On Shonda Rhimes, “Angry Black Women,” and Television’s Minority Problem

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Shonda Rhimes, the creator and showrunner of Scandal, Private Practice, and Grey’s Anatomy is a woman, and she is black. On the shows she helms, playful, soapy dramas, characters operate on an exaggerated emotional register, frequently filled with contempt, pity, longing, lust, exasperation, and, yes, anger. But when television critic Alessandra Stanley opened her New York Times article on Rhimes with “when Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman,” she managed not only to do serious injustice to Rhimes and her shows, she also recreated the racist trap that Rhimes has worked her entire career to eliminate in television. Because how else to respond to an asessment as tin-eared and false as Stanley’s, except with anger.

It’s hard to know where to begin with Stanley’s article on Rhimes. With her failure to point out that the show that she was writing about, How to Get Away With Murder, is produced by Rhimes but actually created by Peter Nowalk, who she did not describe as an “angry white man”? The “angry black woman” trope, even if Stanley is arguing that Rhimes is using it in a slick, new way, is not an accurate way to describe either Rhimes or her characters. Watchers of Scandal are familiar with immaculately pants-suited fixer Olivia Pope’s range of feelings, from existential distress to lip-quivering disbelief to, sure, rage. But collapsing Pope’s actions and motivations into anger ignores the logic of the show, and blends the specturm of bizarre, daring, lunatic plot moves that Rhimes makes with Pope into a single shade.

In the world of Scandal, Pope’s status as a black woman in a high-ranking position is little remarked on. This isn’t because it doesn’t play into her interactions or is supposing some sort of post-racial fantasy land, it’s because Rhimes doesn’t have to underline it. No viewer can help but be aware of the racial realities of Pope’s situation. Her own father gave a speech reminding Pope that she has to be “twice as good,” not the kind of advice that white parents typically have to give their children. As Margaret Lyons pointed out in her excellent sentence-by-sentence take-down of Stanley’s piece, the idea that Rhimes is ignoring race because she doesn’t make that the central theme of her episodes is misguided. “Rhimes’s characters don’t aspire to cultural white absorption,” Lyons wrote. “The premise of racial harmony is not to erase racial and cultural identity; it’s to erase prejudice and violence.” Pope’s racial identity remains very much intact, it’s just that it’s far down on the list of her other priorities. Rhimes makes clear that Pope is very, very good at her job and proud of it; her notoriety in Washington comes from her supreme competence. Her judgement is mostly flawed when it comes to her romantic life and her on-again off-again affair with the ever-dreadful President Fitzgerald Grant.

But Stanley’s misreading of Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy is also a poor portrait of Shonda Rhimes, one of the most interesting and powerful people working in television now. Rhimes is not the kind of showrunner who thrives on personal drama, even if the plots of her shows often do. “Volcanic rage” is not a defining feature of Rhimes’ public persona. In interviews, she is measured and thoughtful, outspoken but not brash. When Salon asked if she was proud of the racial diversity of the Grey’s Anatomy cast, she engaged in no strenuous acts of self-celebration. “I don’t take pride in it at all,” Rhimes said. “I don’t understand why people don’t understand that the world of TV should look like the world outside of TV.”

Rhimes is one of the very few women and still fewer black women who have risen to her level. According to the Director’s Guild of America, in the 2013-2014 network television, just two percent of all television episodes were directed by minority females. The whiteness and maleness of behind-the-scenes television is still pervasive, and Rhimes rise to power is an accomplishment and a reminder that interesting voices like hers are what make television worth watching. If Rhimes is peeved, it is that a distinction still has to be made between television like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and other network shows. See her remarks to the Director’s Guild after winning a Diversity Award: “We’re a little pissed off because there still needs to be an award. Like, there’s such a lack of people hiring women and minorities that when someone does it on a regular basis, they are given an award.”

But Rhimes isn’t interesting because she is female or black. She’s interesting because she is an auteur who specializes in splashy, gossipy, operatic, risk-taking television in an age where slow-moving and slapstick are the currency. Scandal, in particular, is a study in bad heroism. It is a look at the way that people rationalize destructive behavior and still consider themselves on the side of good. There are rigged elections, murders, terrorists, and all manner of zany plot twists, but the heart of the show is contemplating how morality structures operate under pressure, making monsters you can cheer for and then reminding you of their fangs. And that is the worst part of Stanley’s article, that her condescension meant to be taken as admiration obscures the fun and brilliance that Rhimes work contains. By the way, Rhimes does have an autobiography coming out next year. My guess is she isn’t taking any title advice from the New York Times

Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby.

 

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