“When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called How to Get Away with Being an Angry Black Woman.” I must have read that sentence five times, unable to believe that multiple editors would OK it as a lede in The New York Fucking Times. But what followed wasn’t much better: unsupported judgments and inaccuracies about one of America’s most powerful television voices, particularly when it comes to portrayals of racial diversity in the workplace.
By the end of last week, popular consensus had built that Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley’s, um, essay on How to Get Away with Murder, the newest production from Rhimes’ ShondaLand production company (also responsible for Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal), was tone-deaf. And yesterday, The New York Times itself chimed in to agree that’s it’s tone-deaf. But Stanley still seems to disagree. She has issued a defensive non-apology that suggests we, the readers, simply didn’t get what she was doing. It was really clever, you see; too bad we’re not smart enough to understand how rhetorical devices work. Oh, and here are some examples that may help us, with our pea-sized brains, how words work:
“In the review, I referenced a painful and insidious stereotype solely in order to praise Ms. Rhimes and her shows for traveling so far from it. If making that connection between the two offended people, I feel bad about that. But I think that a full reading allows for a different takeaway than the loudest critics took.
The same applies to your question about “less than classically beautiful.” Viola Davis said it about herself in the NYT magazine, more bluntly. I commended Ms. Rhimes for casting an actress who doesn’t conform to television’s narrow standards of beauty; I have said the same thing about Helen Mirren in “Prime Suspect.”
I didn’t think Times readers would take the opening sentence literally because I so often write arch, provocative ledes that are then undercut or mitigated by the paragraphs that follow. (links below)
Regrettably, this stereotype is still too incendiary to raise even in arguing that Ms. Rhimes had killed it once and for all.
Here are some random examples.
I’m sorry, but this is just not how criticism works. Some critics, such as legendary rock writer Robert Christgau, take an aspirational approach to their work, forcing readers to consider art on their rarefied level via obscure references. But this is not about educating a reader — this is about a charged lede that misrepresented what Stanley was supposedly trying to say, while further perpetuating harmful racial stereotypes. And three editors at the Times failed to realize both of those facts. In NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan’s note of dissent, Times culture editor Danielle Mattoon admitted what Stanley — notorious for her factual errors over the years — should have regarding race: “This is a signal to me that we have to constantly remind ourselves as editors of our blind spots, what we don’t know, and of how readers may react.”
Putting aside Stanley’s basic errors — like calling Rhimes the creator of ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder (that title belongs to ShondaLand associate Peter Norwalk) instead of its executive producer — her piece lacked nuanced interpretations of how race figures in to Rhimes’ work while making sweeping statements about just that. Put aside the fact that you can Google “Alessandra Stanley” and find that she is a white woman; a Rhimes fan of any race might distrust someone who proclaims, “But even when her heroine is the only nonwhite person in the room, it is the last thing she or anyone around her notices or cares about.”
Ignoring race is not what Rhimes’ brand of empowerment is about. In Grey’s Anatomy, there is an unspoken — but not unseen — bond between two black physicians, Chief Webber and Dr. Bailey, that underlies his mentorship of her. On Scandal, there’s a Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings subtext to Olivia Pope’s longstanding affair and employment with the President — one she grapples with constantly, in an attempt to rise above it.
Shonda Rhimes will remain a TV force, neither in spite of nor because of her own race or her treatment of race on TV. She creates, or has a hand in creating, widely accessible workplace dramas that are downright addictive, even thrilling. You’d think the Times TV critic would understand this by now… or, you know, at least admit what she doesn’t know after such a major gaffe.