Why Does Everyone Know Who Lena Dunham Is But Shonda Rhimes Barely Registers A Blip?


First a disclaimer: I am not a regular viewer of Girls or Scandal. I watched the first season of Scandal but it got to be a little too much for my tastes. Girls seems designed, content-wise, to specifically repel me.

With that out of the way, I think it’s odd that we get so much media attention directed towards Lena Dunham, the creator of Girls, and hardly any coverage of Shonda Rhimes. Dunham has created a successful show on HBO, a pay-tv channel. By comparison, Rhimes is the lead creator behind three very successful hit shows on network television – Scandal, Private Practice, and Grey’s Anatomy.

Take a look at this chart from Google Trends. Rhimes barely registers.

I think this might be slightly less glaring if Rhimes’ body of work was mostly Private Practice and Grey’s Anatomy, which are more traditional programs. But while Scandal is sort of a procedural, it has at its heart an interracial affair between an accomplished black woman and the white President of the United States. That feels far more outside of the traditional TV box than a story about New York-based hipsters (as I’d describe them, at least).


Let’s look at the ratings. As Deadline.com notes here, Girls got about 3.8 million viewers in its first season – about the same as Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Veep, which hasn’t received nearly the same amount of hype. And that’s on the same network.

In the most recent ratings I could find, Scandal had 8 million viewers (good enough to be the #2 show in its time slot), while Grey’s Anatomy had 8 million as well.

So Scandal has twice the audience, for what I’d argue is a more unconventional premise.

Also, there are not many minorities running network TV shows, let alone black women with shows that have multi-ethnic casts.

Yet, it’s Dunham who is on the cover of Rolling Stone this week, for a show that has been criticized for its dearth of minority characters even though it’s set in America’s most multiethnic city.

Part of this is how the elitist-minded media prefers to cover their own (they have more in common with Dunham and her characters than they do with Rhimes and hers, particularly Olivia Pope), never mind that the raw numbers favor Rhimes.

It’s also possible that one show is of higher quality than the other, but since when has the quality of entertainment ever had that much of an effect on media coverage? A lot of crap television gets coverage from the rest of the media.

In my opinion, this is at least part of the elite media disregarding the impact of minority media. You see it when Tyler Perry releases a movie and it makes a huge amount of money by appealing to a middle class minority audience, yet other, less successful white filmmakers get a lot more coverage. And I HATE Tyler Perry’s movies (honestly, For Colored Girls is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen in my life and I saw Freddy Got Fingered.)


As I wrote a few months ago, we also saw this in the media coverage of the election, where the mainstream press had no idea what Obama was doing appealing to audiences on urban radio and in Latino media, yet that helped him to appeal to those key constituencies in a manner that helped him to win re-election.

I don’t think a lot of this is done out of obvious malice, but a more subtle form of myopia. If “everyone” you know is talking about Girls, you think it’s important enough to cover no matter the underlying reality.

What’s the overall point? I think the media needs to get out of its comfort zones on these things. Yes, you guys cover Dunham because she has the HBO/New York/college thing going on, but your audience, — at least a significant and growing portion of it — doesn’t share that world view and experience. They’re watching other things that they are either more interested in or have more in common with (despite my feelings about Scandal, it has clearly shown that there’s a segment of America that wants to see professional minorities like them and not just the usual pimp or prostitute caricatures – or the now-tired black police chief).

Your potential audience is bigger than you think, but it’s also more diverse than you are assuming.



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  • http://twitter.com/annie_woodard enlightenedgirl

    This is more about HBO and being the next new thing. Lena is a twenty something who writes, acts and directs, she’s producing something different for a younger generation. When Grey’s Anatomy first aired, Shonda was the toast of the town and her genius was rewarded with several shows as Executive Producer with many accolades to follow.

    Lena is recognizable because she’s also in front of the Camera. There are many factors why Lena Dunham is achieving success just like Shonda’s meteoric rise 10 years ago, she’s giving us something new. But to say you’ve never seen “Girls” and “Girls seems designed, content-wise, to specifically repel me” – what’s your point? Female against Female? Black Woman against White Woman? There are many Women who are great at what they do and we need more of them. We certainly don’t hold Men to these standards, lighten up.

  • http://sonic.net/~ckelly/Seekay/mtbwelcome.htm RepackRider

    I feel blessed that I don’t recognize either name.

  • dgvb

    Maybe it’s because I don’t live in my mother’s basement, but I’ve never heard of either of these people, and I’ve never seen a single episode of any of the shows you mentioned. Do people REALLY follow show business and the people in it that closely and take them THAT seriously? Do you? Really?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Oscar-Jimison/100001431764474 Oscar Jimison

      Look at me. I don’t watch tv. I’m so enlightened and wonderful. Although I do have time to post comments on stories about something that I (supposedly) have no interest in whatsoever.

  • FistOSalmon

    Not that Oliver doesn’t have some valid points but face it, Rhimes is not also in front of the camera. If Kerry Washington was writing, producing, directing and acting in Scandal and the coverage still skewed the same way there’d be a lot more to meat to the argument. Of course it’s a matter of nano-seconds before all that pent up envy bursts out, jealousy rears it’s head and the knives come out from the part of the press that’s currently swooning over Lena Dunham.

    Also if Kerry Washington was naked as often as Dunham is Scandal would be the most watched show in the history of television. Just saying.

  • Treading_Water

    Loook! Bewbs!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Oscar-Jimison/100001431764474 Oscar Jimison

    (…and not just the usual pimp or prostitute caricatures – or the now-tired black police chief).”

    Actually the new stereotypical roles for blacks include:
    * white guy’s hot black girlfriend/mistress (see scandal)
    * black person who doesn’t seem to know any black people (see New Girl, Happy Endings, Whitney, 2 Broke Girls, . . .)
    * corrupt politician/community activist whose job is to make the sainted white characters seem even more principled. ( see Blue Bloods)
    * some combination thereof

    By the way, I think the fact that Rhimes doesn’t appear in any of her shows may be partially to blame. But there’s no denying that “someone” decided that Dunham is the it girl ( and Girls is the it show), no matter what.

    • http://twitter.com/CaramelCoolata KEISHA CHARLES

      Her PR Team! i kind of resent your “new stereotypical role” diatribe! How many of those roles are there out there?? How many Fitz and Olivia characters are there since it is so stereotypical. There are so many black girls with white boyfriends on TV.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Merl-Allen/695715159 Merl Allen

    It isn’t always about race, Oliver.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Merl-Allen/695715159 Merl Allen

    No nudity on Grey’s Anatomy, that’s why.

  • meondisqus99

    Because Lena Dunham is an television actor (and producer) you can see and Shonda Rhimes is a television executive who works in an office at a studio. People know Rhimes’ TV shows.

  • MBunge

    Putting aside questions of quality and race, the biggest issue is probably that Rhimes is making mass market entertainment that hopes to attract the biggest audience possible while Dunham is engaging in the sort of niche storytelling attracts a very small but very passionate number of viewers.

  • Christopher Foxx

    it has clearly shown that there’s a segment of America that wants to see professional minorities

    And/or that there’s a segment that wants to see good drama and doesn’t really notice that several of the main characters are dark hued or female or whatever.

  • http://www.facebook.com/KevinMarkHendricks Kevin Hendrix

    Apatow is behind Girls. Apatow is like distilled zeitgeist.

  • Buzz Killington

    Well, Dunham is *in* her show. I try to avoid such things, but the coverage I’ve seen of her centers around the fact that she’s naked a lot despite not being particularly attractive. Nobody cares about people that are (only) behind the scenes.

  • chilisize

    It’s kinda simple: How many over-produced, soapish doctor/lawyer shows populated by beautiful and or cute people having fake ass sex have made it to TeeVee? That’s right, dozens and dozens.

    How many messy, talky, heavy on the real sex, hipsterish low fi comedies? Only one. Or if you are generous, you can count them on one hand and have at least a thumb left over. Girls is unique. If Rhimes had created Girls, I think she’d be getting the attention. If Dunham had instead created yet another fantastical cutesy doctor soap, she’d not be getting much, or the same kind of press for it that she gets for Girls.

    • Monica

      I agree. I think Oliver is asking the wrong questions and reaching the wrong conclusions. Shonda Rimes makes shows that are similar in subject, casting, and tone to several other shows on other networks. Rimes might be unique in the industry, but her shows aren’t. Her audience is also not likely to be PR crisis managers, Republican presidents, sexed-up doctors, etc.

      • http://twitter.com/CaramelCoolata KEISHA CHARLES

        Actually Scandal is different. Way better than the average show. In fact, It would have been more awesome on HBO. I can barely stand an episode of girls and I am an originality queen.

  • Phil Perspective

    Look at the bottom of the “Girls” promo poster. Apatow is a big name. Since he’s involved, that guarantees coverage. And doesn’t Brian Williams’ daughter star in it as well? Which just proves one of your points right. The media doesn’t get out of its comfort zone. They are myopic.

    • http://www.oliverwillis.com/ Oliver Willis

      But the Apatow connection is rarely mentioned in what Ive seen of it.

      • Phil Perspective

        Right but just the fact that he’s involved means his PR machine, such as it is, is behind it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/KevinMarkHendricks Kevin Hendrix

      sorry for reposting your comment but I totally agree. Judd apatow was the reason I even knew Girls was a thing.

    • http://twitter.com/CaramelCoolata KEISHA CHARLES

      Dunham also had parents in the business.. so she didn’t have to kill herself to get publicity..