What the New York Times Got Wrong About Shonda Rhimes
When black women share their pains about being ridiculed, objectified, limited and stereotyped, you should believe them. Even now in 2014, we are often left to defend ourselves and even women in the highest positions of power and prestige must compete with unnecessary criticism that other non-black women or men won’t face. Consider the constant criticism for Michelle Obama for everything — from the size of her body to her healthy eating initiatives for children. Was anyone ever this upset about Laura Bush? And how often do we criticize Beyonce for her feminist credentials when many young women (and celebs) are afraid to even utter the word?
And now, beloved television showrunner Shonda Rhimes also faces these same outlandish and disappointing criticisms.
There’s no denying the strength, intelligence and relevance of Shonda Rhimes. For more than a decade, Rhimes has gifted audiences across the country with heartfelt monologues, envious romances and jaw-dropping plotlines on her successful primetime shows: Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal. Now, on the heels of her latest production effort, How to Get Away With Murder, the New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley has published one of the most factually-inaccurate and offensive stories about Rhimes’ career and aspirations as a television creator.
In a now infamous article from earlier this week, Stanley wrote, “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.” And this line is only the first sentence in an article that also claims Viola Davis is not a “classic beauty” and characterizes the black female characters in Rhimes’ shows as angry.
Why is this so bad?
Well, for one, Stanley uses her platform to do a disservice to the complexities and subtleties of Rhimes’ work. By only classifying the black female characters (Olivia Pope on Scandal, Dr. Miranda Bailey on Grey’s Anatomy) of Rhimes’ shows as angry, Stanley shows her true, ignorant colors. Where’s the criticism of Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) from Grey’s Anatomy, one of the richest and most complicated characters on television —regardless of race or gender — ever? Why is there no spotlight shown on Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), the First Lady on Scandal and, perhaps, one of the most righteously angry and heartbroken characters on any of Rhimes’ shows?
And now, after a slew of successful shows, why do we tie Rhimes so closely to the characters she helps create? We find this often with female creators. Consider many folks’ inability to distinguish Lena Dunham, the privileged, yet clearly hardworking wunderkind from Hannah Horvath, the emotionally-stunted anti-heroine of her HBO comedy Girls? Do we throw the same sort of criticisms on male creators? I’ve yet to read an article that questions the fidelity of Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men and the show’s lead character and philanderer Don Draper. I’ve yet to hear criticisms of Vince Gilligan as a sociopathic drug dealer like the devious Walter White he created for Breaking Bad.
By reducing Rhimes to the stereotypes of her race, Stanley is suggesting that, regardless of what we do, black women will only amount to the stereotypes we’ve given them. By misidentifying the diversity of her characters and associating Rhimes with her characters, Stanley is perpetuating the same cliches about women in the arts – that we’re unskilled, unoriginal and not worthy of respect. Imagine working as hard as possible as an artist and learning everyone around you will still only reduce your work to the sexist and racist limitations that have plagued our society. That is a world that exists, but one that you and I — and great minds like Shonda Rhimes — do not deserve to live in.