whose entire personalities aren’t defined by their sexuality—as was the case for so long when gay characters were flamboyant comedic relief, or maudlin inspirational hero figures—is that they “just happen to be gay.”

Cyrus is not perfect. In fact, he might even be evil. And like all of the characters on Scandal, his imperfect devilishness is colored by the actor’s sympathetic and humanizing performance. There doesn’t even seem to be any handwringing about whether to have Cyrus complicit in Scandal’s more uncouth machinations. The groundbreaking thing about Shondaland is that its gay characters are finally allowed to have all the uncouth fun all the straight characters have been having on TV for years.

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Yes, there was a coming-out-of-the-closet story arc that might negate the “just happens to be gay” progressiveness of Cyrus in Scandal, but watching it unfold so beautifully—and featuring a man grappling with those things later in life as opposed to the wide-eyed questioning teens we’re so used to seeing—was a landmark delight.

Cyrus is (well, was) also married, to late reporter James Novak. They were awful to each other. Their relationship was messy and sordid and full of lies and jealousy and betrayal and backstabbing. They were also very much in love. In other words, we got a gay couple that was finally as complicated as the straight ones.

Well, finally is a bit of lie, because Rhimes had gifted us with a couple like that before, though they were not nearly as dark as Cyrus and James. Grey’s Anatomy’s Callie (Sara Ramirez) and Arizona (Jessica Capshaw) are monumental because they were lesbian characters in what was, at the time, the most popular show on television (yes, Grey’s is still on and still popular, but it used to be a phenomenon); that was five years ago when things were actually quite different in terms of gay visibility in the media; and they actually got married on the show, before same-sex legalization was a national movement.

But if the reason that Callie and Arizona could be considered a huge step forward in the portrayal of gay characters on TV boils down to one thing: They are the goddamned most annoying couple on Grey’s Anatomy. This is a big deal!

Until then, gay couples were almost exclusively idyllic, sort of adhering to an unspoken mandate that their relationships should be perfect in order to prove that the idea of same-sex love is nothing for Americans to be scared of, because there was nothing any different about the way that they love from the way that “conventional” or “traditional” couples love.

But in doing that, these TV portrayals ignored the way same-sex relationships were very much like their straight counterparts: as much love as there was, there was as much stress and complication and work. So it was actually kind of amazing that on Grey’s Anatomy, Callie and Arizona didn’t have to be perfect. They could be irritating and aggravating, even. And beautifully so.

Which brings us to the very important thing that makes same-sex couples just like their straight counterparts, and another element of Shonda Rhimes’ TV shows that is groundbreaking: Her gay people have sex! And not, like, off-camera sex. Or make eyes-at-each-other, screen-cuts-to-black, and then you-see-them-morning-after-post-coitus kind of sex. Broadcast television has become racier and more explicit in the way it depicts sex in primetime, and Rhimes is as equal opportunity about that as she is about everything else on her series.

In How to Get Away With Murder, five law students compete to impress Viola Davis’ high-powered defense attorney Annalise Keating, and employ every unscrupulous tool in their box to succeed. They lie, they break the law, and they use their sexuality. Think about how often sex is used for power on television, and then think about how often it’s used that way by gay characters. Nada, right?

On HTGAWM, Jack Falahee plays Connor Walsh. Connor, at least judging by the events of the first episode, is gay. He needs something. And he sleeps with somebody in order to get what he needs. It’s a tired trope of broadcast television—sex as a means to an end—but it’s a groundbreaking one on HTGAWM, because Connor sleeps with a man to achieve that end. Not only that, Connor is shown sleeping with the man. And the scene is hella racy. Heck, it’s hot.

Imagine that, a network television show realizing that gay sex can be hot and titillating, too. What a world! What a big, gay world!

Of course, Shonda Rhimes is not alone. She’s had help knocking down broadcast conventions and boundaries from the likes of Ryan Murphy and Marc Cherry and Robert and Michelle King. But on the debut of her astounding Thursday night ABC takeover, let’s just take a minute to marvel about how one Angry Black Woman managed to bring sexual diversity on TV up to speed, one Angry, Horrible, Sexual, Devious, Complicated Gay Person at a time.