Shonda Rhimes is many things—a writer, producer, and director—but not an “angry black woman.”
By now, you’ve probably heard about the ridiculous story that New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley wrote about acclaimed showrunner Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes’ shows feature a groundbreaking number of black women in lead roles and she is poised to dominate Thursday on ABC—this fall, Viola Davis stars in Rhimes’ new show How to Get Away With Murder.
The Times article about Rhimes’ new show led with a sentence that struck many people as offensive and racist: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’”
The thesis of the article is that Shonda Rhimes creates characters in her own image. The piece sloppily tosses in mentions of pretty much all the black women on Rhimes’ shows that are “angry” as Rhimes is. The idea that Rhimes is just rewriting versions of herself as new characterizations does a disservice to her immense creativity and ability to write compelling characters. But the main problem with this angle is that, in reality, Rhimes doesn’t seem to be very angry. I’m not sure what Rhimes would be angry about, seeing as her shows Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy together pull in $300 million—or five percent of ABC’s revenue—a season. Rhimes recently signed her first book deal to release a yet-untitled memoir in 2015. She confirmed that she is so-not-angry when she tweeted that her reaction to Stanley’s article was that she was going to go do some yoga. Because that’s how Angry Black Women roll.
So the characterization of Rhimes as angry feels off-base. But what Stanley writes has to be taken with a grain of salt. She is a decorated hard news reporter, but as a cultural critic, she has made numerous errors. In 2009, Columbia Journalism Review pointed out her troubling history of errors, which that year included a piece about Walter Cronkite that had eight errors in it. This new profile of Rhimes has had to be updated to correct two errors. In addition to the factual errors, the framing of this profile was clearly a misstep. New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan dug into the article, asking Stanley and her editors about why it wound up in print. “In the review, I referenced a painful and insidious stereotype solely in order to praise Ms. Rhimes and her shows for traveling so far from it. If making that connection between the two offended people, I feel bad about that,” explained Stanley. Instead of being praise, that line felt like a display of the kind of white liberal racism that has made the New York Times irrelevant to some readers. Sullivan pointed out that problem in her exploration of the story, noting that the article “delivered that message in a condescending way that was – at best – astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch” and ending with the fact that at the Times “it’s troubling that among 20 critics, not one is black and only one is a person of color.”
This is frustrating in part because there are some good points in the article, like when Stanley notes that Rhimes “has done more to reset the image of African-American women on television than anyone since Oprah Winfrey.” It’s hard to reconcile that insight with inaccurate descriptions of characters like Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope—a powerful Washington player, for sure, but someone who is better known among Scandal fans like me for a curious lower-lip quiver that makes her look about as angry as a puppy. There is no evidence that Rhimes has drawn on the Angry Black Woman at all for her characters. Instead, tagging a black women as angry is an easy (read: lazy) description of black women with power.
Shonda Rhimes posted this happy photo of her and some of the women who star on her shows.
Stanley would need to at least have some awareness of black women scholars like Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, and Melissa Harris-Perry, perhaps, to understand how her descriptions of black women express a casual racism that is damaging to black women, and especially hurtful to see espoused in a publication with such a vast reach.
Here’s one section that struck an especially hurtful chord:
“Her women are authority figures with sharp minds and potent libidos who are respected, even haughty members of the ruling elite, not maids or nurses or office workers. Ms. Rhimes has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable. She has almost single-handedly trampled a taboo even Michelle Obama couldn’t break.”
Wait, why are we talking about FLOTUS in a story about Rhimes’ characters again? No real reason? Just because she’s also a black woman? Okay.
In the span of just a few sentences, Stanley manages to effortlessly invoke archetypes of black women that are offensive to us: Jezebels and Sapphires but also the irascible, too-independent black woman. The subtext of the piece is that these women are “angry” because they exist on their own, as central figures and without white people to deem them authorities. That smug alarm aside, what grates my nerves is that the piece is just off-base; it sounds authoritative, but it’s stitched together by a thread that’s rooted in racism. It’s troubling to me that three editors read the piece and no one raised a flag that it was offensive.
Why are there no editors at the New York Times who stopped Stanley from using Jim-Crow-era throwback language like “sassy” (a word Stanley used twice in her piece along with some other unfortunate choices) to describe black women? After all the furor over the piece was published online on September 18, it was still printed on the front page of the Sunday Times’ art section on September 21. With the exception of public editor Margaret Sullivan’s criticism, the Times is clearly standing by the article.
It’s necessary to have solid, accurate, insightful writing about Rhimes because we are talking about a groundbreaking woman in media who has singlehandedly provided television with much needed diversity in a country where 85 percent of leading characters on television shows are white.
There are other caricatures at work, and I would have understood and even appreciated a mention of some of those. Writer Stacia L. Brown has written well, for instance, about whether Olivia Pope is the new Sally Hemings, a black woman with whom Thomas Jefferson is believed to have fathered several children. But in order to acknowledge the nuances of a black woman creative’s vision, one has to first make room for the possibility that race is not the only metric nor the only umbrella under which a black woman’s creativity can or should be assessed.
As it is, the Times article shows a lack of respect and understanding for who Shonda Rhimes is and what she represents on television. There have never been black women on television who weren’t considered subservient, substandard and in the words of Stanley, “not as classically beautiful” as someone like Halle Berry. Now we have several and it’s an incredible achievement that not even the worst hatchet job can undermine.
Because it makes me appear to be a petty, dare I say, angry black woman, I hesitate to add myself to the chorus of Stanley haters. We need more women who are critics, who are writers, who are journalists. We need them to get jobs that pay them a living wage at digital publications. We need more women and people of color who are editors at newspapers, magazines and radio stations. One need not be a black writer to get it right.
When Alessandra Stanley writes her autobiography, it should be called How to Get Away with Sloppy and Occasionally Racist Cultural Criticism at an Increasingly Irrevelant Newspaper. I’m just not sure anyone wants to read any more of her stories.
Joshunda Sanders is writing a book about racism and sexism in traditional media scheduled to be published in 2015. She is a frequent, peace-loving, Bitch contributor. Photos of Shonda Rhimes from her Facebook and Instagram.