Last week’s New York Times article about Shonda Rhimes raised a lot of eyebrows for its suggestion that the showrunner’s autobiography should be called, “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.” In my work as a psychologist, I’ve seen firsthand how Rhimes’s characters can be good role models for women—not for being angry, but for the way they define themselves positively. Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, is about to wow us with another complex and strong leading female character. This fall she presents us with Viola Davis as Professor Annalise Keating, J.D., in How to Get Away With Murder, which debuts tomorrow.
Rhimes has an affinity for telling a woman’s story without the need for definition of self through a romantic relationship. She is providing her own unique and special dose of women’s empowerment via television’s cultural messages. Clearly we need these kinds of role models. I’ve counseled a lot of women about their relationships. “But I don’t feel complete,” a female client told me, describing her life without a man. Others have had affairs with married men to avoid feeling alone. There are many women who feel they are not whole without a primary relationship and that feeling is exacerbated by the cultural messages of needing a partner to be a complete person.
In Shondaland, female characters defy this traditional cultural message. Take the standout characters of Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy. Scandal’s Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is successful, powerful, independent, a Gladiator. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) of Grey’s Anatomy is also successful and prestigious in her surgical field. But neither has a steady romantic partner. And it’s okay. We don’t all need a man or partner to have a happily ever after. But it’s nice to have a go-to person who can be a support for you, a person to list on your emergency contact information. That is what Yang declared and maintained with Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), her closest friend and Grey’s Anatomy’s namesake. And it worked for them. Well, until Cristina said goodbye in the season finale. What pulls us into these shows and characters is their connection with others. Deep down we support true love between two people.
Research indicates that as human beings, not just females, we thrive on connection with others. From early work in psychodynamic theory and attachment theory, social isolation has been found to be detrimental to people and can lead to elevated stress hormones, depression, and other illnesses. It is totally normal and healthy to want a primary partner to love and to be loved. It’s just important to feel whole first, to feel enough. Self-worth has multiple dimensions. It’s not just “I have good self-esteem” or “I have bad self-esteem.” Still, in my practice with women in therapy, I have noticed a trend over the last decade and a half. The infusion of women’s empowerment has been very focused on career advancement. But how to have good self-worth as well as a complementary, mutual, and healthy romantic relationship has not been translated yet into media or cultural messages to women.
I see strong, effective, powerful women who are financially independent and successful. Then, when it comes to romantic relationships, the self-worth tide takes a turn. Women are primarily socialized to derive their sense of self and worth from the status of the relationships in their lives, especially their romantic relationship. This is not a bad thing. It’s just that, as a result, they might sometimes overlook unhealthy behaviors in the people they are dating. They may stay longer than is best for their sense of self. They may tolerate behaviors they would’ve told you prior to the relationship they wouldn’t accept. One recent University of Toronto study found that those who feared being single recognized that they were making poor decisions about who to date. They also found that both men and women settle for less for fear of being alone. Thus, a common side effect of a fear of being single is to settle for less of a relationship, rather than be alone.
So will Olivia Pope settle for Jake (Scott Foley)? Or will she be back to look for the president? Ideally, Olivia would be able to experience a mutually satisfying relationship with the person of her dreams, as would President Fitz (Tony Goldwyn). But he’s unavailable. So it’s best she be on her way to strengthen her worth and realize she is enough. I wonder how Viola Davis’s character will struggle, or not, with romantic relationships. Shondaland gives us plenty to watch and devour. Hopefully her characters will all continue to learn the true value of their self-worth. And one of those is that they are enough without a partner.