The Angry Black Women of ShondaLand: What The New York Times (and Slate) Got Wrong

Shonda Rhimes during the "How to Get Away with Murder" panel at the Disney/ABC Television Group 2014 Summer TCA at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Shonda Rhimes
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Friday began as a normal day.

I woke up early to drive my girlfriend to work, came home, and got back in bed. When I woke back up around 8:45, I checked Twitter, where I saw a bunch of Black folk defending Shonda Rhimes, executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice,” “Scandal,” and the new drama “How To Get Away With Murder.” With Twitter-favorite “Scandal” returning this week, I figured someone had said something disparaging about the show--the kind of thing sure to cause an uproar.

I was right. Sort of.

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The New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley wrote a profile of Rhimes. She led her overwrought, under-thought essay with “when Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’”

I should have gone back to sleep.

Stanley went on to do a couple of ridiculous things:

• She compared three Black female characters in Rhimes-produced shows to a seemingly random assortment of fictional and nonfictional Black women: Florida, from “Good Times,” Clair Huxtable, from “The Cosby Show,” and the First Lady. Florida and Michelle are from Chicago. Okay. They all have kids, are women, are Black, and have been known to make us laugh or smile from time to time. But the similarities end there.

• She threw in a haphazard, context-free mention of Ferguson, MO, because apparently all issues featuring black folk are related.

• She then spent the bulk of the essay giving Spark Notes on Rhimes’ creations, and wrapped with a quote from Wanda Sykes about Michelle Obama.

The Angry Black woman stereotype paints Black women as excessively angry. They are not. They are not angry because they were born with extra melanin. They are angry because of things that make all humans angry. Late buses make Black women angry. Societal injustices make Black women angry. Underperforming sports teams anger Black women, as do stubbed toes and pay gaps.

Stanley’s piece earned sharp criticism on Twitter from lovers of Rhimes-helmed projects and users tired of “angry black” stereotypes. On Monday, The Times’ public editor issued a scathing response.

Other media outlets moved faster. On the same day the article hit, Slate decided to give it a go.

I don’t fault Slate for trying. Author Willa Paskin seems to have at least partially recognized the sheer ridiculousness of the Times piece. To her credit, she makes the point that other non-Black female characters under Rhimes’ ShondaLand production company banner aren’t labeled angry, though they too exhibit their fair share of anger. She also makes the valid point that calling Rhimes’ work a reclamation or redefinition of the “angry Black woman” trope is unwieldy and shortsighted. Still, this piece left me wanting more.

If I read “To Kill A Mockingbird” and dismissed Atticus Finch as simply an “angry Southerner,” I’d miss the totality of the pieces of the story that endear it to readers young and old to this day. I’d have shortchanged his relationship with his kids, his grasp on morality, and his relation to the community in which he and his family lived.

Likewise, if I read Alex Haley’s autobiography of Malcolm X and labeled X an “angry Black man,” I’d miss the mark entirely. I’d be guilty of reducing the life of a great and compelling man to a trope. I’d be trimming away his years in Boston, his criminal past, prison stint, and discovery of orthodox Islam in favor of a useless buzzword.

What Stanley fed into, and what Paskin missed, is that the conversation their pieces created did exactly what I’d have done to Atticus and Malcolm.

Rhimes’ characters--her Black, female characters--are important because they possess personalities and power. They are angry because they take up space in complex, confusing worlds, full of conspiracies, twists, turns, and double crosses. Olivia Pope is angry when her father is behaving terribly, when the love of her life has to keep her a secret, when her mother may be the most mysterious woman this side of Anna Wintour, and when she never seems to have time to do anything but pick of the pieces of her shattered life. It would be reductive to call Dr. Bailey angry, though she could very easily be labeled demanding; she holds those around her to the same dangerously high standard that keeps her from getting the sleep that would probably mellow her out a good deal.

These things are only tangentially related to their Blackness, if at all. When we discuss angry Black bodies, be they fictional or shot dead in the middle of the street and left to die in the sun while their killer remains free on paid leave some forty days later, we eschew the concrete in favor of conjecture. Stanley missed this, Paskin pushed against the specifics of this instance without making it clear that the angry Black woman label failed to work on the whole. Ultimately, both pathologize Black life and the portrayal thereof, and both could be done without.

Most importantly, both make me wish I’d gone back to bed.