Shonda Rhimes has brought some pretty iconic female characters to television over her long and wildly successful career, ranging from Grey's Anatomy's Meredith Grey and (the sadly departed) Cristina Yang to Scandal's leading lady Olivia Pope to Bridgerton's Daphne just last year. It would practically take an encyclopedia to list and do justice to them all. Rhimes' female characters have stories that are varied, and their personalities can conflict, but they are compelling. Considering all of that, it seems crazy that anyone would have notes for Shonda Rhimes regarding her female characters - and yet, a single comment keeps popping up.
In the latest episode of the official Bridgerton podcast, Shonda Rhimes sat down with fellow television producer Betsy Beers (who has served as a producer on multiple Shondaland shows) to discuss, among other things, the treatment of female characters. Shonda Rhimes said that there is one note she always gets when it comes to the women she creates: many of them aren’t considered ‘likable.’
Nobody ever asks us if a man can be more likeable. Nobody ever asked me if Cyrus Beene could be more likable, not once! But Olivia Pope murders one person with a chair, and people are like, can she be more likable?...there’s always a moment somewhere where someone looks at one of the female characters and goes, ‘She doesn’t seem very likable’ and I think that’s just the craziest thing...since when is ‘likable’ a goal? Like, that is not a goal of a thing to be. That’s like saying, ‘Can you be bland’? Can you be, just, blah? I don’t know. Why is likable a thing?
Shonda Rhimes isn’t wrong about crafting characters who may not be considered conventionally likable. After all, she wouldn't have had the smash success that she has over the years on television if she didn't know a thing or two about female characters with staying power. Grey's Anatomy has been running for the better part of two decades now centered on a flawed but definitely never "blah" lead character! Her success is proof that viewers overall don't need a sweet and demure female character to care about the show.
It could have something to do with appearances, if you ask me. Women on TV are often heavily made-up and sporting perfect hair and wardrobe even if it doesn't really make sense for a scene. To allow a female character to really emote, to let her step outside of the ‘likable’ box, is arguably to give her permission to be ugly. When Olivia Pope bludgeoned ex-Vice President Andrew Nicholas to death with a chair on the fifth season of Scandal, it certainly wasn’t pretty. And it definitely wasn’t likable.
But that is what makes characters interesting. When you try to make a character likable, you can end up smoothing out their edges to appeal to as many people as possible. This creates a bland impression of a human being that lacks allure or charm.
And the Shondaland women are a lot of things, but they’re not boring. Shonda Rhimes lets them rage and cry and live, and that’s what makes her shows so successful. What matters is that viewers see their struggles reflected onscreen.
So let’s stop telling Shonda Rhimes she needs to make her women more likeable. If the popularity of her shows is any indication, those characters are doing just fine the way they are, "unlikable" traits and all. Grey’s Anatomy is currently airing on ABC, and the first season of Bridgerton is available on Netflix, along with other Shonda Rhimes series including How to Get Away with Murder, Private Practice, and the first 16 seasons of Grey's Anatomy.