When journalist and TV critic Alessandra Stanley decided to open her recent New York Times profile of television producer Shonda Rhimes by referring to Ms. Rhimes as an “angry Black woman” it set off a firestorm of criticism and rightly so. In the article Stanley also described actress Viola Davis, star of Rhimes’ latest work How to Get Away with Murder, as “less classically beautiful” than lighter-skinned Black actresses. It was as if Stanley was on a mission to reanimate every stereotype ever conjured up of African-Americans.
While I have watched less than an hour of any of Shonda Rhimes’ hit series, among them Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and the wildly popular Scandal, it is clear that this successful Black woman is anything but angry. In the still mostly vanilla world of television, she has become a powerhouse in Hollywood and her programs have topped the ratings charts; meaning she is a rainmaker and a force to be reckoned with. If she is angry, I’ll take a dose of whatever is stirring up that passion.
The true scandal here is that with this review Alessandra Stanley has aided and abetted the historical marginalization of Black women and Black people generally. By suggesting Rhimes is angry this journalist has helped feed the gender afflicted imagery of African-American women incapable of controlling their emotions; easily manipulated or prone to irrational and sometimes violent behavior. It is classic caricaturing that then infests the cultural mainstream and challenges opportunity in the classroom, workplace, and church, and understanding in the home. The review by Stanley might as well included a depiction of a finger waving, neck swaying Black women with her free hand on her hip because that it precisely the visual imagery her words suggest.
Stanley reaches even further into the minstrel bag by referring to Viola Davis, a woman of darker complexion, in a way that suggests the actress is ‘less beautiful’ due to her hue. One need not be a scholar to understand what is meant by “classically beautiful,” suggesting that Blacks of a lighter complexion are closer to a European standard of beauty. Surprisingly, Stanley did not go for the trifecta and offer a dismissive view of Davis’ hair texture.
What we have here is classic ignorance by someone who should know better. The New York Times bears significant blame because its editors allowed such a demeaning piece on the pages of their paper and online. This is the problem. When prominent institutions are a party to empowering stereotypes it reminds me that racism, like the flu, is a virus for which there is no cure but only prescriptions to mitigate its effects.
The tragedy is that Black people simply aren’t allowed to be normal. We are either depicted as angry or docile, ultra-exceptional or pitiful failures. We can never simply be normal human beings with a wide range of human emotions. And as Alessandra Stanley demonstrates, even when we are successful there has to be some underlying anger or resentment. It’s no wonder there was so much controversy when The Cosby Show aired in the 1980s. The idea that there could be a Black family with two successful, upwardly mobile, college educated middle-class Black parents (remember Cliff and Clair Huxtable were professionals, not wealthy aristocrats) and normal children was too far afield of the cultivated image of the Black existence in America.
Sadly, there are instances when Blacks have fed this beast. The current run of reality television is doing us no favors, and making Black women look particularly bad. When known celebrities engage in on-air foolishness, resorting to rogue behavior and pettiness, we are all branded likewise. For the sake of 15 minutes of subterranean fame, these women are stripping away whatever dignity they have left. In the course of their outlandishness, these women manage to give credibility to the cultural typecasting that is then used against us. At some point we have to reject these depictions or risk our girls and young women being permanently scarred by association.
The backlash against Stanley’s piece has been fierce but it only serves to bring light to this incidence of racial battery. There must be a recurring campaign to address the negative and demeaning imagery of Black Americans on the screen and in the media.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.