Shonda Rhimes’s new book, “Year of Yes,” released today, lies somewhere between a memoir and a self-help tome. It’s the story of a year — a year and a half, really — in which Rhimes decided to accept opportunities, ranging from a request to appear on “Jimmy Kimmel” to an invitation to give the commencement address at Dartmouth, instead of turning them down to focus obsessively on work. And while there are times where Rhimes tries to extrapolate lessons for her readers, the truth is that most of her audience won’t face dilemmas like being too nervous to meet President Obama. “Year of Yes” is most bracing and useful at the moments when Rhimes honestly separates herself from her readers and tallies up the costs of an exceptional life and the price you have to pay to make a difference.
What makes Rhimes’s experience as a cultural figure so exciting, while also making her sort of unsuited to write an inspirational memoir or advice book, is the extent to which her career is an exception, a dispatch from a possible future of Hollywood where women and people of color aren’t struggling for proportional representation and creative opportunities.
Rhimes, unlike many other television writers, had the highly unusual experience of starting her career in the medium by running a show that she had created, “Grey’s Anatomy. To her, that means that “I knew nothing about working in TV when I began running my own show. I asked every TV writer I bumped into what this job was like, what being in charge of a season of a network television drama was like.” It also means that Rhimes got to skip the phase that many women and people of color in the television industry go through, of being the only one in the room, of having to justify her ideas or of having to endure a hostile environment that her colleagues insisted was key to their creativity.
That is exhilarating, as is Rhimes’s clarifying exasperation at “the Diversity Question — ‘Why is diversity so important?’,” which, she writes, “ranks for me as one of the dumbest questions on the face of the earth, right up there with ‘Why do people need food and air?’ and ‘Why should women be feminists?’ ” But as delightful as it would be for every woman or person of color to have Rhimes’s career trajectory, or for the value of diversity to be a settled question among Hollywood executives, we’re a long way from both of those points. And wannabe-Shondas can’t make that optimistic future so simply by saying yes to it.
The most interesting and emotionally engaged sections of “Year of Yes” are two chapters toward the middle, “Yes to My Body” and “Yes to Joining the Club,” which deal explicitly with the exceptional nature of Rhimes’s experience and stature in her industry. She’s never blunter than in a long passage about her sense that she had no choice but to do well with “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal”:
This wasn’t just my shot. It was ours. I had to do everything right. I had to keep it all afloat. I had to run to the top of the mountain. I could not rest, I could not fall, I could not stumble, I could not quit. Failing to reach the summit was not an option. Failing would be bigger than just me. Blowing it would reverberate for decades to come. With ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ it would mean that giving an African-American woman her own show with a cast that looked like the real world was a mistake. I proved it wasn’t. The stakes got even higher for ‘Scandal.’ If the first network drama with an African-American leading lady in thirty-seven years didn’t find an audience, who knows how long it would take for another to come along? Failure meant two generations of actresses might have to wait for another chance to be seen as more than a sidekick. I am what I have come to call an F.O.D.— a First. Only. Different. We are a very select club, but there are more of us out there than you’d think. We know one another on sight. We all have that same weary look in our eyes. The one that wishes people would stop thinking it remarkable that we can be great at what we do while black, while Asian, while a woman, while Latino, while gay, while a paraplegic, while deaf. But when you are an F.O.D., you are saddled with that burden of extra responsibility— whether you want it or not…I was not about to make a mistake now. You don’t get second chances. Not when you’re an F.O.D. Second chances are for future generations. That is what you are building when you are an F.O.D. Second chances for the ones who come behind you.
The bravest thing Rhimes does in “Year of Yes” is to squarely address the cost of being F.O.D., even when a person in that position succeeds on the scale she has. Her work ethic meant she sacrificed her social and networking opportunities because “I said no to so many invitations that people actually stopped asking me.” She lost old friends whose birthday parties she failed to show up for and who didn’t understand her exhaustion. And most of all, she anesthetized herself with food.
“The food created a nice topcoat. It helped to smooth down the ragged bits. Sealed off the parts of me that were broken. It filled in all the holes. Covered up the cracks. Yep, I just put some food on top of any and everything that bothered me. The food just spackled right on in there,” Rhimes recalls. “Food is magic. It makes you feel better. It numbs you. Beautiful magical food deadens your soul just enough so you can’t think too hard about anything other than cake or sleep. Putting food on top of it casts a spell to make the feelings go away. You don’t have to face yourself or think or be anything other than your brain— no body necessary.”
Food provided Rhimes with a barrier that let her avoid difficult emotions and even other people, but the weight she gained also made parts of her body hurt, winded her when playing with her children and distanced her from the world. These sections of the book are painful without being self-pitying, and Rhimes’s writing here is more powerful for simply acting as a tally of the sacrifices and pressures that accompanied her success. It’s a cautionary note to the rah-rah environment that presently accompanies so many pop culture firsts and busted barriers. This isn’t just a triumphant moment. It’s an exhausting and even perilous one.
Rhimes herself cautions readers about lionizing her and her supposed struggle in “Yes to Joining the Club,” which is about an award she received from the Hollywood Reporter, supposedly for breaking the glass ceiling.
“If I had broken through any glass ceilings, I would know. If I had broken through a glass ceiling, I would have felt some cuts, I would have some bruises. There’d be shards of glass in my hair. I’d be bleeding, I’d have wounds,” Rhimes writes. “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? So that when it was my turn to run, it didn’t even look like a ceiling anymore. I mean, the wind was already whistling through— I could always feel it on my face. And there were all these holes giving me a perfect view to the other side…When I finally hit that ceiling, it just exploded into dust. Like that. My sisters who went before me had already handled it. No cuts. No bruises. No bleeding.”
I wish “Year of Yes” was a more introspective book. If we can’t take Rhimes’s life experiences as a model for our own — and I really don’t think most of us can — it would at least be fascinating to hear her be more candid on what made her career in television possible, and what she thinks it will take to reshape the industry permanently so that other people will have similar opportunities. But at a moment when Rhimes’s vision of television is gaining a foothold with gratifying results, like “Fresh Off the Boat,” “black-ish,” and most recently Aziz Ansari’s excellent comedy “Master of None,” it’s worthwhile to remember that wrenching television toward what it can be is still work, and it still carries a cost.