Arts & Culture

On Culture: Watch that term ‘angry black woman’

Executive producer Shonda Rhimes speaks onstage at the 'How To Get Away With Murder'' panel during the Disney/ABC Television Group portion of the 2014 Summer Television Critics Association at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 15, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California.
Executive producer Shonda Rhimes speaks onstage at the 'How To Get Away With Murder'' panel during the Disney/ABC Television Group portion of the 2014 Summer Television Critics Association at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 15, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. Getty Images

If I’ve learned anything recently, it’s not to characterize a powerful, African-American woman as an “angry black woman” – especially if you have no evidence to back it up.

That’s what New York Times’ TV critic Alessandra Stanley did in a now-notorious piece on Shonda Rhimes, the African-American showrunner behind the hit dramas “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and the new “How to Get Away with Murder.” Although you sense in the piece that Stanley is trying to commend Rhimes for her success and what’s she brought to television, the article is still an embarrassing whopper of wrongheadedness.

Stanley drops such cringe-worthy bombs as noting that Rhimes “has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable,” incorrectly stating the sensitive, incendiary subject of race is not tackled on her shows and even calling “Murder” star Viola Davis “less classically beautiful” than Halle Berry.

Needless to say, after the article was posted, everybody lost their minds. Not only did fans of Rhimes and her shows lash out at Stanley on Twitter, but past and present cast members of her shows came to her defense. (Stanley gave a halfhearted apology, mostly blaming everyone on Twitter for misunderstanding her.) Even after a couple weeks, people are still miffed about it. Monica Castillo, a Brooklyn-based writer pal of mine, found Stanley’s piece to be sheer ignorance.

“She was writing with zero knowledge about what it means to reduce successful black women into stereotypes and to call one of the most accomplished African-American actresses ‘less classically beautiful,’ ” Castillo says. “Like it never crossed her mind what kind of invalidating precedent that would have by putting those demeaning words on one of the most revered billboards of American print journalism, The New York Times.”

Maybe it’s just me – remember, I’m a man, so bear with me – but the Stanley piece calls to mind the topic of intersectional feminism, which has come up in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal. Intersectionality – coined in 1989 by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, an expert on critical race theory – is the belief that women experience oppression in varying configurations and degrees of intensity. Black women, for instance, have to deal with racism and sexism on the daily. On a Ms. Magazine blog, Janell Hobson wrote that “for black women, in particular, our complex experiences disappear in the crossroads of intersectional oppression. Where racism and sexism meet, we fall through the cracks.”

For women who only have to deal with sexism on the daily, this may fall on deaf ears. Feminist rocker Kathleen Hanna told how she held a workshop for budding feminists of every race. It didn’t go well.

“There were women of color there, and there were white women there, and it ended up being a lot of white women talking about how they felt discriminated against,” Hanna recalled. “It was really awful. I was really disappointed at the level of education about oppression that people had. ... I watched a lot of women of color walk out.”

While I don’t believe Stanley is a feminist, her Rhimes piece is a fine example of what many white women get wrong about black women. Balancing between cluelessness and condescension, Stanley mostly casts assumptions that show her narrow world view. From denigrating black, female characters who are on other shows to virtually overlooking how Rhimes is one of the few successful, black, female TV producers in a white, male-dominated field, Stanley proved she’s out of touch.

“I do think she’s writing from a point of white privilege,” says Castillo, who is an intersectional feminist herself. “It’s like when I get a compliment from a guy about how ‘exotic’ I look, which is a way of saying I look foreign/not from around here, but he means it as a (misguided) compliment. ‘Classical beauty’ is a Western/white-dominated concept, so to exclude Viola Davis from being so-called ‘classically’ beautiful is a similar form of othering, or emphasizing the fact that you’re not what we expected/you’re not from around here. It’s a backhanded compliment that helps perpetuates racist ideology and discrimination.”

Even though I’m not a big follower of Rhimes’ work (I’ve seen enough less-than-stellar episodes of “Grey’s” – and its now-defunct spinoff “Private Practice” – to keep me from being a complete fan), I do respect her hustle. She puts hour-long shows on the air, full of meaty, complex roles for women – black, white, Asian, whatever – usually in a multilayered, multiracial environment. (Just like the world we live in!)

Apparently, this hustle is working very well, since all three of her shows are amassing high ratings and bringing together an audience that will immediately cut a heifer off at the knees if that person talks bad about Queen Shonda!