In an attempt to shed light on Shonda Rhimes’ newest show that she’s executive-producing, How to Get Away With Murder (premiering Thursday night), New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley kicked off her piece with a quip that sent the Internet into a frenzy:
“When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.”
We’ll discuss the use of that pesky stereotype further down the line, but first things first: Rhimes, in response to the New York Times piece, thought to make it clear to Stanley that she didn’t create the show.
But let’s get into the meat of Stanley’s argument, which I thought was a well-intentioned but weak analysis of Rhimes’ work.
Stanley cherry-picked three black female characters from Rhimes’ shows—Miranda Bailey (played by Chandra Wilson) from Grey’s Anatomy, Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) from Scandal and Annalise Keating (played by Viola Davis) from How to Get Away With Murder—and used them to make the argument that Rhimes was making good on some personal goal to push “angry black women” to the forefront of television, but not before making them a bit more complex and layered.
Stanley opined that Rhimes was presumably fed up with the cookie-cutter, pristine image of Clair Huxtable from the early 1990s—you know, the kind of black women whom white people wished for blacks. Black women who are morally upstanding at all times and are eternally compassionate and forgiving human beings. Rhimes was also presumably tired of seeing the neck-rolling, finger-waving, not-taking-any-mess black women from sitcoms. With Bailey, Pope and now Keating, Rhimes apparently is living out her creative dreams of giving black women more of a realistic edge on TV.
“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,” Stanley wrote.
Ehh—not exactly. Yes, Rhimes creates multidimensional characters. It’s one of her greatest contributions to network television. But nary a one of those characters’ race comes up all that much in their storylines.
Contrary to popular belief, Rhimes’ shows are still predominantly white. Grey’s Anatomy has one of the most diverse casts on network television, but Miranda Bailey is in a supporting role. And aside from how prominent Kerry Washington is on Scandal, that cast also is predominantly white (yet still diverse in a lot of other ways). Last, How to Get Away With Murder also features an African-American woman in the lead with Viola Davis, but early previews show us that it will also feature a diverse ensemble of wide-eyed law students, crafty attorneys, prosecutors, defendants and judges who all make up our criminal-justice system.
And even if Rhimes’ shows weren’t diverse and instead featured a group of African-American actors and actresses exchanging intense lines about their complicated lives, it’s frustrating that the New York Times would use such a charged stereotype to describe black female characters who are living layered lives. I mean, when white female characters get together and vent or emote in a scene, they are not described as “angry.” Rhimes, in response to the article, tweeted about that double standard by referencing a white character from Grey’s Anatomy:
Plus, “angry black woman” is the convenient shorthand used by those who refuse to acknowledge or recognize how layered black women really are. We’re human. Or by people who misinterpret our emotions and project their own thoughts onto us.
Rhimes created a few characters who emote from time to time and happen to be black women, and all of a sudden some writer threaded those projects together and came to the conclusion that “angry black women” are now “enviable,” relatable and a bit more appealing because of Rhimes’ writing. What Stanley needs to understand is that those characters weren’t angry to begin with.
Rhimes decided to take the high road and step away from her computer to dance off some steam after reading the article.
I’d like to think that she knew Twitter would say all of the things she was thinking. And boy, did they do just that:
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features expert advice for TV and film’s most complex characters. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.