My daughter doesn’t tweet all that much, so when she sends out a link, I sit up and take notice. Last weekend she tweeted a link to the powerful speech Shonda Rhimes’ gave upon her acceptance of The Hollywood Reporter’s Sherry Lansing Leadership Award, which recognizes a woman in the entertainment industry who is a pioneer and leader in the industry.
For those unfamiliar with Ms. Rhimes, she’s a serious force in Hollywood whose writing and executive producer credits include Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, among many others. She also happens, in her words, to have been “born with an awesome vagina and really gorgeous brown skin.” So when Ms. Rhimes speaks of breaking through a glass ceiling, she ain’t exaggerating. But the power of her speech, the extraordinary beauty of it, is that she doesn’t take much credit for it. Ms. Rhimes eloquently gives the lion’s share of credit to the pioneering women before her. The ones who didn’t break through, but who weakened the glass ahead of her. If you read the speech (linked below), I suspect you won’t come away unmoved.
The point she makes is one I’ve been struggling with recently. With all the work that had been done by my mother’s generation, especially in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, I can’t shake the feeling women have been pushed down a steep section of stairway. And I can’t help but look at my own generation–and myself–and wonder how we allowed it. I admit, it’s extraordinarily disheartening.
In 1968, Dihanne Carroll, an African American woman, had the lead role on her own show, Julia, where she played a widowed, single mother supporting her family as a nurse. Talk about groundbreaking. (Too bad she was the first, and unfortunately last, African American woman to reach such heights until Scandal debuted in 2012. But that’s a post for another day.) At the same time Julia was on the air, The Carol Burnett Show was among the most popular shows on television, and shortly after came The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Maude. Women had a prominent leading presence on TV, cast as smart, funny, capable and independent. Role models aplenty.
When I graduated from high school and entered college in 1982, there were ZERO majors off limits to women. I had sorority sisters majoring in business, communications, pre-med, engineering and architecture. We went to work and found ourselves on more equal footing with men than we had imagined we would be. Of course, early days. The glass ceiling was there, we simply hadn’t risen high enough to encounter it quite yet. Still, many of us felt confident we would be unaffected by that old idea. The mythical ceiling, after all, been shattered by our elders. Ah, the optimism of youth. Or maybe laziness.
Our early success came too easy. Our mothers and grandmothers had paved a deep trail, one earned by lawsuits and demands for equal opportunity, insistence on a workplace free of sexual harassment, and we didn’t have to break much new ground. We just plodded through the trail, stomped it down a little harder. When I looked around the office at my first job, I saw more women than men and felt a little shiver of triumph.
Hubris, more like.
Because when I looked up again in the 1990’s, women were back to being portrayed in media as little more than sexual beings, or existing to serve a man. Something felt very backward to me, as if we’d made a sudden U-turn. When I would decry how women were depicted in, for example, music videos, I was told—by younger women—I was old-fashioned, or worse, that my objection meant I wanted to rob those women of their choice to appear in such videos. That I was trying to rob them of the power they’d earned to choose to be sexualized in such a way. Ooookayyyyy.
And now, fast forward to the new millennium, where women have more workplace muscle than ever, but somehow it’s acceptable for a guy to shove a woman’s head under the proverbial water and call her a slut and threaten to rape her openly on social media, or on comment boards. Our teenage boys casually use the verb “rape,” having apparently lost all understanding of the true meaning of the word. Women are portrayed on shows like Game of Thrones being violently assaulted, and the message is sickeningly mixed by the inclusion of what sounds like pleasurable moans in the background.
Yeah, I’m pretty positive the work my mother’s generation did has suffered a serious blow. Maybe damage inflicted by the patriarchy, maybe by hubris, maybe by entitlement. Whatever the cause, it’s happened.
I suppose great strides in human enlightenment aren’t taken on a linear path. As in war, there are battles lost and battles won, and this certainly isn’t the Women’s Movement’s version of Waterloo. But it feels bad right now. At least it does to me, having gotten a fleeting glimpse of what I naively thought would be a straight-line trajectory.
So I’m uplifted by, and thankful for, people like Shonda Rhimes. Women who, despite the noise, the long odds and ugliness with which they are occasionally (or frequently) confronted, manage to scope out the cracks in the ceiling and power through. I take from her speech the hopeful feeling that my generation wasn’t as stagnant as it feels we were, and the hope that those following behind her will be better equipped to take a stand at the next landing, will not cede ground to threat and disrespect and gratuitous sexualization, will, instead, power up another flight. Or three.