“I feel at home in Shondaland. I feel a lot of things at Shondaland, but one of the things I feel that I haven’t felt before is at home. I feel accepted for who I am and acknowledged for who I am. I feel like my ideas are embraced.”—Viola Davis.
Spoiler alert: most of the television that you watch has been created by a bunch of old white dudes. In an entertainment industry that struggles to represent diverse identities and ways of life, Shonda Rhimes has built her name—better yet, her “land”—on stories and characters that deviate from TV norms. In Shondaland (the umbrella term for all the series the Rhimes has created or produced), black women are in positions of power, queer love is championed, and the characters are complex, flawed, and relatable. In addition to earning critical and commercial success, Shondaland has become an inclusive and thriving space for fans from wide-ranging demographics. From Rhimes’ long-running Grey’s Anatomy to her upcoming Netflix projects, and everything in between, here are the facts that put Shondaland on the map.
42. Mentorship Matters
While pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Southern California, Rhimes was hired as an intern by Debra Martin Chase, a prominent African-American producer. Rhimes worked under Chase at Mundy Lane, Denzel Washington’s production company, and she cites Chase’s mentorship as a major factor in her eventual Hollywood success.
41. Chasing the Dream
After graduating with an MFA from the School of Cinematic Arts of USC, Rhimes worked a variety of jobs in Hollywood. Her first gig of note was as a research director on the 1995 documentary Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream. It may not have been the dream job Rhimes was hoping for after graduation, but the film did go on to win the prestigious Peabody Award that year.
40. Gotta Start Somewhere
It’s always nice to know when an entertainment mogul has humble beginnings, right? When Rhimes was in high school, she worked at a local Baskin Robbins ice cream shop, making minimum wage plus one free scoop per shift. Rhimes wrote a humorous personal essay about the experience, claiming “I let a miniskirt propel me into the workforce.”
39. Introducing Shonda Rhimes
After selling her rom-com script to New Line, Rhimes landed the job of writing Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, a made-for-HBO biopic. The film was an immense critical success, earning star Halle Berry a Golden Globe and an Emmy. Though Rhimes didn’t win any major awards for the writing of this biopic, it was certainly a pivotal moment that introduced her name to the TV industry—and it’s early evidence of the importance of having black women writing for black female characters.
38. Shondaland Moves to Netflix
While Shondaland has thrived over at ABC, Rhimes was still limited by network demands in terms of what types of content she could produce. In 2017, Rhimes signed a multi-year production deal with Netflix, ending her 15-year relationship with ABC. Her first Netflix Original Series will be based on the life of Anna Sorokin, a con-artist who posed as German heiress Anna Delvey in order to scam banks, businesses, and friends. The rights to Sorokin’s story were a hot commodity after a profile in New York Magazine, and Rhimes won out over several other bidders. Production has not yet begun on the series, but it sounds like an awesome way to kick off Shondaland’s Netflix run.
37. Princess Power
Reuniting with her mentor, Debra Martin Chase, Rhimes’ second film writing gig was for The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. In another early example of Rhimes’ commitment to writing diversity, her first decision on the job was to add a black princess to the story’s world: Princess Asana, played by Raven-Symoné. Royal Engagement would be Rhimes’ last foray in the film industry before going on to make her name in TV.
36. Black, White, and Grey’s
In addition to reinvigorating the medical soap genre, Grey’s Anatomy was groundbreaking for its approach to writing and casting its main characters. Using a nontraditional process, Rhimes left all of the characters’ races and ethnicities open, instead describing characters through emotional, rather than physical traits. This approach led to a more diverse cast than we typically see in prime time TV—especially in 2005—and it is certainly one of the reasons that the show attracted such a large viewership.
35. There is a Real-Life Olivia Pope
While the story of Scandal might seem made-for-TV, the character of Olivia Pope is based on a real lawyer and crisis manager named Judy Smith. When Rhimes sat down with Smith, who had served as a Special Assistant and Deputy Press Secretary under George H.W. Bush, Rhimes immediately found inspiration for her series, envisioning several seasons worth of material. When Scandal finished filming its final season in March 2018, Smith attended the series’ wrap party, and Kerry Washington tweeted a photo of the two together, calling Smith “the inspiration for it all.”
34. Empowering Actors
Ellen Pompeo, who plays title character Dr. Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy, had her directorial debut during the show’s 13th season in 2017. Speaking about the importance of this opportunity, Pompeo said, “Shonda Rhimes has allowed me to evolve with the show and direct and help produce the show. So now I have more ownership of the show and much more say.” Since the vast majority of film and television is directed by men, encouraging female actors to get behind the camera is a huge win for Shondaland.
Shondaland is the name of Rhimes’ production company and the term fans use to describe all of the Rhimes-produced series. But in 2017, it also became the name of a lifestyle website launched by Rhimes to serve as a hub for storytelling and community-building. The site features articles, videos, and podcasts on a variety of topics ranging from politics to fashion.
You might remember TGIF (Thank Goodness it’s Friday), ABC’s famous advertising slogan for its Friday-night programming block which started back in 1989. Once Shondaland was well-established on the network, ABC launched a #TGIT (Thank Goodness It’s Thursday) advertising campaign in 2014. The Thursday block consisted of three back-to-back hours of Shondaland programming: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder. Before long, the #TGIT became a popular hashtag among Shondaland fans, especially considering how live-tweetable each show was.
31. Not My President
You may wonder why, in Obama’s America, Scandal would cast a white man as president of the United States. But Fitz’s whiteness was essential to the framework of the show from the beginning. In fact, Kerry Washington agreed to do the show only if Fitz was white. Rhimes agreed, stating that she didn’t want audiences thinking the show represented any kind of commentary on Obama or his administration.
30. Scandal Without the Scandal?
The relationship between Olivia and President Grant is the scandal that powers the entire Scandal series, but ABC initially tried to talk Rhimes out of telling that story, claiming that it was both inappropriate and uninteresting. Rhimes held her ground, basically giving ABC the ultimatum that the affair was happening, “or they shouldn’t make the show.” ABC eventually acquiesced to Rhimes, and as a result, they got a top-rated, fan-favorite series.
29. Two Strikes, You’re Out
Of all the behind-the-scenes drama in Shondaland, one of the most well-known incidents was when Grey’s Anatomy star Isaiah Washington used a gay slur against co-star T.R. Knight in 2006 during an on-set argument. Washington initially apologized for his behavior, but in 2007, repeated the slur during an interview at the Golden Globe Awards. After this second incident, Rhimes and ABC opted to fire Washington. His character, Dr. Preston Burke, was written off the show in the season three finale.
28. Name That Tune
There have been 317 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy—and counting!—but did you know that every episode is named after a song? With titles like “Sympathy For the Devil,” “Bring The Pain,” and “Something to Talk About,” Grey’s creates an intersection between popular music and TV that is both fun and meaningful. Rhimes continues to oversee the musical choices in the show, calling the task the “highlight of [her] job.”
27. Rhimes Has a Favorite Episode
In a 2015 interview, Rhimes revealed that the season four episode of Scandal entitled “Run” is her favorite. The episode involves Olivia Pope being kidnapped and detained in a jail cell, and it turned out a fantastic performance by Kerry Washington. Rhimes wrote the episode herself and claims: “It’s my favorite episode that I’ve written, of anything that I’ve written.”
26. Anatomy of a Spinoff
The first Grey’s Anatomy spinoff was Private Practice, which aired from 2007 to 2013 and followed former Grey’s regular Dr. Addison Montgomery as she leaves Seattle Grace Hospital for Seaside Wellness Center. The show ended after six seasons after a mutual agreement between Rhimes and ABC that it had run out of steam. In March 2018, the second Grey’s spinoff, Station 19, debuted to a respectable audience. The series follows a workplace drama format similar to Grey’s, in this case focusing on Seattle firefighters. The 10-episode first season garnered mixed reviews but was nonetheless renewed for a second season by ABC in May 2018.
25. Digital Addition
Dr. Alex Karev, played by Justin Chambers, is one of the longest-serving members of the Grey’s Anatomy cast, but he almost wasn’t in the show at all. The character of Karev was not originally in the script but added later when the network thought there needed to be another male in the core ensemble. Chambers was, therefore, a late addition to the series; in fact, he missed the filming of the pilot and had to shoot his scenes separately, which were then digitally added to the episode.
24. A White Olivia Pope?
That’s right, Olivia Pope was almost a white woman. ABC originally wanted Connie Britton of Friday Night Lights fame for the role, but Rhimes held her ground, insisting that Pope be played by a black woman. Gabrielle Union and Taraji P. Henson auditioned for the part, which, of course, eventually went to Kerry Washington. Washington’s success on Scandal has been noted as a major stride forward for black leading ladies on television, so thank Shondaland for refusing the possibility of a white Olivia Pope.
23. Grey’s Musical Event
In addition to incorporating music as part of the show through its episode titles, Grey’s Anatomy also aired a fully musical episode in 2011 called “Song Beneath the Song.” The Grey’s cast was well-equipped for the format since several of the main actors had successful musical theatre careers, including Tony Award winner Sara Ramirez and Broadway star Chandra Wilson. The episode, which garnered mixed-to-negative reviews, featured music by The Fray, Snow Patrol, and Brandi Carlile, among others.
22. Off-Screen Romance
In How to Get Away with Murder, Bonnie (Liza Weil) and Frank (Charlie Weber) have a close relationship that oscillates between “just friends” and lovers. In 2016, it was revealed that Weber and Weil had been secretly dating in real life—perhaps fueling some of the chemistry between the two on-screen characters.
21. Directed by Shonda Rhimes
Rhimes is an accomplished writer, producer, and showrunner, but she only has one directorial credit to her name: the 1998 short film Blossoms and Veils. The short was produced by Will Smith and stars Jada Pinkett-Smith, Jeffrey Wright, and Omar Epps. Smith was also set to produce a feature-length film to be directed by Rhimes, When Willows Touch, but three weeks before the start of production, Epps walked away from the project and Miramax cut the funding. “Apparently there wasn’t a big market for black films set in the Jim Crow South about a body rotting in a cornfield,” said Rhimes.
20. The Tone Deaf Times
Rhimes’ reputation was already well-established when a 2014 article profiling her in The New York Times made waves due to its tone deaf, and ultimately racist, rhetoric. While the intent of the article was to praise Rhimes, it did so through celebrating her as an “angry black woman” and noting that Viola Davis was not as “classically beautiful” as white leading ladies. Rhimes clapped back hard at the article, as did Shondaland fans who saw right through the patronizing, white-centric perspective of the NYT article.
19. Oh, Thank You
Sandra Oh’s portrayal of Dr. Cristina Yang was a landmark for Asian-American women on TV. When Oh left Grey’s Anatomy in 2014 to pursue other projects, she made sure that everyone involved in making the show knew how much she appreciated them. Oh went around the set, saying “thank you” and giving out gifts to around 250 people. This story is evidence of the kinds of workplace environments that are possible in Shondaland, and the respect and gratitude that those environments can create.
18. Not-So-Great Dane
Eric Dane quickly became a fan-favorite on Grey’s Anatomy, playing Dr. Mark “McSteamy” Sloan. Unfortunately, trouble in his personal life eventually led to Dane’s exit from the show. After a video of Dane with his wife and another woman walking around naked in their home leaked on the web, it came to light that Dane was struggling with drug addiction. He did a stint in rehab and did return to the show, but was later killed off in 2012, supposedly due to budget constraints.
17. Jesse Williams Schools at the BET Awards
You might remember that in 2016, Jesse Williams accepted the Humanitarian Award at BET’s annual celebration. Williams delivered a powerful speech about racial inequality, police brutality, and cultural appropriation. While many praised the speech, some Grey’s Anatomy fans were not happy to see one of their fave celebrities get political: a petition on change.org to fire Williams amassed 19,000 signatures. Of course, Rhimes paid no credence to the petition, and Williams remains a core member of the cast.
16. Shondaland is a Small World
Shondaland is filled with actors who have appeared on multiple Rhimes-produced series. From small guest spots on other series, to holding main roles in multiple shows, it is clear that Rhimes looks out for her actors. Some major highlights: Jeff Perry and Kate Burton on both Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, Katie Lowes on Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and Private Practice, and Liza Weil on How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and Private Practice. These connections are like Easter eggs for fans, who love seeing their favorite actors pop up in new parts of Shondaland.
15. “Stop Looking at My Vajayjay!”
After hearing an assistant on the Grey’s Anatomy set use the term “vajayjay” as a euphemism for “vagina,” Rhimes decided to incorporate it into a script. She claims that ABC had been complaining about the show’s repeated use of “vagina”—though they seemed to have no problem with “penis”—so adding this slang was both a jab at the network and just an awesome way to launch a new word into our cultural lexicon.
14. Working Around Pregnancy
Scandal lead Kerry Washington got pregnant during the show’s third season, causing production to be cut short by four episodes. Washington’s pregnancy was also not written into the script; instead, they used chairs and lamps to hide the baby bump and filmed Washington mostly from the chest up.
13. Shonda Rhimes, Child Prodigy
In a 2015 interview, Rhimes revealed that she began writing stories when she was just four years old. She recalls dictating her stories into a tape recorder, and her mother would then transcribe them. I don’t know if that qualifies Rhimes as a prodigy, but it is certainly impressive evidence that this woman was born to tell stories!
12. Kill Your Gays
It is a known problem that contemporary TV that shows tend to kill off queer characters at a higher rate than straight ones. Season two of Grey’s Anatomy introduced the show’s first lesbian couple—Drs. Erica Hahn and Callie Torres. Despite critical and fan praise for the depiction of this relationship, Dr. Hahn, played by Brooke Smith, was abruptly axed from the show. It turns out that ABC was less than comfortable with the depiction of lesbian partners. Smith says of the decision to write her character out of the show that “it definitely seemed like [Shonda’s] hands were tied. That was just my gut. It seemed like some decision came down from above. It didn’t feel like it was her.” Thankfully, Shondaland has gone on to give us a lot more queer characters over the years!
11. Domestic Scandal
Harrison Wright was a fan-favorite character on Scandal from the start of the series. But in 2014, the wife of actor Columbus Short filed an affidavit asking for a restraining order against Short, citing domestic abuse. Soon after the news broke, Short was fired from Scandal. Only a couple of years later, Short was once again charged with domestic abuse against a second partner and is currently serving a 1-year jail sentence. But way back in 2014, Shondaland set an important example for how producers should respond to actors’ off-screen behavior.
10. Queer Controversy
The pilot episode of How to Get Away with Murder features a love scene between two gay characters, Connor and Oliver. While the scene aired as intended in most countries, it was cut completely when aired on Italy’s Rai 2 channel. Angry fans took to Twitter to condemn Rai 2’s decision, and Rhimes chimed in, re-tweeting a clip of the 30-second scene and adding: “Censorship of any love is inexcusable.”
9. Never Diss the Writers
Grey’s Anatomy launched Katherine Heigl’s career, but she had a funny way of showing gratitude. In 2008, Heigl pulled her materials from Emmy consideration, claiming that she did not think the writing in that season was good enough to warrant her a nomination. This move did not sit well with Rhimes or the writers, who significantly reduced Heigl’s role in the show. Heigl then asked to leave Grey’s with 18 months left on her contract, and Rhimes was happy to boot that negativity right out of Shondaland.
8. Shonda Rhimes, Beer Pong Queen
While Rhimes is most known for her behind-the-scenes TV work, she has also appeared in front of the camera—as a guest star on The Mindy Project! Back in 2014, when The Mindy Project was in its third season, Rhimes guest-starred as herself, a successful and brilliant TV producer, but also a beer pong champion. In the show, Rhimes competes in the annual Dartmouth Alumni Beer Pong Tournament but is eventually de-throned of her champion status by Dr. Peter Prentice. Hey, now that I’m thinking about it, is it too late for some Mindy doctors to cross over to Grey’s?
7. Long Live David Rosen
When Rhimes noticed that Scandal star Joshua Malina liked to read the last page of his scripts first, she decided to teach him a lesson. When the actors sat down for a read of the season two finale, Malina jumped to the final page and reacted in horror—his character, David Rosen, had been killed off! Malina then looked over at a co-star’s script to see a different ending, eventually realizing that he had been trolled by Rhimes. There were no hard feelings, and it taught Malina to respect the writers by reading the scripts as they were intended.
6. Removing the Artifice
One of the most well-known scenes from How to Get Away With Murder comes in season one, episode four when Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) sits at her vanity to remove her wig and make-up. The scene was widely praised as a critique of Western beauty standards and an authentic glimpse into the life of a woman who goes to great lengths to put up a facade. Interestingly, it was Davis herself who had the idea for the scene. Davis has alopecia and has worn wigs for many years, so she was really able to bring the emotional weight of this moment to bear on the screen.
5. Full-On Foley Drama
Scott Foley’s involvement in Scandal was dramatic from the start. He was written out of Grey’s Anatomy because Rhimes had created the part of Stephen Finch, Olivia Pope’s best friend, just for him. Due to network concerns, the part ended up going to Henry Ian Cusick, so Rhimes cast Foley instead as Pope’s former love interest, Jake Ballard. It turned out that Washington and Foley did not get along off-screen, leading to rumors that he had purposely been killed off at the end of season four to ease the tension on set. Those rumors were quashed when Ballard clawed his way back into the series and lasted until the final season—albeit with fewer scenes alongside Washington.
4. My Neck, My Back…
Speaking of love scenes, How to Get Away with Murder’s Viola Davis, as Annalise Keating, has had some steamy ones with costar Billy Brown, as Nate Lahey. In a 2017 interview, Davis revealed that she threw her back out during a scene in which Nate slams Annalise against a wall. Davis bounced back like a pro, of course—perhaps aided by the shot of vodka she takes to loosen up before every love scene!
3. Hit Me, Shonda, One More Time
Raise your hand if you remember the movie Crossroads starring Britney Spears. Did you know that Shonda Rhimes wrote it? In fact, the road-trip dramedy was the first major motion picture that Rhimes worked on. While Crossroads was a total critical failure—with 14% on Rotten Tomatoes and 27/100 on Metacritic—it did gross over $61 million worldwide, and it’s notable for featuring now-stars Zoe Saldana and Taryn Manning. Rhimes definitely has no shame about her involvement in the film—a Crossroads poster hangs in the Shondaland office.
2. Diva Dempsey
Patrick Dempsey’s Dr. Derek Shepherd (AKA “McDreamy”) had been a mainstay of the Grey’s Anatomy ensemble since the pilot episode, so fans were shocked when his character was killed off in the season 11 finale. Apparently, Dempsey had been exhibiting diva-like behavior for years, clashed directly with Rhimes, and had an on-set affair—no room for that stuff in Shondaland!
1. A Scandalous Tradition
Actors have all kinds of methods for getting into character and getting psyched to film an episode. On the Scandal set, Kerry Washington started a tradition where everyone screams the episode number, applauds, and bangs on furniture before shooting begins. Sounds like a great way to get the energy flowing!