There’s many, many miles between being a visionary showrunner who’s made billions for one of the world’s largest corporations, and a high school junior washing trays down at the Burger King. But something about mega-producer Shonda Rhimes‘ interview in The Hollywood Reporter reminded me of the first time in my life – but not the last – when I was faced with the cold-water reality slap that my employer didn’t understand my value and was never going to.
So I bounced. Was my bounce, as Rhimes’ was, from ABC to Netflix? No. Most of the time, it was from fry rack to cash register. But always a better cash register. That’s solid advice, no matter how much money you’re making.
In her interview, Rhimes talks about how her relationship with ABC, for whom she created “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How To Get Away With Murder,” “Scandal,” “Private Practice,” and more, had been souring for a while. She felt she was getting pushback and oversight on creative points that her ratings and income would seem to prove was unwarranted. She was at the end of her rope already, and then she had her camel back-breaking straw moment when a Disneyland comp ticket she’d secured – after a hassle – for her sister, a mere $150 perk over the two tickets she was allotted as an ABC employee, didn’t work. And when she called a top network exec for help, she was told “Don’t you have enough?”
Not only would it have been absolutely no problem for this man to just call Disneyland and let THE FAMILY OF THEIR CASH COW in, with some mouse ears and funnel cake for their trouble, but there was insult piled onto the injury. The exec didn’t just say no – he implied that Rhimes was asking too much, that she was an ungrateful peon who was stepping beyond her station, when at that time she had basically paid for the whole station. And all the monorails.
Obtuse social media commenters have tried to make this about Rhimes’ entitlement, as she could have bought that extra ticket with her lunch money, but they’re missing the point. She already had the ticket – she just wanted it to work. And she was slapped down for expecting even that. Sure, she had asked for one extra ticket than normal. Let’s be real real, son. Do you think no one else ever asked for one more ticket? And she wasn’t just someone else – she was ABC for a very long time. Y’all know that if, like, Brad Pitt, who was not an ABC employee, had showed up with all eleventy-three of his beautiful children, they’d have let them all in, given them the GOOD mouse ears, FastPasses and a gold cart personally driven by Goofy.
It was in that moment that Rhimes realized that she wasn’t valued, no matter how much value she added, so she called her agents and told them that if they didn’t get her a deal with someone else, she would be getting agents who would. Good on her. What’s appallingly familiar to many of us – and I’m going to say many of us are women – is the suggestion that we are asking too much to ask what we’re worth. That we are divas. That we are lucky to have gotten where we are and we shouldn’t ask anymore.
I have been called a diva many, many times in my career, and I don’t back off from that. Throw me those roses and hand me a glass of something bubbly, if that means that I ask for what I’m worth. I have made a lot of money for a lot of people, and it has been implied and sometimes plainly stated that I had all I was gonna get so I should be grateful and take it. Which is when I started re-doing my resume. I haven’t always done it fast enough, but this is something I learned back at that Burger King, where I had worked for almost two years. I dare say that I was among the most dedicated employees at the time – I never stole food, never snuck my friends extra fries, never developed a sudden “cold” when I didn’t feel like working. I actually remember calling, legit coughing, before a Sunday evening shift, and being told that not only could I not have off, but that they didn’t believe me. Teen Leslie was a Girl Scout, basically, and having my integrity doubted was almost as painful as my sinus headache.
And when I got there, coughing, the manager said “Oh wow, you are sick!” He also admitted that I had never given anyone reason to believe I was a liar – quite the opposite – but that it wasn’t worth trying to find someone else to fill my shift.
As awful as that was, I stayed there for a while, even though I never got the one thing I asked for, which was to be trained on the register. I was there for two years, and every time I asked, there was an excuse. They had too many cashiers. They would train me the next shift, but could I please for the moment go get the trays from the dining room, and maybe check the bathroom? (Note to Humpty Hump – Getting busy in a Burger King bathroom is nasty. Don’t do that.) The closest I ever got was handing out shakes and Dr. Peppers out the drive-thru window behind the real cashier.
It wasn’t just that I was being told no, but that it was implied that I wasn’t good enough to work the register, that there was something wrong with me that made me relegated to the bathroom and the dining room. So one day I just handed in my apron and quit, then found a job selling fudge and singing behind a register (finally!) at the late, great The Fudgery at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. (For the record I wasn’t the best cashier what with the math and stuff, but I was honest, punctual and did good harmony.)
That moment laid the groundwork for me, to slowly claim my worth – I admit I was always better at this at work than in relationships. There was my first paper, a Black community weekly, who refused to pay me enough to move out of my parents’ home in Miami and questioned my loyalty to the community when I asked for a raise. “If that’s not enough, you can leave,” I was told. It wasn’t enough. So I left and moved to Pennsylvania. They implied that I was betraying Black people for wanting to be financially solvent. At least I think that’s what they said. I was walking out the door.
The lesson would come full circle years later, as I waited with other Central Pennsylvania reporters to do a satellite interview with Howard Stern, who was bringing his show to the area. There was a familiar-looking woman sitting near me who kept looking at me like I was familiar to her too. Finally she leaned over.
‘This is a weird question,” she asked, “but did you ever work at a Burger King in Baltimore?” YES THAT’S WEIRD. But I nodded that yes I had, recognizing her as a not-terrible manager.
“You’re that nice girl that quit and no one knew why!” she exclaimed. And the whole story came out, a decade later. Apparently I was not imagining the conspiracy to keep me off the register, but it wasn’t because I was a bad employee, but because I was a good one. I was reliable and spoke kindly to the customers in the dining room. I didn’t complain about the bathroom, or digging flaming burgers out of the broilers. They were afraid that if I was trained on the register, I would be valuable to another fast-food joint and leave. So they kept me down, taking me for granted and letting me think it was my fault. And when I left, they were truly flummoxed because it was so easy to take me for granted that they forgot why they were doing it and assumed that I thought I was worthless, too.
SCREW THAT. Shonda Rhimes knew what we all should – that we are worthy. That people are making money off us. And that it’s not even about the money, but about wanting not to be a chump. There aren’t enough FastPasses to buy that knowledge.