It only takes two lines of the New York Times review of ABC’s new show “How to Get Away with Murder” to know the article isn’t going to end well. Writer Alessandra Stanley has found herself in hot water — and rightfully so — with executive producer Shonda Rhimes with these opening sentences:
“When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’ On Thursday, Ms. Rhimes will introduce ‘How to Get Away With Murder,’ yet another network series from her production company to showcase a powerful, intimidating black woman.”
There are so many things wrong with these opening sentences it’s hard to know where to start. First of all, while Shonda’s company ShondaLand is producing the series and Rhimes serves as an executive producer, “How to Get Away with Murder” is actually the creation of Peter Nowalk — who is a very white man instead of a black female. No word yet on where he ranks on the angry scale.
Secondly, though all three shows under the Shondaland banner — “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,”
and “HTGAWM” — feature “powerful, intimidating” black women, is that really a bad thing? Last time anyone checked, black women in power is not an abundant thing on television and Rhimes is doing a service by showing an underrepresented part of the population in positions of privilege and respect.
But wait, it gets worse. Stanley goes on to say this: “In that multicultural world, there are many African-Americans at the top of every profession. 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.”
It starts to make us wonder if Stanley has ever watched an episode of Shonda Rhimes television in her life. Yes, race is still an issue in this country, as highlighted by the recent events in Ferguson, Mo., but that doesn’t mean that Rhimes is required to make it the focal point of shows. Is it so hard to believe that Rhimes is trying to create realistic fictional worlds where the actions of her characters take precedence over their skin color?
As Stanley points out in her article there are several African-Americans who have made their way to the top of noble professions, however they didn’t get there by walking into boardrooms and saying, “Hey, I know we’re in the middle of a really important business matter but let’s take a second to address the fact that I’m black and you aren’t.” That doesn’t happen in the real world and Shonda Rhimes and Peter Nowalk are by no means obligated to make it happen in theirs either to have realistic television shows.
If your blood isn’t boiling yet, Stanley’s next point may be the thing to tip you over the edge: “And what is most admirable about Ms. Rhimes’s achievement is that in a business that is still run by note-giving, nit-picking, compromise-seeking network executives, her work is mercifully free of uplifting role models, parables and moral teachings.”
Rhimes’ aforementioned achievement is being the first black woman in history to run a network’s primetime line-up since “Grey’s,” “Scandal” and “HTGAWM” will all air on ABC Thursdays. It stands to wonder if Stanley even knows what the words uplifting or role models mean when Miranda Bailey exists, delivering television famous speeches about exactly what is right or wrong. What was Olivia Pope talking about all of last season on “Scandal” when she decided to “walk in the sun” with Jake if not questioning the moral consequences of their actions and those around them?
This is not to say that Shonda Rhimes characters don’t come with problematic issues — but the thing that has made Rhimes so successful and her shows so endeared to her fans is that she creates powerful characters that wrestle with impossible issues and hardly ever make the right choice. The moral teachings and parables are in their failures. If that’s a problem for Stanley then Heaven forbid what her opinion must be on “Breaking Bad”
— or does that not count because Walter White isn’t a black female?
Stanley’s points seem to revolve around two controversial ideas. The first is that black women on television should fall into the preordained molds created by Claire Huxtable on “The Cosby Show”
and Michelle Obama. So it’s OK for black women to hold respectable jobs or positions of power but if they show any sign of emotion that isn’t calm and demure they are apparently fulfilling a trope.
The second is that they should fall within, what Stanley admits herself are, the “narrow beauty standards” African-American women are held to. In the article Stanley calls out actress Viola Davis for being older, darker and not as “classically beautiful” as “Scandal” star Kerry Washington. Never mind the fact that Davis is an Academy Award nominated actress who trained at Juilliard and wanted to play an emotionally and morally complex character that hasn’t been available to her on film.
Readers aren’t the only ones outraged by Stanley’s assessment of the roles of black women in ShondaLand shows. Shonda herself took offense to the article — of course — and took to Twitter to voice her disagreement. Check out the serious dish of reality the producer served up below.
“Private Practice” actress Audra McDonald also jumped into the debate, voicing her offense over the statements made in Stanley’s article.
Stanley ends her critique with yet another comparison of Shonda Rhimes to Michelle Obama (as portrayed through Wanda Sykes stand-up, mind you). “Nobody thinks Shonda Rhimes is holding back and nobody is asking to see the real Shonda Rhimes. She’s all over the place.”
With all due respect given to Stanley (which is more than what she’s given to Shonda Rhimes and women of color in general) the “real” Shonda Rhimes has provided entertaining content featuring flawed and diverse characters who are able to look past race to tackle issues that affect us all, as humans. As we live in a world where Kerry Washington is one of only five black women to ever be nominated for a Lead Actress Emmy and none have ever won, television needs Shonda Rhimes to not hold back.
Shonda Rhimes “all over the place” means more women of color in powerful positions who are not held down by race and refuse to hide their vulnerabilities or shortcomings for fear of being seen as “angry.” They are real characters who connect with a wide-range audience because they contain multitudes outside of the level of melatonin in their skin. People embrace Shonda Rhimes and her fictional worlds because she sees beyond race. It’s sad that Stanley can’t do the same.
For more on Rhimes’ actual motivation for her characters, check out this “Thank God It’s Thursdays” preview event with Ellen Pompeo, Kerry Washington and Viola Davis.