As a general rule, if you are a white person writing about a black woman you should steer clear of opening your piece by suggesting the phrase “Angry Black Woman” be included in the title of her autobiography. It hardly matters how brilliant your analysis may be because a whole lot of people are going to stop reading after that opening line.
Alessandra Stanley, known for her sloppy fact-checking more than her insight as a television critic for the New York Times, violated this rule to much opprobrium today in a piece apparently meant to praise Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes.
Unfortunately, Stanley’s writing is so convoluted and confused that a piece intended to celebrate the subversion of a harmful stereotype instead appears to not only embrace that stereotype but deploy it against its supposed conqueror.
Stanley’s first misstep is treating Rhimes’ creations (or, in the case of How to Get Away with Murder, the creation of Peter Norwalk, produced by Rhimes’ production company), not just as ground-breaking characters, but as autobiographical. That assumption, that Olivia Pope is a thinly veiled Shonda Rhimes, is a rookie mistake for a television critic (actually, it’s a rookie mistake for an undergrad English major) and it is the cause of much of the criticism being thrown Stanley’s way today.
But even when discussing the characters themselves, Stanley merely lists the ways in which they exhibit the characteristics of the Angry Black Woman, without noting how those characteristics operate in the context of the show to actually undermine the stereotype. The article Stanley seems to have intended was one that celebrated Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating as powerful characters that are allowed to get angry in the way that fully realized white characters do, in addition to having a full range of other emotions. As she told Talking Points Memo in her defense, “The whole point of the piece — once you read past the first 140 characters — is to praise Shonda Rhimes for pushing back so successfully on a tiresome but insidious stereotype.” That may be what she meant, but this is what she wrote (emphasis added):
Her women are authority figures with sharp minds and potent libidos who are respected, even haughty members of the ruling elite, not maids or nurses or office workers. Be it Kerry Washington on “Scandal” or Chandra Wilson on “Grey’s Anatomy,” they can and do get angry. One of the more volcanic meltdowns in soap opera history was Olivia’s “Earn me” rant on “Scandal.” Ms. Rhimes has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable.
Creating a black female character whose emotional range includes anger in defiance of societal norms that deny black women the right to be angry is not the same as embracing and recasting a stereotype in your own image. And terms like “potent libido” and “haughty” aren’t usually used to discuss the negation of stereotypes of black women.
The rest is just bad copy, a mix of shade thrown at virtually every other black woman ever on television (including Clair Huxtable, one of television’s most influential fully-realized, powerful black women) and filler. At times, Stanley’s writing is just downright incoherent. Take this section discussing Viola Davis’ move from a role as a domestic in The Help to a powerful attorney and tenured law professor in How to Get Away with Murder. Stanley writes:
Maybe it’s karma, or just coincidence with a sense of humor, but some of the more memorable actresses in that movie (its star Emma Stone, who played a young writer championing civil rights, is not one of them) are now all on network television, only this time, the help is on top.
Allison Janney, an imperious employer in the film, now plays an ex-addict and the matriarch of three generations of poor single mothers on a CBS comedy, “Mom.”
I think the point here may be to note as a symbol of progress the reversal of roles for the former Help stars as the white Allison Janney is now playing a poor single mother while the black women acclaimed for their roles as domestics in a film set in the 1960s are now able to play powerful members of a meritocratic elite.
That’s what I think she meant, but that’s not really what that paragraph states. It’s difficult to determine what exactly it states, though Vulture has a pretty good time trying:
Allison Janney just won two Emmys, including one for Mom, which is actually a pretty good show. (Octavia Spencer recurred on the first season. Bonus!) How would this be “karma”? Like, the universe is going to punish you for having played a racist character? Is that how karma works? The other memorable actresses in The Help are Bryce Dallas Howard, who is not on TV; Jessica Chastain, who is not on TV; and Sissy Spacek, who has an upcoming Netflix show. Classic karma, I guess.
I didn’t share in the outrage at Stanley today, mainly because I see her great sin as bad writing rather than stereotyping, but either way it’s disappointing to see such a terrible piece make it past New York Times’ editors.