On Shonda Rhimes’ Acceptance of the Sherry Lansing Award
By Jeanna Kadlec
from Bluestockings Boutique
My favorite feminist moment of 2014 came at the very end of the year in December and encapsulated a number of vital themes: the value of community, the impact of individual will, and the critical importance of understanding history and your place in it.
The moment was Shonda Rhimes’ acceptance speech of the Sherry Lansing Award at The Hollywood Reporter’s 2014 Women in Entertainment Breakfast. Rhimes’ speech, coming as it did a mere three months after The New York Times article in which TV critic Alessandra Stanely labeled her an “angry black woman,” was poised to address the intersection of her unique position as a black woman who is a writer, producer, show runner, and all around girlboss in Hollywood.
Rhimes addressed her position, as well as her initial discomfort with the fact that she was seemingly receiving a “participation trophy” for simply being a successful black woman in Hollywood. In a moment where worlds collided and angels sang, Rhimes quoted Beyonce and said, “I woke up like this.” But more to the point, Rhimes disagreed with the idea that she should get a trophy for breaking any glass ceilings. In her words: “I have not broken through any glass ceilings. If I had broken through any glass ceilings, I would know.”
Addressing our own internalized judgments towards other women is absolutely vital to crafting our own unique feminisms — feminisms that can embrace community identities we ourselves don’t possess.
What Rhimes initially identified in her speech was the readily digestible notion of “breaking the glass ceiling,” an action often attributed to powerful CEOs, athletes, and other exceptional women (like other recipients of the Sherry Lansing Award, such as Oprah Winfrey). The glass ceiling is a perpetual buzzword, with many women (most recently Penn Mutual CEO Eileen McDonnell) dismissing it or saying that they never encountered gender discrimination in their careers. But this outright dismissal of the glass ceiling does irreparable damage to women further down the rungs who are hustling, who are encountering discrimination in their everyday lives.
Within the walls of gender theory, the idea of “breaking the glass ceiling” has a twin: “female exceptionalism.” Female exceptionalism is the celebration of a singular woman’s accomplishments, separate from the context of considering the function of gender in society. These women, singularly and separately, are considered to rise “above” their gender (obviously, this is rooted in cissexism). Insidiously related to this is the dissociation of these women from other women. Ultimately, at its root, “female exceptionalism” and an isolated discourse about women who “break the glass ceiling” can be traced to misogyny, both internalized and externalized.
However, Rhimes blatantly refused this common discourse and instead offered a nuanced interpretation of her own experience, one deeply rooted in community and the historical realities faced by women and especially black women in the entertainment industry. She may not have felt the glass ceiling break, she said. She may have always felt the air against her skin, whistling in from the other side, but just because she didn’t feel the cuts of breaking the glass ceiling didn’t mean it was always that way:
“All of the women—white, black, brown—who woke up like this, who came before me in this town. Think of them. Heads up, eyes on their target, running full speed, gravity be damned towards the thick layer of glass that is the ceiling. Running, full speed and crashing. Crashing into the ceiling, and falling back. Into it, and falling back. Into it, and falling back…. How many women had to hit that glass before the first crack appeared?
My sisters who went before me had already handled it. Making it through the glass ceiling… was simply a matter of running on the path created by every other woman’s footprints. I just hit at exactly the right point, exactly the right spot, exactly the right time…
This is a trophy for participation, and I am beyond honored to receive it, because this was a group effort. I want to thank all the women in this room, and I want to thank all the women who never made it to this room, and I want to thank all the women who will hopefully fill a room a hundred times this size when we are all gone.”
As problematic as second wave sisterhood politics are (white, middle class, and heterocentric feminism is not singularly representative), addressing our own internalized judgments towards other women is absolutely vital to crafting our own unique feminisms — feminisms that can embrace community identities we ourselves don’t possess. Whatever race, sexuality, politics, or belief system you own in this moment, female exceptionalism doesn’t have a place anywhere. When the glass ceiling breaks, it breaks under the weight of thousands of women running at it full speed.
That’s what Shonda Rhimes was saying so powerfully.
This is not a singular effort. It is a community effort. Together.
So today, whatever you are doing, if you call yourself a feminist: run.