How to get away with angering the journalistic community
Author of New York Times article learns journalists can't Ð and shouldn't Ð employ racial stereotypes without backlash
Television producer, director and screenwriter Shonda Rhimes is arguably best known for the shows she’s created, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” but that’s not why she’s making headlines today. The newest show from Rhimes’ production company, “How to Get Away with Murder” inspired Alessandra Stanley, The New York Times’ chief television critic to profile the television maven.
Unfortunately, Stanley’s inspiration was too deeply rooted in racial stereotypes and cultural assumptions for her attempted praise to achieve anything but outrage.
Stanley cuts right to it with her cringe-worthy lede, explaining that “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’”
Apparently, all of Shonda Rhimes’ success – the multiple hit television shows, the Emmys, her $40 billion net worth – plays second fiddle to the color of her skin. The play on words is clever, but not clever enough to justify the racial stereotyping the Stanley promotes.
Through Stanley’s attempt at humor, she instead suggests that being black and being “angry” (here, Stanley had a whole gamut of adjectives to select – strong, outspoken, confident – but Rhimes being a black woman, “angry” seemed to fit the bill for the author) is equally problematic as murder.
Existing as a black woman is something to “get away with,” something that maybe, with a little luck, people just won’t notice, or will be kind enough to look past, according to Stanley.
If nothing else, Stanley is consistent – the rest of her article is just as troublesome and obliviously racist as her opening lines.
There are simple inaccuracies, as Stanley ignores that Rhimes is not actually the creator of “How to Get Away with Murder.” Rhimes is a producer, but the creator is Peter Nowalk – as a white man, he can’t be the focus of Stanley’s pun about being angry. And that’s one of the primary issues with Stanley’s argument.
Everyone – of any gender and any race – gets angry on her show. Yes, Olivia Pope has some impressively furious monologues on “Scandal” but so does Cyrus Beene, her white male counterpart. Miranda Bailey is angry on “Grey’s Anatomy,” but so is Meredith Grey.
And Pope and Bailey, along with Beene and Grey and every other character on Rhimes’ show, experience and express the entire spectrum of human emotion – usually over the course of a single episode. That’s part of what makes “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy” so addicting and entertaining.
Stanley’s claims Rhimes’ shows transcend race are equally problematic. She means this as a compliment, but instead ends up suggesting that ignoring racial differences, rather than acknowledging and embracing them, is progressive. Rhimes’ shows are progressive because they do the opposite. They point out the challenges of living as a minority and demonstrate that race and cultural identity should be appreciated, not ignored.
Stanley’s article, however, ultimately demonstrates some of those challenges that minorities face. She demotes Nicole Beharie, a black actress who plays one of the lead characters on “Sleepy Hollow” to a mere “sidekick” when compared to her white male partner. She labels Octavia Spencer as “sassy” and “bossy” and implies – no, actually, she states outright – that Viola Davis is less attractive than other black women because she is darker skinned and therefore “less classically beautiful.”
Obviously Stanley was too deeply entrenched in her own rhetoric to notice as she praised Rhimes for breaking down stereotypes, she herself reinforces them – so where were Stanley’s editors? Who reviewed this article?
The New York Times is one of, if not the, most highly regarded news publications in the world. It’s the standard of journalism toward which writers strive and yet somehow this article slipped through. This piece itself is atrocious but so, too, is the Times’ oversight.