Op-ed: The New York Times Gets Shonda Rhimes Wrong
Op-ed: The New York Times Gets Shonda Rhimes Wrong
Alessandra Stanley’s column isn’t just wrong in tone, it’s wrong on facts.
I was eager to read New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley’s column on Shonda Rhimes Sept. 19. The timing felt perfect; I was writing my own weekly TV column and I was pleased her Sunday column was online in advance of the print edition. As a longtime devotee of Rhimes and her shows as we wrote here and here. I wanted to see what insights Stanley had on the new Thursday lineup of Rhimes programming. No other showrunner in TV history has cornered an entire night on a major network with shows she executive produced and/or created. But Rhimes has Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal which she created, and How to Get Away with Murder, which she executive produced.
Like most Rhimes aficionados I’ve been ready for #TGIT (Thank God It’s Thursday) and the return of the #gladiators and the #interns for weeks.
I’ve loved Viola Davis since she was Tom Selleck’s detective in the Jesse Stone movies and the occasional defense attorney on Law & Order, so her being added to Thursdays in How to Get Away with Murder was pure icing on the Shonda Rhimes Thursday cake. (Plus that show is set in my home town. How many ways can you say win-win?)
And then I read Stanley’s column. Not only was there nothing to report on in Stanley’s column, but I wasn’t sure I would ever stop cringing.
I’m a stickler for facts. Years of working at daily newspapers and national magazines made me hyper-vigilant about facts, because when you get it wrong, life is miserable.
As Stanley is likely discovering.
In writing about Rhimes and Davis, I’m sure Stanley though her lede was clever and nuanced: "When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’" Because Davis is starring in "How to Get Away with Murder."
Two white female editors and one black male editor read that lede and didn’t wince, didn’t email Stanley and say, "Uh, no," didn’t do, well, anything.
Writers need editors because writers can get it wrong. But if the editor and the writer are on the same page–and the whole page is wrong–then the kind of furor that has erupted over Stanley’s article ensues.
I’m white and I was offended and Stanley’s piece wasn’t slapping me in the face. If there were a drinking game for every sexist and racist meme embedded in Stanley’s piece, you’d have alcohol poisoning before you finished reading.
Stanley emailed NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan on Sept. 22, to protest the protests over her portrayal of Rhimes as "the angry black woman." She asserted her piece made many valid points and that she was lauding Rhimes, not vilifying her.
In other words, she didn’t get it. She didn’t get why black women were angry about her trotting out a Reconstruction-era stereotype and reconstructing the facts of Rhimes’ shows and others in which black women appear to fit that stereotype.
Stanley’s column isn’t just wrong on tone, it’s wrong on facts. As she writes about Rhimes, she juxtaposes Rhimes’ shows with other shows that have featured black women. And she attempts–and fails miserably–to tease out some parallels with the Oscar-winning film The Help in which Davis co-starred with Octavia Spencer.
Spencer won an Oscar for her role as what Stanley says is a "sassy back talker" (that’s a three-drink phrase right there; when was the last time a white woman was called either "sassy" or a "back talker"?) and now co-stars in Fox’s show about dying kids, Red Band Society. Spencer’s role there, Stanley says, is "bossy and sharp-tongued" (two more drinks–and didn’t we ban "bossy" last year as an adjective for women?).
Stanley somehow decides that it’s "karma" that Allison Janney, who played the racist employer in The Help is playing a working-class, recovering alcoholic, single mother in CBS’s hit sit-com Mom, for which she was nominated for an Emmy.
This is yet more cringe-worthy stuff because Stanley seems not to know that Janney has been nominated for six Emmys, and is also a co-star in Masters of Sex for which she wasalso nominated for an Emmy. Two Emmys in the same season. Stanley seems not to know that Janney co-starred in The West Wing and also has a couple of Tony Award nominations as well as having won the Drama Desk Award.
This was something else any one of Stanley’s editors could have and should have drawn a line through. Doesn’t anyone at the New York Times watch TV?
TV critics often have to write about shows we haven’t seen and shows that have yet to debut. But Grey’s Anatomy is now beginning its 11th season–onlythree other prime-time dramas currently on air have run as long. What possible excuse could there be for not knowing the basics of the show? Scandal is starting its fourth season. Private Practice, Rhimes’ other hit, ran for six seasons (which reminds us that for about nine years Rhimes always had two back-to-back shows, which was itself a first).
Stanley never actually says anything positive about Rhimes or her shows in this alleged paean to Rhimes. She reduces Scandal to "Aaron Spelling not Aaron Sorkin," which makes me think she’s never seen an episode of the show Washington insiders like Jake Tapper watch as religiously as they watch the Sunday morning talking heads shows.
Stanley’s description of Claire Huxtable in The Cosby Show which debuted 30 years ago this week is also completely wrong. She also tosses in some other incorrect information–like that Nicole Beharie in Fox’s Sleepy Hollow is the detective sidekick. No, as we wrote here last year, she’s the star of that show.
These are some of the factual errors in Stanley’s piece. Those alone are cause for killing it. But it’s her running commentary about how much blacks–especially those angry black women–have achieved that can only be read as flat out racist at worst or stunningly tone deaf at best.
Not content to reduce Rhimes to a cultural stereotype, Stanley does the same to Scandal star Kerry Washington, extrapolating on Washington’s tour de force hosting of Saturday Night Live last season when a furor arose over the fact the show had no black women and Kenan Thompson, the show’s longest-running performer, said he would no longer play female roles.
In this section of her column, Stanley explains how SNL went on a "diversity jag." Because they have hired two African Americans in two years.
How is it possible any editor read that and left it in? As I wrote here back in January, SNL had a lack of diversity problem. And still does, even though Stanley implies that two comedians of color were hired solely to fill some kind of diversity quota. (The "you were only hired as some kind of affirmative action demand" meme is yet another racist trope.)
And yet it gets worse. Stanley describes How to Get Away with Murder like this: "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 speechifying. Seriously? That’s insulting to all women, not just black women. When has a man’s show ever been called histrionic? (Although Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom would certainly qualify in that regard with its shrill pitch and even more shrill lead performance by Jeff Daniels.)
How is this respectful, as Stanley asserted her piece was, since Rhimes is executive producer on How to Get Away with Murder, whereas she’s the creator and showrunner on Scandal?
I’m not black, so I’m not going to attempt to detail how it must feel to see a woman like Rhimes, who has achieved what no other woman or man of any color has done on TV, put so soundly in her place as some kind of fluke who doesn’t actually have talent (let alone the hard work and studio gravitas required to get three prime-time dramas on TV–ask Ryan Murphy or Aaron Sorkin or Dick Wolf about that). But as a lesbian I am all-too-familiar with suffocating cultural stereotypes, like the man-hating bull dyke or the flirtatious femme or the flat-out sociopath who wants to rid the planet of men by killing them. (Basic Instinct anyone?)
As a lesbian I am also aware of how affirming it feels when someone creates TV characters who are realistic portrayals of who you are, not just one more reinforcement of time-worn stereotypes. As a lesbian–when there are so few on TV–I am aware of how just seeing lesbians on TV at all matters. A lot. Or how seeing lesbian actors on TV matters. A lot. So seeing strong black women characters can only be affirming for every black woman out there and every little black girl watching TV. As one young black woman in How to Get Away with Murder says, in awe of Viola Davis’s character, "I want to be her."
Yet Stanley’s inculcated racism extends to beyond the stereotyping of Rhimes’ characters to her descriptions of the actors themselves: Viola Davis is not "classically beautiful."
Slap. Don’t want to be her, then.
I think Davis is gorgeous. I have always thought she was gorgeous. I have written for years that she is gorgeous. But then I’m a lesbian, so what would I know about female beauty?
If what Stanley was trying to say was that Davis doesn’t pass the racist brown-bag test as the first black woman news anchor, Carole Simpson, described it 20 years ago–that is, being light-skinned enough to be palatable for white people–then no, Davis, who is dark-skinned, doesn’t. And forever there has been a dearth of dark-skinned women on TV. But that’s a factor of racism and sexism, because the white male gaze is the one through which all TV is viewed. Hence the sit-com tropes of fat, balding men with beautiful sexy wives.
The encoded language of Stanley’s piece–and the not-so-encoded–should have leapt out at an editor. And yet three let it slide. Which speaks to a problem larger than Stanley’s offense here. It speaks to what black women know and lesbians know and gay men know and any marginalized person knows: if your own people aren’t there in the newsroom, you are not going to be seen.
I have no doubt, even if I hadn’t read her impassioned defense of herself and her column, that Stanley really did think she was being arch and praiseworthy and putting Rhimes on a pedestal. But that’s actually the problem–it’s paternalism writ large.
Joe Morton’s Papa Pope character on Scandal tells his daughter that she will have to be twice as good is white people. That’s a conversation no white parent ever has to have with their children. Khandi Alexander’s Mama Pope (a character either Stanley is unaware of or had no idea how to address) is the woman who has bested white men at their own game.
And that’s what Stanley has missed entirely. When she stereotypes Olivia Pope as an angry black woman when the angriest woman on Scandal, Mellie, is white, she’s saying that any time a black woman speaks up or out, be it Rhimes or Kerry Washington or Olivia Pope, she will be classified as angry. Which is encoded for uppity.
And that’s what’s wrong with Stanley’s piece. She reduces every single black woman from the singular Shonda Rhimes to the singular Olivia Pope to the groundbreaking Claire Huxtable to nothing more than a stereotype created by white men and supported by white women and also black men to put black women in their place.
It’s not only unacceptable, it’s an outrage. It’s not only a failure of Stanley, it’s a failure of the nation’s newspaper of record which already had real-life issues with women and stereotypes as I wrote here.
I’ve been writing a weekly TV column for 20 years this month about LGBT people on the tube. I know about cultural stereotypes of marginalized people. I know about how they get inculcated and reinforced.
I’ve never seen an angry black woman on a Shonda Rhimes show, although I have seen women get angry on her shows. Mostly I’ve seen women–real women–of all races and ethnicities. I’ve seen lesbians on Rhimes’ shows. The longest running same-sex couple on TV is on Grey’s Anatomy. I’ve seen women searching for themselves and for who they want to be as individuals and as part of couples. And in watching Rhimes’ shows I have always felt, as a woman and as a lesbian, represented.
Stanley missed an opportunity to talk about what Rhimes has done on TV. Not just the achievement of those three shows on Thursdays with the network promoting the hell out of her to an audience already proven to be hungry for her, but the achievement of writing real women into the TV landscape that is still sadly devoid of them. Not just black women but all women.
Stanley missed an opportunity to be laudatory of another woman’s hard work and stellar and singular achievement. Instead she did what male critics have been doing since TV began–she put Rhimes in her place with encoded language borrowed from the master’s house. It’s ugly, it’s anti-feminist and in the end, flat out racist, regardless of whatever Stanley believed her intent to be.
Women have been taught to see ourselves through the male gaze and describe ourselves with the denigrating sexist words men use for us. We have to unlearn that to write about ourselves and about other women. We can’t deconstruct stereotypes by accepting them as valid to begin with. We can’t.
It doesn’t seem Stanley has learned that from this painful debacle, but it sounds as if the NYT public editor has. Going forward, let’s hope Sullivan starts by making sure there are black voices in the newsroom the way Jill Abramson had begun to put female voices there. Because all of us on the margins of straight white male society know you can’t see what you have never lived–as Stanley proved with her column.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of more than 20 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her reporting and commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe andPhiladelphia Inquirer. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural&historical fiction. Her novels, Ordinary Mayhem and Cutting will both be published in winter 2014. @VABVOX