Late last week, New York Times television writer Alessandra
Stanley wrote about the impact that showrunner Shonda Rhimes has had on the
visibility of black women on television. Deserved praise, indeed! But Stanley,
who has a famously robust history of errors, began with what might be the worst lede ever written:
“When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be
called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.'”
The Internet raised a collective eyebrow.
In her attempt to praise Rhimes, Stanley stepped into a
minefield of even more insidious stereotypes than the ones she praised Rhimes
for surpassing, and her mistake reflects the dangers of assuming that we live
in an age of “colorblindness.” We do not. Reducing anyone to the
stereotype of the Angry Black Woman validates the very racist notion that black
women are emotional, reactive, dismissible nuisances whose opinions and stories
Stanley not only ignored Rhimes’s creation of multifaceted
characters, but forgot the work that has been done in the past two decades to
combat negative racial stereotypes on television. We’ve come a lot farther than
Stanley seems to understand.
21 years ago, the New York Times piece “Black Life on TV: Realism or Stereotypes?”
took on this topic — Isabel Wilkinson (later the first African American woman
to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism) called out critics who labeled
storylines about drugs and violence in black communities as
“progressive.” These shows, she said, offered “merely a richer,
more elegant form of stereotyping that… does greater damage to blacks because
viewers see so little else.”
At the time, the portrayals of black Americans which industry
executives found “palatable” (hello, racism!) fell on two ends of a
spectrum. On one side were the drug-dealing, gun-toting gangsters and poor
single mothers. On the other were the Bill Cosbys and George Jeffersons,
affluent, suburban families wrought in the image of White America. Where were
the regular black people?
Wilkinson’s argument was prophetic. In the mid-1990s, sitcoms
about average, working-class black people and their families popped up
everywhere. This included “Living Single,” which Wilkinson mentioned,
and others — some of which were already in full swing. “Fresh Prince of
Bel-Air” was about to begin its fourth season. “In Living Color”
— widely considered one of the boldest shows of the era — was about to begin
its fifth and final season.
But despite this wave, there were still few successful dramas
that depicted the lived realities of people of color — until 2002, when David
Simon created “The Wire.”
There were gangs, violence and drug lords, sure. This was a
story about the slums and stash houses of Baltimore. But there were also black
detectives, families, teachers, journalists and children, all struggling to
thrive within the confines of unfair, broken institutions of politics, criminal
justice and education. “The Wire” gave an unprecedented number of
roles to people of color, painting a captivating, honest picture of black
“The Wire” effectively stuck a wrench in the heavy
door to the mainstream, allowing other great black dramas through in its wake.
This slow trickle has included Simon and Overmyer’s “Treme,”
“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Luther,” “Scandal,”
“Orange is the New Black,” “Being Mary Jane,” and
premiering tonight, “How to Get Away With Murder.” These dramas have
showcased the talents of black actors and the diverse stories of people of
color in a way we simply did not see before “The Wire.”
However, most of today’s black dramas can only be seen if you
subscribe to paid cable or Netflix, or if you seek them out online. And on broadcast and
cable television, black showrunners still struggle.
A UCLA study released in February 2014
found that, during the 2011-2012 season, only 5.1 percent of lead actors in
broadcast comedies and dramas were people of color. Behind the camera, the
numbers were even worse: only 4.2 percent of creators were people of color.
What do the black dramas that did make it to air in the last
few years have in common? Most of them were created or backed by Shonda Rhimes.
Rhimes’s characters are nuanced, their trajectories broad and
their storylines effective, no matter their race. She has also tackled issues
of race and gender head-on in countless story arcs. Stanley’s singling out of
“anger,” and denial of the other shades of emotion and character
embodied by these women, is frustrating and false. Shonda Rhimes creates not
only the best characters of color, but some of the best, most complex
characters on television in general.
Stanley was right about one thing: Shonda Rhimes and her
characters are intimidating. But they’re not intimidating because they’re Angry
Black Women. These black women are intimidating because they’re talented,
complicated and powerful.
Racism has not disappeared; it has simply gone undercover. If
we want to close the still shameful gaps in diversity on television and
elsewhere, we need to talk about writers like Rhimes and the merits of her
shows without racist stereotypes.
This is not to say we shouldn’t talk about race when we talk
about television. When Shonda Rhimes creates characters and constructs story
arcs, her experience as a black woman matters. Her success as a black writer is
still praiseworthy and relevant because it is so unfortunately rare. Instead of
reducing her to an “Angry Black Woman,” let’s discuss how
refreshingly realistic her characters are, or how she has shown us perspectives
of black women — and other women of color, and white women, and men — that we
haven’t seen before.
We’ve come a long way toward ending racism, and black
storytellers, activists and leaders like Rhimes have helped us along the way.
Clearly, we’re not there yet.