Shonda Rhimes’ formula for creating a hunk works every time
Jesse Williams, Regé-Jean Page and Conrad Ricamora are just a few of the men who’ve benefited from a Shondaland endorsement
No one marshals the energy and attention of horny women quite as well as Shonda Rhimes.
Time after time, she has taken actors and turned them into archetypal figures, identified by both good looks and a reliable ability to make those who burn for him a little bit nuts: the Shonda Hunk.
The Shonda Hunk appears both in the shows she runs or writes for and those where she’s an executive producer. His race may vary. So might his sexual orientation. He can be a doctor, a president, an attorney (although it helps if his occupation telegraphs a certain level of financial stability).
There’s a reason Rhimes, 52, who began her screenwriting career with Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, the Britney Spears movie Crossroads and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, is now the standout American kingmaker of male romantic desirability. Whether it’s Jesse Williams, Regé-Jean Page or Conrad Ricamora, Rhimes’ most popular heartthrobs all have something in common: Fitzwilliam Darcy, the romantic hero of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is baked into their characters. If there’s one thing for which Rhimes has an eye, it’s a Darcy — an eligible, rich, handsome, unattainable man who seems like a jerk but is actually an awkward mensch just waiting for the right woman to turn his head.
It’s unusual, still, for a woman to have as much power and influence as Rhimes wields in the entertainment industry. Roadblocks, especially those erected by overconfident male executives with little knowledge of what actually occurs between women’s ears and how it relates to what they feel between their legs, remain more rule than exception in Hollywood. And that was certainly the case when Rhimes began working with her producing partner, Betsy Beers, on the pilot for her breakout series Grey’s Anatomy. Critic Joy Press relayed one such instance in her book, Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television:
The pilot kicked off, in fact, with Meredith literally screwing up: we see her throw her hunky one-night stand out of her house before setting off to her new job, where she discovers that cute stranger is her boss. This so-called slutty behavior worried some TV execs. Beers recalls attending a meeting where she and Rhimes were surrounded by men: “One gentleman in particular who was not responding positively to the Grey’s Anatomy pilot mentioned that he could not understand a woman who was so irresponsible. What kind of woman would ever, ever do that? I raised my hand and said, ‘That would be me.’ ”
It’s still true that the people who mint on screen sex symbols of any gender, from casting directors to studio heads to directors, are overwhelmingly male. But in television, Rhimes changed the game. And the effect of being knighted as an object of desire lasts long past their appearance on Shondaland shows. I didn’t quite realize the extent to which this is true until earlier this year when I was sitting in a Brooklyn, New York, beauty salon and one of the stylists shared some fresh tea: Williams, best known for playing Dr. Jackson Avery on Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes’ long-running medical drama, was in a play on Broadway.
And he was naked.
For a generous amount of time.
And you could see eeeeeeeeverything.
You could practically hear the eyebrows go up in the shop.
The production, a revival of Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, was still in previews. Then a video was leaked from a performance. The leak was a boon to the show’s bottom line (not an empty seat in the house the night I attended), and for weeks there was a frenzied rush at the Helen Hayes Theater stage door after performances.
The sight of a penis is no longer a once-in-decade occurrence onstage or screen. Williams wasn’t even the only man who gets naked and showers onstage in Take Me Out. So do the eight other members of the baseball team at the center of the play, which follows the dynamics of a major league clubhouse when the team’s star player, Darren Lemming, played by Williams, comes out as gay.
So what was it about this penis that was stirring up such a frenzy?
It was attached to a Shonda Hunk.
The early seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, which premiered in 2005, sported romantic heroes with memorable nicknames. McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey) was a neurosurgeon with the bearing of a golden retriever: friendly, open, eager to please. And McSteamy (Eric Dane) — well, the man radiated sex and transgression and taboo and line-stepping. Yum.
But Seattle Grace Hospital had a Darcy, too, in the form of cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Preston Burke. Played by Isaiah Washington, Burke was a prototypical Darcy: a handsome perfectionist who takes himself too seriously and constantly projects an air of superiority. He’s almost loathsome — until he meets his match.
“[Rhimes] upended that formula by making this Black man this aloof person, who, if you are a viewer — if that trope works for you and it always has worked for me — he’s the mystery,” said Elaine Lui, founder of the site Lainey Gossip and host of the Canadian entertainment show etalk. “Who is he? How can I crack him? How can I date him? How can I melt him? How can I solve this guy? And that is her brilliance.”
Had it not been for a nasty clash of egos on the Grey’s Anatomy set that led to his departure in 2007, maybe we’d still be discussing Washington as a figure of national thirst. By the time Williams’ character was introduced two years later, the show was in its sixth season and its ability to speak to the tastes of a broad swath of women had been proven repeatedly with ratings that were the envy of every broadcast network executive. Like Darcy, Williams’ Avery entered the scene at Seattle Grace as a social outsider. He was a plastic surgeon from a rival hospital and an instant figure of suspicion. But also: undeniably hot.
Strategically speaking, Lemming was an ideal role for Williams’ Broadway debut after 12 years on Grey’s. It requires nerve, yes. But mostly it requires an ability to be The Guy. Lemming is the best athlete on his team. He’s the smartest. He’s the most handsome, the most popular, the most everything, and he never seems like he has to try hard to be those things. Lemming is laconic, verging on antisocial, and he willfully ignores the way he gives his accountant, Mason Marzac (played by Tony winner Jesse Tyler Ferguson), the vapors. He’s aware of the effect he has on people. He just doesn’t dwell in it. The withholding, inscrutable qualities that make Darcy so intriguing have significant overlap with Lemming. Both are figures who everyone wants to know intimately, and yet almost no one does. When paired with the right actor, the Darcy formula almost never fails.
The case of Alfred Enoch is another example of how the Shondaland Machine shapes male celebrities. Before his arrival on How to Get Away With Murder, Enoch, 33, was mainly recognizable as the actor who played Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter movies. The role of Wes Gibbins took Enoch from the high school playground of Hogwarts to the lustful, young adult shirt-shedding of law school. Rhimes, who produced the series, and Peter Nowalk, who created it, turned up the dials on some of Rhimes’ more melodramatic stylistic tics in How to Get Away With Murder, making it OK to objectify a man who had spent a great deal of his time in the public eye as a child. Unfolding Gibbins’ story required patience on the part of the audience — he was the mystery box character in a mystery box show. Eventually, that patience was rewarded with a steamy hookup Gibbins has with a neighbor in his apartment building.
For actors who have never before experienced the voraciousness of the fandom Rhimes engineers, being on the receiving end can be startling. So said Ricamora, 43, an experienced theater actor whose breakout role as law student Oliver Hampton in How to Get Away With Murder raised his recognizability quotient and shifted his ideas about who and what he could play.
“It literally changed my life,” said Ricamora, who recently concluded a run as Seymour in an off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors. “It changed the way I was able to move through the world or wasn’t able to move through the world. … It was really intense and learning how to deal with all of the attention was something that was tough at first, but it definitely changed my life.”
Unlike the Asian male characters Ricamora saw growing up — he name-checked Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles — Hampton’s sexuality received serious treatment. His sexual encounters on How to Get Away With Murder were filled with passion and intensity. Playing Hampton gave Ricamora a new way to see himself, and it carried over to his performance of Will in Fire Island, a gay, Asian Pride and Prejudice written by and starring Joel Kim Booster, in which Ricamora occupies the role of Darcy — rich, judgy, single and withholding, but ultimately a perfect match for the pretty Lizzie Bennet type who likes to read.
“I didn’t think that I would — from the things that I saw growing up — that I would be able to play a character that was in a romantic relationship and had a fully fleshed-out romantic arc,” he said. “It changed the way I thought about the things I thought I could do. Because of playing this, being offered this role. It gave me confidence that I could make a dent in this industry.”
Even among Shonda Hunks, though, Page stands apart. As Simon Basset, Page was the lead romantic hero of Season One of Bridgerton. The Netflix adaptation of the Julia Quinn novels remains the streamer’s most-watched English-language series debut. Before Bridgerton took off, Page had appeared in the short-lived Shondaland show For the People, playing a newly minted prosecutor in the Southern District of New York. Like Grey’s Anatomy, For the People featured attractive, ambitious young professionals having lots of sex in between cases as they try to find their footing in a big city. Page was the perfect Darcy for it: striking good looks tempered by his appetite for reveling in spoilsport contrarianism.
It set him up for Bridgerton and the fan mania that followed. When Page hosted Saturday Night Live, his monologue and sketches were largely structured around one thing: his overwhelming hotness.
The jokes, of course, contained a kernel of truth. Page has a quality that isn’t guaranteed in actors simply because they have defined muscles or a pretty face. He possesses an almost unnerving intensity of presence. He smolders from within, in the way that the best on screen Darcys tend to do.
The smolder is key. Simply being cast as a Darcy-like figure is not a guarantee of fan devotion. Take Matthew Macfadyen: He was perfectly cast as Tom Wambsgans in Succession but his limp, damp turn as Darcy in the 2005 feature adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was disappointing.
Identifying actors who make good Darcys is a talent. Doing it as reliably as Rhimes is a superpower.
Plenty of romantic comedy writers employ Austen tropes in their work. Few are so successful at inspiring such strong parasocial attachments to the characters they create. How does Rhimes do it, and with such consistency? She keeps her finger on the pulse of the minivan majority.
Lui coined the term years ago to describe a media-consuming demographic not officially tracked or recognized by Nielsen.
“Most women at one point of their lives, or multiple, can phase in and out of being in the minivan majority,” Lui said. “When I watch Bridgerton, I’m 100% minivan majority. I want the love, I want you to give me the tropes. I want the formula. … When I’m watching a show like that, I’m not going to dissect it based on the filmmaking merits or whatever. I’m just going to fully invoke that part of me.
“There’s a minivan majority spirit, which is: You lead with romance. You believe in the fairy tale. You want the swooping, swooning love story.”
Rhimes is fluent in the wants and ways of the minivan majority. It’s how she built her empire. In her 2014 commencement address at Dartmouth, her alma mater, Rhimes talked about originally wanting to be Toni Morrison, and the moment she realized that she could not “be Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, because Toni Morrison already had that job and she wasn’t interested in giving it up.” So Rhimes decided to go to film school at the University of Southern California and become herself.
The writing of both women is evidence of a shared familiarity with the traditional (which is to say, pre-Morrison) literary canon. In Rhimes’ case, it’s with the tropes and rhythms of Austen, whose novels explored the place of women in upper-class England in the late 1700s.
Why is this model so appealing to a 21st-century woman? In part, it’s because popular conceptions of romance remain stubbornly rooted in small-c conservative heteronormativity. The fairy-tale princess programming is powerful. The idea of making a love match remains extremely compelling. Rhimes accepts all of that, and combines it with the needs and desires of modern, empowered womanhood. Her heroines are not helpless.
Austen was critiquing this situation with satire as she was writing about it. Her novels are about the limited power that women hold within a larger world of white supremacist capitalist heterosexist patriarchy.
Rhimes recognizes the power the female audience holds. “From Grey’s Anatomy to Scandal to Bridgerton, she isn’t out there seeking an audience that is Emmy voters and critics and whatnot. She firmly believes in the power of the female audience. And she caters to us,” Lui said. “She knows what will work, what hits women in the gut. … Shonda has never disrespected that audience. And because of that, the men she chooses for those roles get the benefit of the loyalty and the desire of that audience.”
Rhimes’ work and the world of modern Regency stories often double as fan fiction for hetero relationships. The bare minimum expected of Regency hunks in want of wives is a heck of a lot more demanding than the modern practice of dating by swipe. Besides being well-mannered and appropriately dressed, Regency hunks, as a matter of course, willingly and enthusiastically enter a world in which women are both the prize and the ones running the show. They would not dream of entering such a space without knowing how to dance. The women, however disenfranchised, have something these men need, whether it be wealth, a title or a womb to fill with legitimate male descendants. But it’s also a world of possibility, where women who have the misfortune of being poor, clever or both can still be winners. In real life, Rhimes, the showrunner, is the Queen Charlotte of television, dispensing TV boyfriends as national wish fulfillment.
However, it becomes more difficult for grown women, with all their grown women wisdom and concerns, to obsess over these heartthrobs when real life becomes so inhospitable that it intrudes on the enjoyment of romantic fantasy. Modern American women are finding, much like Austen’s most celebrated heroine Elizabeth Bennet, that life as a second-class citizen with limited options can be a romantic buzzkill. The ramifications of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization have only just begun to reveal themselves — a 10-year-old Ohio rape victim being forced to travel to Indiana to obtain an abortion when she was barred from obtaining one in her home state. Doctors being stymied by state law from giving lifesaving treatment to pregnant women. For many, it’s a miserable time to be a woman in America. And much of that misery emanates directly from powerful men and the decisions they make.
Does our current state portend a doubling down on the escapism of Regency? Or a pivot toward something more acidic? If there is anyone with the authority to meet the storytelling challenges this environment presents, it is Rhimes. This is the woman, after all, who had her Black heroine, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), undergo an abortion after her white Republican president boyfriend got her pregnant, something Pope did not reveal to him until after the procedure was concluded. And it was Pope who delivered one of the most resonant speeches ever to come out of Shondaland, dressing down her still-married boyfriend in the Oval Office, no less.
“I am not a toy you can play with when you’re bored or lonely or horny. I am not the girl the guy gets at the end of the movie,” an enraged Pope tells Fitz (Tony Goldwyn). “I am not a fantasy. If you want me, earn me!”
So even as women continue to find their way through the spring, summer, fall and winters of their discontent, it’s safe to bet that Rhimes will somehow manage to keep romance — fantasy or otherwise — alive.