As we recently shared with you, writer and producer Shonda Rhimes was was honored by Mattel’s iconic Barbie brand with her own ‘Role Models’ doll ahead of International Women’s Day (March 8). But more than having the perk of saying she’s one of the lucky people to go down in history as having a Barbie doll, Rhimes is partnering with Barbie to help inspire young girls to dream big.
They’re working together as part of the Barbie Dream Gap Project, a multi-year initiative to raise awareness about the factors that keep girls from reaching their full potential. Announced in 2018, it seeks to do something about the fact that research has found that as early as five years old, some girls are less likely than their male counterparts to see their gender as smart and may begin to lose confidence in their own intelligence. These beliefs can be compounded by cultural stereotypes, a lack of representation of one’s self in media and implicit bias, among other things.
To help close the Dream Gap, Barbie is seeking to share stories of inspirational women in order to help young girls dream bigger. Rhimes’s doll helps with that, but so does learning about the things that helped her stay encouraged and motivated to see her dreams through. ESSENCE had the chance to talk to the woman behind the shows that have made such a huge mark on the culture to hear how she found the courage to bring her ideas to life and learn about the people whose influence helped along the way.
ESSENCE: Who were your role models growing up, both the ones you knew personally and public figures?
Shonda Rhimes: I was really fortunate in terms of role models. I have amazing parents. I have an amazing mother and father who really, truly believed in me in every way, shape or form, me and my five siblings. All of us were really believed in. But I also had these great role models on television. Oprah was on television. I’m from Chicago so if you’re from Chicago, Oprah is kind of a religion. Oprah was on television when I was coming up and to me she was this woman who didn’t look like anybody else who was sort of taking over the world through television. I really found her to be amazing. I watched her every single day.
Whoopi Goldberg was on Broadway doing her one-woman show. I remember seeing that on one of the cable channels and thinking to myself, oh you can write about anything. So I had that going on for me. Phylicia Rashad was on television as America’s mom. There were a lot of women out there who were smart, working, thinking, amazing women who were doing great things who were right in front of my face all the time on television that I could see for myself — not just the women in my household but the women out in the world who were also there too for everybody else.
Why did you partner with Barbie to address the importance of having strong women role models?
I thought partnering with Barbie to create a doll was an amazing opportunity to present just a different image of what a woman could be. We obviously can be anything. We obviously can look any way. We can all be strong and smart and powerful and run our worlds in any way we want to — whether you’re a mom or an astronaut or a television showrunner. I loved the idea of presenting this vision that was who I was. It never in my whole life occurred to me that I would ever be a doll growing up. That to me was a mind-blowing concept when they even came to me. To be able to present that image to another young girl who doesn’t necessarily see people who look like her is wonderful and exciting and I’m thrilled to be able to do it.
With the Dream Gap in mind, how did you find courage to make some of the bold moves that have allowed you to have success and create the projects that have had such an impact on the culture?
I think the best part about how I got to where I am is that being courageous, as we all know, it’s not the absence of fear, it’s doing things in spite of having any fear. I was just raised to believe that it didn’t matter if you were afraid. It didn’t matter if something was difficult. You belong in any room you are in. You might as well make the best of that situation. So to me, that’s what this was about. I wasn’t interested in other people’s opinions of what I could be or who I should be. I was interested in my own opinions of that. And that really goes down to how I was raised and who I was raised to believe I was. And I think for most young women, that should be what they’re holding on to. Believe in who you think you are versus what other people are telling you you have the right to be.
What advice do you have not only for young girls but even young adult women dealing with self-doubt?
Self-doubt is just a story you’re telling yourself about your own capabilities. And the reality of the situation is, even though there are obstacles, even though things can be hard, even though you may not be sure you’re going to succeed, telling yourself you’re not going to succeed isn’t going to get you anywhere. Telling yourself that you have the option and the opportunity to be successful or to look at something like a challenge is a way of moving forward and a way of fighting for what you want. So to me, I always feel like self-doubt should be looked at as instead a challenge to yourself to do something better or to do better for yourself.