By now all of the smart people have written the smart takes on the New York Times’ television review crediting Shonda Rhimes’ with creatively manipulating the “angry black woman” stereotype. They’ve rightfully pointed out that critic Alessandra Stanley misattributes the creator of the forthcoming show How To Get Away with Murder. Rhimes herself pointed out that she writes a complex cast of characters that happens to include black women. The reviewer dug in and seems to blame Twitter for misrepresenting her critique. I suspect the writer really did think she was complimenting Rhimes on skillfully wielding a worn trope that ghettoizes black women in popular media. The problem is that intentions are not always works seen and dabbling in stereotypes takes skill and courage.
Here’s the thing with using a stereotype to analyze counter hegemonic discourses. If you use the trope to critique race instead of critiquing racism, no matter what you say next the story is about the stereotype. That’s the entire purpose of stereotypes. They are convenient, if lazy, vehicles of communication. The “angry black woman” traffics in a specific history of oppression, violence and erasure just like the “spicy Latina” and “smart Asian”. They are effective because they work. They conjure immediate maps of cognitive interpretation. When you’re pressed for space or time or simply disinclined to engage complexities, stereotypes are hard to resist. They deliver the sensory perception of understanding while obfuscating. That’s their power and, when the stereotype is about you, their peril.
Others have taken Stanley to task for misrepresenting Rhimes’ phenomenal body of work. For anyone, what Rhimes has accomplished is special. For a black woman, given how rarely they have been given the resources to produce major media productions, Rhimes’ three shows on network television is especially stunning. It is easy to imagine how such stunning success, given the history of race, gender and power and mainstream media, might entice someone to compare Rhimes with the stereotype so often used to describe women who look like her. But comparing Rhimes’ creativity, productivity and acumen to a unidimensional trope of black womanhood not only derails any real critical analysis because of the power of stereotypes; it is also the least interesting comparison to be made. The better comparison is between Rhimes’ exceptional ability to write complex characters, many of whom are not white men, given so many white writers cannot.
Rhimes is talented and accomplished but her talent is not about how well she writes black characters. She has created more than one diverse cast of well-written meaningful characters, many of whom are not black. We should be less incredulous that Rhimes manages this than we are appalled by how poorly white writers write anything remotely close to a complex character of color that doesn’t rely on stereotypes to do the job that writing is supposed to do. Power is leading with a stereotype of a black woman to credit her for not conforming it instead of critiquing why there are no stereotypes for whiteness that can only write itself.
I do not like to name names but names are out there, as is research on the dearth of non-white characters in mainstream television. With huge credit to Rhimes, ABC’s fall lineup is being called one of the most diverse in network television. That’s saying something but it’s not saying as much as it should given the historical dearth of non-white people on primetime, network news and cable news.
Eponymous “hit” TV shows like Friends and Seinfeld were criticized for the lack of non-white characters. The whiteness of hit television shows, many given resources to build an audience and flounder a bit, is particularly egregious considering these shows are so often set in some of the most racially diverse cities in America. How can one live in New York forever and not know a single person who isn’t a white dude or dudette?
It must be easier than it appears to incredulous minorities but it is remarkably normal. Analysis from the Public Religion Research Institute out just a week before Stanley’s critique reports that “fully three-quarters (75 percent) of white Americans report that the network of people with whom they discuss important matters is entirely white”. That’s not just about who people know but who they trust with intimate details and shared experiences; the kind from which I’m told artists draw great inspiration for their art. At some point this is a statistics game, exacerbated by pervasive residential segregation, but that is a harder story to sell in New York City than it is Langford, Michigan where Dan and Roseanne managed to know two whole black people.
Yet white writers have taken umbrage that they are responsible for artistic quotas. Like Girls’ creator Lena Dunham, they argue that artists create what they know and middle class white milieus is what they know. I’ve been intrigued by Rhimes’ personal narrative. She is a Dartmouth graduate who says she applied to USC film school because she read it was hard to get into to. By all accounts she appears to have lived a life that could justify writing about middle class foibles among the well-heeled. And to some extent she does. Her characters are glamorous, even when they are doing combat triage in the wreckage of an airplane crash like season wight of Grey’s Anatomy. They have friends in black-ops military units and sleep with the President of the United States. In short, they are fictional. In writing fiction – creating a fantastical version of reality — Rhimes manages to also write characters that are different from herself. She does not just eschew the “angry black woman” stereotype. She also rejects stereotypes about smart women, and gay men and wealthy black people, and interracial relationships and adoptive parents and violent offenders. In short, Rhimes does not let stereotypes do her character writing. Instead, she writes characters.
The audience is enmeshed in the world Rhimes creates in part because without stereotypes you have to actually pay attention to the story. You have to follow the characters’ narrative arc because the black guy won’t always be the former gangbanger and the mistress won’t always be the blonde. Rhimes writes. Only in a racist culture could executing one’s job description be a cause for lifting up a stereotype.
When Stanley shot the angry black woman salvo, it was plenty bad enough. But I was almost as offended by her assertion that Rhimes’ characters don’t even notice race. Her characters have shown intimate awareness of racial identities.
One of my favorite moments in Scandal is when Olivia’s paramour tells her to drop the pretense because he’s seen her “press her hair”. That’s a cultural code about race and gender and beauty. If you’ve seen a black woman pre and post hair straightening, you have reached a level of intimacy. Scandal watchers on Twitter that night got the reference. Rhimes’ characters talk about race the way people who live with race talk about race: naturally. It is a far cry from how some imagine racial minorities talk about race — with anger and shouting and tears. But being angry at racism is not the same as being aware of race. The former can, indeed, make one righteously angry on occasion but race, having it and experiencing it, is rarely a reason to be angry.
The difference, like the utility of stereotpyes, is about the lens through which our culture critiques race as a proxy for racism. We dare not go there even when we want the convenience of the stereotypes made there.