On Friday, The New York Times published a careless and obtuse piece about ABC's new show How to Get Away with Murder. The article, "Wrought in Their Creator's Image" is chief television critic Alessandra Stanley musing, bluntly and clumsily, about how hyper-successful television showrunner Shonda Rhimes produces characters that Stanley feels are built atop racial stereotypes. It calls Rhimes, one of the most powerful producers in the television industry, an angry black woman in its first sentence — and somehow it goes downhill from there.
"Ms. Rhimes has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable," Stanley wrote. "Ms. Rhimes started small with Bailey, a secondary character, not a star; moved on to the charismatic best friend Dr. Naomi Bennett on Private Practice, now canceled; and then went big with Olivia. Now she is shooting the moon with Annalise [Keating]."
Putting the condescending race-splaining aside for just one moment, there's a huge problem with Stanley's assessment of Keating (Viola Davis), the star of How to Get Away with Murder — Shonda Rhimes isn't the creator of the show. The creator of the show is a man named Pete Nowalk (who has written and produced on Rhimes's shows in the past), as Rhimes pointed out on Twitter:
Confused why @nytimes critic doesn't know identity of CREATOR of show she's reviewing. @petenowa did u know u were "an angry black woman"?— shonda rhimes (@shondarhimes) September 19, 2014
Apparently we can be "angry black women" together, because I didn't know I was one either! @petenowa #LearnSomethingNewEveryday— shonda rhimes (@shondarhimes) September 19, 2014
Rhimes is one of the producers of Murder, to be sure. But Nowalk, as creator, will be instrumental in determining the direction of the show. It's also strange that creator is spotlighted in the title of Stanley's article, but the piece refers to Rhimes 19 times and has only one mention of Nowalk.
This producer vs. creator jumble isn't Stanley's only oversight. Her main argument is that Rhimes's characters (along with one who isn't hers), are often black with "potent libidos" and "haughty members of society" who get angry. She then lists off two characters Rhimes has had a hand in creating: Bailey (Chandra Wilson) on Grey's Anatomy and Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) on Scandal.
It's true, those characters get angry, but they also experience many other emotions. If you've ever tuned into a Shonda Rhimes show, you'll know that all her characters get angry and any one of those characters is, at any moment, prone to a monologue. Focusing on Rhimes's black characters, reducing these complex characters to their race, and leaving out vast swaths of Rhimes's body of work is unfair.
Wait. I'm" angry" AND a ROMANCE WRITER?!! I'm going to need to put down the internet and go dance this one out. Because ish is getting real.— shonda rhimes (@shondarhimes) September 19, 2014
By picking on those two characters, Stanley left out entire rosters of "angry" men (Kevin McKidd's Owen Hunt, Patrick Dempsey's Derek Shepherd) and "angry" women who are blonde (Katherine Heigl's Izzie Stevens), white (Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey, Kate Walsh's Addison Shepherd), Latino/Latina (Sara Ramirez's Callie Torres), and Asian (Sandra Oh's Cristina Yang). And those examples are from just one of Rhimes's shows.
Final thing: (then I am gonna do some yoga): how come I am not "an angry black woman" the many times Meredith (or Addison!) rants? @nytimes— shonda rhimes (@shondarhimes) September 19, 2014
People of all races get angry on TV, because it makes for good drama. By being so reductive about Shonda Rhimes's multi-faceted career, Stanley blatantly ignores many scenes like this one from Grey's Anatomy, which feature the main character of the show being angry and, well, white:
Update: The New York Times public editor has stated that she will personally ask about the piece. More specifically, she'll be asking what the editing process was like and how a piece like Stanley's made it into the paper.
"Intended to be in praise of Ms. Rhimes, it delivered that message in a condescending way that was - at best - astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch," Margaret Sullivan wrote on her blog.
Sullivan said she would be asking Alessandra Stanley, as well as culture editor Danielle Mattoon and executive editor Dean Baquet for comment.