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New York Times TV Critic Writes Article About ‘Scandal’ Creator Shonda Rhimes as an ‘Angry Black Woman’

New York Times TV Critic Writes Article About 'Scandal' Creator Shonda Rhimes as an 'Angry Black Woman'

The New York Times is a pillar in the world of arts journalism, but for whatever reason their TV coverage falls well short of the standards the rest of the paper sets. Where their film section has the always astute A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis writing about new releases and J. Hoberman to cover classics coming to home video, the Times’ television section published something that was little more than the author making glib jokes about classic television (which we covered here). Still, that was preferable to the latest thinkpiece by TV critic Alessandra Stanley, which begins with the most poorly thought-out lede in recent memory:

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

Stanley’s latest is about how Rhimes’ work features black women as leads in roles that take the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype and make it something powerful. Stanley uses “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and the new show “How to Get Away with Murder” as examples, even though the last series isn’t Rhimes’ show – she’s credited as an executive producer, but Peter Nowalk (not, to my knowledge, an Angry Black Woman) is the creator. That’s a big mistake, particularly when the crux of your argument is that Rhimes is patterning her lead characters after herself.

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. 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.”

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.

There was probably a way to write about this and how Rhimes’ shows feature three-dimensional, flawed but fascinating black female protagonists for whom race is not the most pressing issue. But Stanley’s article is remarkable in its tone-deafness, from its assumption that Rhimes sees herself as an Angry Black Woman to the attempt to lump all of these characters together as a trend to the belief that if she ran other shows, the black women would all fall into the same role. It also ignores that “Grey’s Anatomy” was an ensemble show, and assuming that Rhimes automatically saw herself in Chandra Wilson’s Dr. Miranda Bailey and no one else is dicey, at best.

Even when Stanley tries to make larger points about how Rhimes’ characters are game-changers, she makes grievous errors like reducing Claire Huxtable of “The Cosby Show” as “benign and reassuring” or following a graph about Wanda Sykes mocking Angry Black Woman stereotypes that many assumed Michelle Obama would fall into by saying “Nobody thinks Shonda Rhimes is holding back and nobody is asking to see the real Shonda Rhimes. She’s all over the place.” Here, Stanley makes assumptions about Rhimes’ character and accidentally conflates it with that stereotype. It’s a clumsy bit of writing that could easily have been fixed had anyone bothered to give it a close read.

Update: The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, has weighed in, calling Stanley’s column “astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch.” She is pursuing Stanley and her editors for further comment.

A number of writers and critics took to Twitter to lament the state of New York Times TV criticism and that this could be published. Here are some of the better reactions:

Finally, it’s worth sharing the reaction of Shonda Rhimes herself:

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