The Article That Cried “Angry Black Woman”

  In the midst of fall television there are bound to be critic reports and reviews of all the new seasons and series. Some will recognize the brilliance of the writers like Slate’s Willa Paskin about The Good Wife or simply seek to inform about all that is coming up like the countless flow of articles from entertainment outlet, Entertainment Weekly. And then there are some that come out the woodworks to voice their opinions about certain subjects … but come across so asinine.

Earlier this morning (September 19, 2014), “television critic” Alessandra Stanley contributed to The New York Times what seemed to be a review about the new ABC series How To Get Away With Murder. What was featured as a review, turned into an attack on Shonda Rhimes and her depiction of diversity in her series. Not only did the article outright belittle Rhimes to an “Angry Black Woman”, a stereotype that has come so easily to powerful women of color who sometimes do not always “go with the flow”, but also Stanley continued to criticize Rhimes and her depictions of Black women in the series she has produced. Just in the beginning paragraph of the article Stanley writes, “… 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”. After reading that, started to become all kinds of an “angry Black woman”. Yet as I continued to read, because I really wanted to see what brought Stanley to this conclusion, I started to see there was not one. Her article was filled with shallow examples, fictitious stances, and over-complicated words. It was like reading an essay that wanted to be a thesis.

I am a very big supporter of Shonda Rhimes, but I am a bigger supporter of showcasing diversity in entertainment, so when I see something like this being released in a national medium, it is not something I can lightly glaze over. I also believe that “critics” like Stanley need to be checked once in a while, especially if their points are so arbitrary. Now, I am not going to seek to also degrade Stanley such as she did Rhimes, but I am going to seek to de-bunk many of the “facts” Stanley used to support her own theory with my own personal knowledge of television, admiration of Black female characters, and you know, being a Black woman. Let’s see where exactly Alessandra Stanley got it wrong.


Wrought in Their Creator’s Image

Viola Davis Plays Shonda Rhimes’s Latest Tough Heroine

When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.”

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. {Oprah did not reset the image, but changed the landscape of seeing Black women at the forefront of a nationally syndicated talk show}

Ms. Rhimes didn’t just construct a series around one African-American woman. She has also introduced a set of heroines who flout ingrained television conventions and preconceived notions about the depiction of diversity. {“Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice”, her first two series were lead by White female characters}

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 {something wrong with that?}. 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.” {see how she refers to it as ‘rant’, instead of speech, to substantiate her ‘anger’ point}

Ms. Rhimes has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable {because being a ‘angry black woman’ isn’t a caricature, often quick joke that is already appropriated}. She has almost single-handedly trampled a taboo even Michelle Obama couldn’t break. {that would be First Lady Michelle Obama, and she did break it, when she became First Lady after pundits tried to label her an ‘angry Black woman’}

Her heroines are not at all like the bossy, sassy, salt-of-the-earth working-class women who have been scolding and uh-uh-ing on screen ever since Esther Rolle played Florida, the maid on “Maude.” {WHAT?, is this in your opinion?}

They certainly are not as benign and reassuring as Clair Huxtable, the serene, elegant wife, mother and dedicated lawyer on “The Cosby Show.” {this is what really got me because ‘The Cosby Show’ is my all time favorite show and I have seen every single episode, so believe me when I say that Claire Huxtable, in all her ‘serene and elegance’ still portrayed powerful anger at many points. From informing Elvin of his macho ways to screaming at Vanessa when she snuck out to go see a concert, Clair Huxtable was as much a Black woman who was at times stern, as much as she was a dedicated lawyer. Try again, Stanley} 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. (This was after a Fox News anchor applied the description“terrorist fist jab” to the couple’s friendly fist bump.) {your point is …}

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. {because race is now non-existent, right?}

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. {because it should be addressed how great it is to see that Black woman/man at the top right now, let’s make a whole storyline out of it, because this is so rare it could only happen in television}

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. {every show has to have it, I have learned a lot from Breaking Bad}

On “Grey’s Anatomy,” Bailey is a brilliant surgeon who terrorizes interns {that was season 1-3, season 11 is premiering next week}. Olivia of “Scandal” is the mistress of a married president while also maintaining an on-again-off-again affair with a black-ops czar. {so she’s in an affair with a tyrant?}

In “How to Get Away With Murder,” Annalise is even worse: She terrifies law students and cheats on her husband. (She also betrays her lover.) {… and she’s a Black woman??!! Clutch my pearls}

Ms. Rhimes started small with Bailey, a secondary character, not a star; moved on to the charismatic best friend Dr. Naomi Bennett on “Private Practice,” now canceled; and then went big with Olivia. Now she is shooting the moon with Annalise. {hey, Shonda, can you -uh- stop putting Black women at the forefront of your hit shows?}

And Ms. Rhimes is operating on her own plane, far removed from an industry that is hypersensitive to any hint of insensitivity {I’m sorry, did that make sense?}. 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” {who is actually more shared main character than sidekick} or the rollicking, sarcastic road-trip companion Sherri Shepherd played on “How I Met Your Mother.” {who was only a guest star, and not a main character}

C. C. H. Pounder, who played an aboveboard detective on “The Shield,” has a less-imposing {she means 4-time Emmy nominee C.C.H Pounder} gig on a new CBS spinoff, “NCIS: New Orleans.” Now she plays a warmhearted, slightly kooky medical examiner {opposed to the many strong characters she has played in shows like “ER” and “LA Law”} . 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 {Stanley asserts her problem with strong Black female characters being well dressed and in high-power situations … in the Bayou}.

As Annalise, Ms. Davis, 49, is sexual and even sexy {is there a difference?}, in a slightly menacing way, but the actress doesn’t look at all like the typical star of a network drama {we need a description of that “typical star”}. 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.” {the point where we get introduced to another problem Stanley has with “HTGAWM”, Viola Davis is a different hue of Black, she thinks Black characters should only be portrayed through one shade, say a Kerry or lighter Halle shade}

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). {damn Octavia for taking that Oscar from Viola for “The Help”, even if they were in separate categories}

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 {and we’re back in the 1950s} is on top. {The performances I always remember from “The Help” include Viola and Octavia’s performances, I guess that is why they received those Oscar nominations or something like that}

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.”

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. {whose fault is that?} 

Ms. Davis’s character, on the other hand, is the lead, a tenured professor who also has her own law firm: She is as highhanded as John Houseman’s character in the 1970s movie “The Paper Chase,” and as craftily enigmatic as the lawyer Glenn Close played on “Damages.”

{The mention of “The Help” seemed to have no grounding, but to relegate the actresses’ previous characters to characters they should always portray?}

The premiere episode is a cleverly constructed hoot: A group of Keating’s top first-year students compete fiendishly to win internships in her law office, then find themselves using her classroom lessons to fiendishly cover up a death. It’s a sexy murder mystery not unlike Donna Tartt’s first novel, “The Secret History,” not a nighttime soap {this is where Stanley pulls out history to prove her television criticism is of merit}. Ms. Rhimes is the show’s marquee muse, but the writer is a “Grey’s Anatomy” alumnus, Peter Nowalk {he is actually the creator, big difference}. 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.”

Scandal,” which is entering its fourth season, is more Aaron Spelling than Aaron Sorkin {that would be comparing Beverly Hills 90210 to The West Wing, doesn’t that seem way off?}, though even “Dynasty” {probably brought this up because of Diahann Carroll’s character arc, you know keeping with the theme, a Black woman} at its campiest didn’t have quite as many florid fights {what fights?} and ludicrous conspiracies. But Ms. Rhimes’s hit show has blown up the landscape a little the way “Mad Men” did when it began on AMC in 2007, including inspiring copycat fashion. The retro ’60s clothes of “Mad Men” spawned a line of clothing at Banana Republic, and now the Limited is introducing its “Scandal” collection. The ads describe it as “Fearless fashion for ladies who lead.”

The show that inspires imitators has also shamed holdouts. {who?}

Last season, when “Saturday Night Live” was under attack for not having a black woman in the cast, and Kenan Thompson, who has impersonated Maya Angelou, Whoopi Goldberg and Star Jones, refused to don another dress, it was Kerry Washington who came to the show’s rescue with an Olivia Pope-ish image makeover. {No, Kerry really was going back and forth, imitating First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, to shed light on how there are so many Black women that could be portrayed on the show, but there is always just one member who can portray these figures}

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 {got it a little right here}. 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.” {it seems that Stanley believes that SNL has no obligation to try and diversify their cast, even if since Sasheer was added to the cast last season, they’ve been able to handle race more in a comical way with sketches like “Black Jeopardy” and “28 Reasons”}.

Ms. Rhimes is a romance writer who understands the need for more spice than sugar; her heroines are mysterious, complicated and extravagantly flawed, often deeply and interestingly. They struggle with everything except their own identities, so unconcerned about race that it is barely ever mentioned. {This is where I definitely doubt if Stanley has ever seen an episode of any of Rhimes’s work. This past season of “Scandal”, Eli Pope (Joe Morton) addressed race, more prominently, in the first, mid break, and last episode. Yet, it is possible that his cautious tales and phrases about racial identity went over her head as just another ‘histrionic’}

They have innate dignity, not the cautious facade of propriety {mumbo-jumbo} that Wanda Sykes mocks in routines about her mother’s not allowing her children to dance in front of white people. Ms. Sykes played the wisecracking sidekick on “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and reined in her more outré material for a short-lived sitcom on Fox, “Wanda at Large.” In her stand-up act, she spoke knowingly about the minefield awaiting Mrs. Obama after the first inauguration.

“Who is the real Michelle Obama? When will we see the real Michelle Obama?” she intoned, parodying news commentators. “You know what they’re saying: When are we going to see this?” she said as she burst into an animated pantomime of every angry-black-woman gesture, frown and eye roll.

Nobody thinks Shonda Rhimes is holding back and nobody is asking to see the real Shonda Rhimes. She’s all over the place. {Shonda is all over television, this theory is all over the place. Thank you Alessandra Stanley for once again perpetuating society’s problem to nitpick a powerful woman of color and a creation of multifaceted characters. I hope you have heard/seen the backlash from Rhimes’s supporters and employees (actors of all colors). Please don’t think your criticism of television will ever hold water over me. Because to you, Shonda Rhimes may be an ‘angry Black woman’, but to a Black woman like myself, she is a creative genius.}


Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 2.25.51 PM

 
For the full article without my commentary, you can find it here
Also to see Shonda Rhimes casual rebuttal, it’s on her Twitter timeline (@shondarhimes). Go Shonda, go! 

*Update*

Monday morning, September 22, NYTimes Public Editor Margaret Sullivan published an editorial explaining both the uproar over the article and what supposedly Alessandra Stanley was attempting to get across.

Full Article

To circle both sides, Sullivan provides criticism from a Black female subscriber who commented that Stanley’s stance came across “racist, ignorant, and arrogant” and called for the removal of Stanley. On the other end, Sullivan expressed the further comments she received from Stanley which included that her intentions throughout the whole piece was to praise Rhimes for pushing back against the stereotype, “- once you read past the first 140 characters”.

Margaret Sullivan has updated her post since earlier this morning with more defense from Stanley and her publishing editors who all claim that they saw nothing offensive of the piece, but the “praise” Stanley claims to have written throughout the article. Once again, her defense seems to have cemented that she still undermines the intelligence of her audience and was not clear on who or for whom she was writing this for. I also question these editors, and the creative sarcasm they must have gotten from this piece. I certainly didn’t get it, did you?

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