How to get away with applying a racist, sexist stereotype in a New York Times story about diversity on TV

Olivia Pope is angry, black, and a woman. But an “angry black woman” she isn’t.
Olivia Pope is angry, black, and a woman. But an “angry black woman” she isn’t.
Image: AP Photo/ABC/Eric McCandless
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There are smart ways to write about diversity in television, and they probably don’t include this:

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

That’s how New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley opened her recent story about Rhimes, the TV writer and producer who is responsible for ABC’s Thursday night lineup of diverse, strong, female characters in Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and soon How to Get Away with Murder—the latter two center around black women.

Stanley writes, “Ms. Rhimes has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable.”

Rhimes responded appropriately:

The problem with Stanley’s suggestion is that it embraces the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, gives it legitimacy, and assigns very personal motives to someone whose own viewpoint is not included in the article.

Stanley seems to be trying to say that Rhimes has succeeded in creating a dynamic group of leading women. Stanley notes their strength and their command of the shows, yet the thread that ties these characters together for Stanley is the idea that they stem from the trope of the “angry black woman.” This is both a symptom of just how much the angry black woman stereotype has been perpetuated, and a contribution to the discipline. When a TV critic watching black actresses emote on screen sees “angry black women,” that’s an example of unwitting prejudice that is so innate that it isn’t easily recognized—not by the critic, anyway. Does the same critic have a similar reaction when white women from different shows get angry? Do these characters become “angry white women?”

Sure, sometimes Rhimes’ characters are angry (I’m basing this on Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, as I have yet to see How to Get Away with Murder), because, you know, people get angry occasionally, especially when they’re doctors or lawyers or surrounded by other doctors or lawyers. You know what else they are? Fully formed characters with plenty of other emotions and motivations, like love and empathy and jealousy and strength—their multidimensionality is part of what makes Rhimes’ shows so popular in the first place.

Rhimes has said there’s a little bit of her in many of her characters. It’s unsafe to presume she was talking only about the black ones. In fact, Rhimes is on record saying she identifies with both Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang, characters on Grey’s Anatomy, who are white and of Korean descent, respectively.

Stanley responded to the row, telling Buzzfeed: “The whole point of the piece — once you read past the first 140 characters — is to praise Shonda Rhimes for pushing back so successfully on a tiresome but insidious stereotype.”

Indeed, there are several complimentary observations in the piece:

…her heroines are mysterious, complicated and extravagantly flawed, often deeply and interestingly. They struggle with everything except their own identities, so unconcerned about race that it is barely ever mentioned.

What is it saying, then, when a critic applying her own lens to these heroines sees black women defined mainly by their anger?