New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley has a long history of being wrong about a great many things. But her newest article, an ostensible paean to Shonda Rhimes, is inaccurate, tone-deaf, muddled, and racist. “Wrought in Their Creator’s Image: Viola Davis Plays Shonda Rhimes’s Latest Tough Heroine” is a mess. Let’s take a look.
“When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.”
Why in the world would it be called that? Are there specific instances of Shonda Rhimes seeming particularly angry? Many of us follow her on Twitter, where she does not seem angry — except maybe about this atrocious article. What is the maximum amount of anger black women are allowed to demonstrate before they get stuck with that label? More angry than everyone else? What is it that qualifies Shonda Rhimes as an angry black woman and not just … a black woman? Do we use any kind of coded, dismissive language when talking about, oh, Aaron Sorkin or John Wells or J.J. Abrams? Ha, ha, ha, ha, of course we don’t. Also, she’s not “getting away with it” because no matter what she does, she’s still going to be slapped with the racist label “angry black woman” by the New York Times.
“On Thursday, Ms. Rhimes will introduce How to Get Away With Murder, yet another network series from her production company to showcase a powerful, intimidating black woman. This one is Annalise Keating, a fearsome criminal defense lawyer and law professor played by Viola Davis. And that clinches it: Ms. Rhimes, who wrought Olivia Pope on Scandal and Dr. Miranda Bailey on Grey’s Anatomy, has done more to reset the image of African-American women on television than anyone since Oprah Winfrey.”
You can tell how much that image has been reset because you’re still calling her an “angry black woman.” It’s almost too progressive. Shonda Rhimes is many wonderful things, but she is not actually the creator of How to Get Away With Murder. That’s Peter Nowalk. And he’s white. Though my guess is he’d have to be a raging maniac before anyone would label him “angry.”
“Be it Kerry Washington on Scandal or Chandra Wilson on Grey’s Anatomy, they can and do get angry. One of the more volcanic meltdowns in soap opera history was Olivia’s “Earn me” rant on Scandal.”
I am a huge Grey’s Anatomy fan. Chandra Wilson is not the star of Grey’s Anatomy, certainly not the way Kerry Washington is the star of Scandal, nor is her character angry. Tough? Sure. Serious, driven, passionate, difficult to please — all these things. Angry, though? On Scandal, Cyrus is by far an angrier character than Olivia. Mellie is a rage machine. But somehow, for some reason, this article is just about how angry black women are. What’s the difference between a rant and a monologue? Sometimes just the race of the person delivering it.
“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.”
Congratulations to Shonda Rhimes for ending racism. But how are any of these characters cast “in her own image”? Futher, she didn’t “embrace the caricature” of the Angry Black Woman — she rejected it completely and wrote other things. What kind of character would Shonda Rhimes have to write before there was no twisted logic to suggest that secretly they’re still Angry Black Women? As it turns out, any black female character — and many black female real-life human beings — can be labeled an Angry Black Woman. That way, their ideas can be ignored, marginalized, and dismissed.
“They certainly are not as benign and reassuring as Clair Huxtable, the serene, elegant wife, mother and dedicated lawyer on The Cosby Show. In 2008, commentators as different as the comedian Bill Cosby and the Republican strategist Karl Rove agreed that it was the shining, if fictional, example of the Huxtables that prepared America for a black president and first lady.”
Well, as long as Bill Cosby and Karl Rove agree, I guess that’s a fact that’s worth repeating. But Clair Huxtable is not “benign.” The first damn video on YouTube if I search “Clair Huxtable” is called “Claire [sic] Huxtable’s feminist rant.” (Ding! Rant! Everybody drink.)
“Even now, six years into the Obama presidency, race remains a sensitive, incendiary issue not only in Ferguson, Mo., but also just about everywhere except ShondaLand, as her production company is called. In that multicultural world, there are many African-Americans at the top of every profession. But even when her heroine is the only nonwhite person in the room, it is the last thing she or anyone around her notices or cares about.”
You can tell how no one notices anyone’s race by the fact that there’s a whole article about it.
Ignoring race is a luxury that only white people have. Rhimes’s characters don’t aspire to cultural white absorption. The premise of racial harmony is not to erase racial and cultural identity; it’s to erase prejudice and violence. When Dr. Bailey on Grey’s brags that she was “young, gifted, and black, and everybody knew it!” (by the way, this wasn’t said in anger), it’s an affirmation. She was young, gifted, and black, and leaving out “black,” or acting as if people don’t notice or care that she’s black, is false and degrading. Why should she have to stop acknowledging or appreciating her blackness? (Because we live in a racist culture. But she shouldn’t have to is the point.) Scandal also absolutely does address and talk about race. Papa Pope’s “you have to be twice as good” speech is not a speech that white parents give their white children.
“And what is most admirable about Ms. Rhimes’s achievement is that in a business that is still run by note-giving, nit-picking, compromise-seeking network executives, her work is mercifully free of uplifting role models, parables and moral teachings.”
False. What is “most admirable” about Ms. Rhimes’s achievement is that her shows are often good and occasionally truly great, and that’s rare. Period. Many, many, many shows are terrible, and many people who make one good show do not go on to build empires. I admire Shonda Rhimes’s talent, and I also admire her fortitude, particularly in the face of tremendous social, professional, and cultural biases that work to prevent women and women of color from having the same opportunities, recognition, and success that their white male counterparts get. It’s almost like she had to be twice as good. I forget where I heard that idea.
“And Ms. Rhimes is operating on her own plane, far removed from an industry that is hypersensitive to any hint of insensitivity. There are obviously many more black women on network television now, but most still are worthy sidekicks, be it the young and lovely police detective played by Nicole Beharie on Sleepy Hollow or the rollicking, sarcastic road-trip companion Sherri Shepherd played on How I Met Your Mother.”
Nicole Baharie is not the “sidekick” on Sleepy Hollow. The show’s a buddy-cop series, and she’s one of the buddy cops. But maybe she seems like the sidekick because her counterpart is a white guy? Sherri Shepherd’s role on the otherwise super-duper white HIMYM was unfunny, unrelated, and bad for the show. It was not “rollicking.”
“C. C. H. Pounder, who played an aboveboard detective on The Shield, has a less-imposing gig on a new CBS spinoff, NCIS: New Orleans. Now she plays a warmhearted, slightly kooky medical examiner. If Shonda Rhimes were in charge of that show, Ms. Pounder would be the star, not Scott Bakula, and she would wear ivory and cream designer suits to crime scenes in the bayou, reign as queen of her krewe at the Mardi Gras ball and also advise the governor’s re-election campaign.”
This is called “fan fiction.” Welcome.
“As Annalise, Ms. Davis, 49, is sexual and even sexy, in a slightly menacing way, but the actress doesn’t look at all like the typical star of a network drama. Ignoring the narrow beauty standards some African-American women are held to, Ms. Rhimes chose a performer who is older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful than Ms. Washington, or for that matter Halle Berry, who played an astronaut on the summer mini-series Extant.”
Yeah, fuck you, Viola Davis, you’re not as pretty as Halle Berry! This is a beauty contest, right? And there’s only one judge? And it’s Alessandra Stanley? I wonder if any of this “classical beauty” aesthetic could have ever been influenced by racism, maybe, like, generations and generations of it, just like a tooooon of racism and colonialism, like so, so much. Hmm. Who can know.
“Ms. Davis is perhaps best known for her role in The Help as a stoic maid in the segregated South, a role for which she was nominated for a best actress Oscar. As it turned out, it was her Help co-star Octavia Spencer, playing the sassy back talker, who won an Oscar (for supporting actress).”
“Maybe it’s karma, or just coincidence with a sense of humor, but some of the more memorable actresses in that movie (its star Emma Stone, who played a young writer championing civil rights, is not one of them) are now all on network television, only this time, the help is on top.
Allison Janney, an imperious employer in the film, now plays an ex-addict and the matriarch of three generations of poor single mothers on a CBS comedy, Mom.
Allison Janney just won two Emmys, including one for Mom, which is actually a pretty good show. (Octavia Spencer recurred on the first season. Bonus!) How would this be “karma”? Like, the universe is going to punish you for having played a racist character? Is that how karma works? The other memorable actresses in The Help are Bryce Dallas Howard, who is not on TV; Jessica Chastain, who is not on TV; and Sissy Spacek, who has an upcoming Netflix show. Classic karma, I guess.
“Ms. Spencer is one of the stars of a new Fox series, Red Band Society, albeit in a more predictable, pre-Rhimesian role: a bossy, sharp-tongued hospital nurse who is a softy at heart.”
Wait, but I thought Shonda Rhimes created a universe where all black actresses are cast in amazing roles worthy of their talents, because Oprah.
Also, I look forward to the next time a male character is called “bossy.”
“The pilot episode of How to Get Away With Murder is promisingly slick and suspenseful, without all the histrionic, staccato speechifying that Ms. Rhimes favors on Scandal.”
Histrionic! We’ve hit sassy, bossy, and histrionic. Someone, ring the bell.
“As a guest host, Ms. Washington was very funny in a number of skits designed by S.N.L. to mock and defuse the issue without stirring further offense. Soon after, the show hired Sasheer Zamata, its first black woman since Maya Rudolph left the show in 2007. The show suddenly seems to be on a diversity jag: On the season premiere this month, another black comedian, the newcomer Michael Che, will make his debut as an anchor of ‘Weekend Update.’”
“A diversity jag” is one person? Michael Che was not hired because SNL is “on a diversity jag,” and suggestions like that help perpetuate the damaging, unfair idea that the only people who get hired in a normal, ordinary, talent-driven ways are white — and if people of color get hired, it’s for special reasons.
Nobody thinks Shonda Rhimes is holding back and nobody is asking to see the real Shonda Rhimes. She’s all over the place.
Let’s suppose we grant the premise that Shonda Rhimes writes and produces shows about “angry black women.” (I dispute this, but this is just a thought exercise.) Is there anything in this article in particular that suggests any of these characters are based at all on Shonda Rhimes? There is not. Is there anything even floating around in the ether to suggest that these characters are based on Rhimes in any way? There is not. “Shonda Rhimes is a black woman, and some of her characters, and some characters written by a white man who is not Shonda Rhimes but rather a separate human, are ‘angry black women,’ therefore she herself is an angry black woman.” What kind of reasoning is that, other than specious?