How Not to Write About Race or TV: What Alessandra Stanley Did

If you happened to pull yourself away from all the Cupich-to-Chicago news this weekend (last night someone in my community called his appointment the most important moment in the American Church since "Humane Vitae," so I’m going to say he didn’t), you might have seen reference to some sort of a dust up between New York Times TV columnist Alessandra Stanley and Shonda Rimes, the creator of some of ABC’s most successful dramas in the last 10 years ("Grey’s Anatomy," "Scandal").

In point of fact, it wasn’t a dust up as much as it was an epic tornado of self-inflicted disaster. In Friday’s Times, Stanley did a profile of Rimes in anticipation of the new show Rimes is executive producing, "How to Get Away with Murder," which stars the red hot, Tony Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated actress Viola Davis as a law professor who does I have no idea what, but it’s Viola Davis and Shonda Rimes and have you not seen "Scandal," what else do you really need to know, just watch it already! It’s clearly going to be AMAZING.

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(That’s not the actual logline, but it is definitely the sales pitch. And I’m sold.)

This was Stanley’s opening, and also thesis: “When Shonda Rimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away with Being an Angry Black Woman.’”

Really, she wrote that. And her Times editors approved it.

And, believe it or not, she intended that line as a compliment. “The whole point of the piece—once you read past the first 140 characters,” she has since said, “is to praise Shonda Rimes for pushing back so successfully on a tiresome but insidious stereotype,” the ‘angry black woman,’ a taboo that she writes “even Michelle Obama couldn’t break.” 

The thing is, there’s pretty much nothing about Shonda Rimes that makes anyone who knows anything about her think “angry black woman.” Her first big hit, "Grey’s Anatomy," featured main characters who dealt with their frustrations by among other things “dancing them out.” With the talented Chandra Wilson, who plays supporting character Doctor Miranda Bailey, Rimes certainly created a talented and articulate black female character who would stand up for herself… But angry? No. 

(Really, if there was ever anyone on "Grey's" that might have been considered fundamentally “angry” it would have to be Asian-American heart surgeon Christina Yang—the luminescent Sandra Oh—who thought no one was as talented as she was. And she was right. Miss you already, Christina!)

The angriest thing about Rimes’ follow up show "Private Practice" was Broadway-savvy audience members who were beside themselves that multiple Tony-Award winning lead Audra MacDonald never sang on the program. (Why, Shonda, Why? Why Wouldn't You Release Her? She sings my soul!)

And "Scandal"—well, lots of people die on "Scandal." Or almost die. Or have affairs. Or plan assassinations. Or rig presidential elections. Or do things that are just so wrong like lick the faces of other characters that seriously are like their brother or sister and I’m telling you right now, Shonda, stop it with the Huckleberry Quinn. Just stop.

It’s definitely a crazy show. And lead Kerry Washington plays another passionate, talented black woman. But angry? Mmm, not really, no. 

Rimes herself comes off as very positive, constantly gushing on Twitter about her writers, her actors and her fans. She reads like someone who loves what she’s doing (and often like a proud mom). Not even a teensy bit of rage.

And it’s not as though Stanley produced any evidence to back up her initial contention, either. But she did give Rimes (and a whole lot of others) reasons to get angry, not only through her lead but through strange errors (documented already with great color by Vulture), like her assertion that Rimes created this show when in fact the creator is Peter Nowalk, who is white and male. 

Or by staggering on into outrageous comments about beauty, age and skin color.  Speaking of Davis, Stanley writes, “The actress doesn’t look at all like the typical star of a network drama. Ignoring the narrow beauty standards some African-American women are held to, Ms. Rimes chose a performer who is older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful than Ms. Washington, or for that matter Halle Berry.”

Um, thanks, I guess? What does “classically beautiful “ even mean? And is it truly possible that there was not some part of Stanley that was not screaming “Stop, oh God, stop now!” as she was writing this? 

Online Davis responded only with a quote from Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise: “You may shoot me with your words, you may cut me with your eyes, you may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.”

But again, here’s the thing—Stanley really was trying to say something positive, and also true. Rimes has not only been ratings gold for ABC (which may as well rename itself the Shonda-Marvel-Disney network -- or as I like to call it, “The Shmarvney", tag line: “We also have 'Modern Family'!”); she has completely cast aside television’s “one of each, safe gentle stereotyping” racial conventions to present worlds filled with empowered, compelling rich characters of every race, gender and sexuality. These are the kinds of world we hope to live in (well, except for the murders and the licking and the fact that Fitz and Olivia just cannot get it together!).

It’s just, being a strong, successful, passionate black woman does not in any way mean you are angry, any more than being gay means you are effeminate or being from the country means you’re unintelligent or seedy. (If I could erase from existence one phrase related to rural life, it would be “white trash.”)

But, as my old theology prof Father John O’Malley, S.J., always liked to end his lectures, “So what?” What does all of this mean for the rest of us?

Perhaps it points to an ongoing poverty of our social imagination. As well-intentioned and together as we might think we are, dig very deep and a lot of us discover we're still retelling ourselves some of the prejudiced stories of our grandparents and their grandparents. Even when we don't want to be: Stanley perpetuates the stereotype of the angry black woman in the very same breath she's trying to praise Rimes for dispelling it. And she does so even though as a woman herself she has no doubt had to deal with similarly appalling stereotypes.

That's the power of stories. They get into us, in deep, and mold our ways of seeing and dreaming, not always for the better. If the Stanley debacle tells us anything (other than Alessandra, please get a fact checker!), maybe it's that we should be grateful that right now we have storytellers like Shonda Rimes who offer fresh characters and stories to bring life to those desert places of our minds and hearts.

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