Shonda Rhimes is best known as the showrunner who’s managed to create network hits like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal in an era of dwindling broadcast viewership. She is such a powerful force that ABC’s current marketing strategy is to anchor a whole evening around her programming, pairing Grey’s and Scandal with How To Get Away With Murder, the Viola Davis-led legal drama Rhimes is producing. She’s also been repeatedly praised for creating some of the most diverse casts on television. But according to a recent New York Times piece by TV critic Alessandra Stanley, she did all of this as an angry black woman.
“When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called How To Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman,” the piece begins. And while Stanley seems to mean it as a compliment—she claims, “Ms. Rhimes has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable. She has almost single-handedly trampled a taboo even Michelle Obama couldn’t break”—it’s naturally causing some controversy.
The article caused quit a stir from readers who found its fascination with race and racial stereotypes an odd match for a showrunner who depicts diversity, yet seldom makes race a major thematic component of her plots. (In another bit of bizarre interpretation, the article lists both Sleepy Hollow co-lead Nicole Beharie and brief How I Met Your Mother guest star Sherri Shepherd as examples of the “sidekicks” black women play outside of Rhimes’ work.)
Among those criticizing the article was Rhimes herself, who took to Twitter to share her thoughts. Over a series of tweets, Rhimes pointed out that although Stanley praises her for the creation of another “angry black woman” on How To Get Away With Murder, that show was actually created by a white man named Pete Nowalk.
Titled “Wrought In Their Creator’s Image,” the Stanley piece suggests that Scandal’s Olivia Pope, Grey’s Anatomy’s Miranda Bailey, and Davis’ character, Annalise Keating, are all modeled on Rhimes’ experience as a powerful black woman. Rhimes, however, pointed out that she’s also written plenty of powerful and angry characters who aren’t black, yet is seldom referenced in relation to them.
Rhimes also took offense at the idea of being reduced to a “romance writer” before taking the high road and announcing it was time to “go dance this one out” (a reference to Grey’s Anatomy favorite form of de-stressing).
Meanwhile sites including Slate and Vox published articles that also challenged Stanley’s premise. Slate’s Willa Paskin explains that, more than subverting the “Angry Black Woman” notion, Rhimes has inverted stereotypes of mistresses and career-first women—and proven that a black woman can front a TV show (Scandal is the first show to do this since the 1970s). Paskin writes:
Angry, like bossy or shrill, is a particularly loaded word to use about women, and even more so about black women. It comes with the implication of unreliability and unreasonableness, the connotation that the unhinged woman in question is easily dismissed, qualities that Rhimes’ characters—and Rhimes herself—barely ever display.
Paskin also links to her own New York Times profile of Rhimes, in which the creator explains in her own words how she feels about characters who are reduced to the color of their skin:
When people who aren’t of color create a show and they have one character of color on their show, that character spends all their time talking about the world as ‘I’m a black man blah, blah, blah’… That’s not how the world works. I’m a black woman every day, and I’m not confused about that. I’m not worried about that. I don’t need to have a discussion with you about how I feel as a black woman, because I don’t feel disempowered as a black woman.