Shonda Rhimes Remixes the Glass Ceiling Metaphor to Thank All the Women Who Came Before Her

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Thirty years before she stood at the podium this week, Shonda Rhimes remarked while receiving an award from The Hollywood Reporter for breaking TV’s glass ceiling, there would likely have been only two powerful women in all of Hollywood — and she would have been “serving them breakfast.” But in her incredibly generous and perceptive speech, Rhimes refused to take sole credit for the momentous cultural change that had taken place in the intervening years. She really broke no glass ceilings, she said.

This moment right here, me standing up here all brown with my boobs and my Thursday night of network television full of women of color, competitive women, strong women, women who own their bodies and whose lives revolve around their work instead of their men, women who are big dogs, that could only be happening right now. Think about it. Look around this room. It’s filled with women of all colors in Hollywood who are executives and heads of studios and VPs and show creators and directors. There are a lot of women in Hollywood in this room who have the game-changing ability to say yes or no to something.

Expanding on the idea that good timing and more general political progress made her rise to TV power possible, Rhimes offered us a new broadening of the “glass ceiling” metaphor, an interpretation notable both for its humility and its perceptiveness about the actual process by which change occurs.

What does it take to break a glass ceiling? It isn’t as simple as superstars flying straight up and through. Instead, it takes lots and lots of ordinary, driven people pushing against that boundary, often at great pain to themselves, until it’s vulnerable. Then, of course, it’s ready to be smashed by someone — in Rhimes’ case, someone incredibly smart, savvy, and talented — who sees the cracks that have opened and moves through them.

As she said:

How many women had to hit that glass before the first crack appeared? How many cuts did they get, how many bruises? How hard did they have to hit the ceiling? How many women had to hit that glass to ripple it, to send out a thousand hairline fractures? How many women had to hit that glass before the pressure of their effort caused it to evolve from a thick pane of glass into just a thin sheet of splintered ice?

Rhimes is not the first person to talk about millions of cracks in the glass ceiling (hello, Hillary Clinton and her “18 million cracks” line), but her words are notable for their vivid, visual description of how that cracking process works, and her call to the audience to really sit back and picture the anonymous women before her trying and maybe failing to break through in the entertainment industry. The glow of popularity and success that envelop Rhimes is undeniable, and she would have had every right to simply take the opportunity to talk about her process and vision. Instead, she showed us a picture of the women whose shoulders she stands on.

This recalls the empathy she uses in her best TV writing.

A final thought: as triumphant as Rhimes’ now-viral moment was, we know structural racism and sexism persist in the TV and film world. In fact, today, the Golden Globes nominated their first-ever black female director, in giving a nod to Ava DuVernay (who, incidentally, directed an episode of Rhimes’ Scandal last season) for Selma. In many instances, once the glass ceiling gets cracked and an exceptional individual gets through, it can close again in her wake.

So the work continues to ensure that those cracks that Rhimes entered through will be allowed to get wide enough for a flood of other women and people of color to enter.

Watch her speech below: