I’ve been holding my tongue when it comes to the topic of Alessandra Stanley’s factually inaccurate and tone-deaf piece “Wrought in Their Creator’s Image: Viola Davis Plays Shonda Rhimes’ Latest Tough Heroine.”* As soon as the words “Angry Black Woman” hit the internet the piece was destined to be poked, prodded and lit aflame millions of times over. Plus I don’t want to seem like I have something against the New York Times via another call-out. I love the New York Times. It’s one of my favorite newspapers, and not just because I have a friend or two who have been employed there.
Thursday I read the very thoughtful piece written by NPR’s Linda Holmes that stuck with me and fermented into my bones through the weekend. You see, here's the thing. Of the many issues raised by the original piece and by Holmes’ response, I don't--I can't--believe it was Stanley's intent to proverbially put Rhimes in her "place", though it's nearly impossible to read the piece in any light other than that. Before I get into why, I'll highlight two (of the many) things that were like sandpaper on the skin due to Stabley's careless stance.
1) Let's Leave Our High School Categorizations Behind Wherever We Left Our Scrunchies
Once I realized that I couldn’t un-read Stanley’s opening line and the one that followed…
“When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.”
On Thursday, Ms. Rhimes will introduce “How to Get Away With Murder”, yet another network series from her production company to showcase a powerful, intimidating black woman.”
— Alessandra Stanley, New York Times
…I started paying close attention the the vocabulary in the rest of the article. The problem in the opening sentence is obvious and has been quoted ad nauseam. But do you see the glowing embers of clique-ism in the second?
powerful. intimidating. black. woman.
Stanley, who swears the piece was meant as a compliment and blames Twitter for the backlash, uses subtle and not-so-subtle labels throughout the piece that give the classic non-verbal cues of “this is my circle, and that’s their circle; they are not like us and never will be.” Some other examples that immediately leapt into view:
- Potent libidos
- Scolding and uh-uh-ing
- Bossy (again)
- Cleverly constructed hoot
- Diversity jag
- Innate dignity
- Wisecracking sidekick
The vocabulary isn’t only aimed at Rhimes. It follows a curious trip through the history of black women in television, making each character or actress mentioned into an oddity or a less-than. Each label draws a circle around a group of women, cordoning them off from the popular girls’ lunch table. Later, in an email response to Talking Points Memo on the about the piece, Stanley responds with the same tone of exasperated blame-dodging that causes parents of teenage girls sigh and wonder if any of their lessons are being absorbed:
“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.”
— Alessandra Stanley, via TPM LiveWire
So now, apparently, we praise people by heaping more stereotypes upon them.
2) Being the Only One can really suck.
The title of Holmes’ piece, “The Only One: A Talk With Shonda Rhimes”, resonated deeply with me. The idea that “Shonda Rhimes, really, is the Only One. She’s certainly the Only One at that level,” is a painful and lonely one. Because Rhimes is the sole black female television producer in the room when the industry is on parade makes her have to give up time spent being good at her job to shoulder the the burden of being the Explainer-In-Chief of all that is black, female, and therefore stereotyped.
When I was a kid and a young adult I was often the only black friend or acquaintance of the people around me. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I quickly noticed when being the Only One—the Only Black Person—in a room. During the wandering, slightly lost years of my early 20s there was little that made me feel more pigeonholed than the “Why do they do that?” questions. You know, the ones that require the respondent to explain the actions of people of a similar skin color whom the respondent has never met. For example, when a man I worked with asked me why black people end answering machine messages with “Have a blessed day!”, and why they use the past tense pronunciation of the word instead of “bless-ed”. It didn’t dawn on him that the saying was as much of a Southernism as it was a Black Thing. It didn’t dawn on him that my accent indicated that it had been at least partially developed outside of the South. The only thing that mattered was that I should have been able to answer his “innocent” curiosity because I was black. What that told me was that all of the experiences and and characteristics that made me into who I was disappeared when when my race was considered. The label was more important than the person.
In Stanley’s attempt to use “a rhetorical device to begin her essay,” according to her editor, Danielle Mattoon, and then follow that particular device by lobbing more labels at other black women in television, Stanley is doing exactly what the guy at the gym did to me—stripping away all of the work, talent, quirks, sacrifices and memories each of those women incurred through their careers and lumping them together in a single commonality. The idea that a woman in an industry where women have to work so hard to have their own individual talents and personalities recognized as something other than their gender would do such a thing to a woman working in an industry with the same problem is difficult to believe. But it happened, and I do believe that such a thought never occurred to Stanley. The proof, for me, is in the following paragraph which shows awareness of the way an industry reminds people of their place:
“Ms. Davis is perhaps best known for her role in “The Help as a stoic maid in the segregated South, a role for which she was nominated for a best actress Oscar. As it turned out, it was her “Help” co-star Octavia Spencer, playing the sassy (note: I never thought I would grow to cringe at that word) back talker, who won an Oscar (for supporting actress).”
— Alessandra Stanley, New York Times
Perhaps now the beleaguered cultural critic will remember to take such struggles into consideration when tempted to revisit the days when label-lobbing was the way of the pecking order.
*In case you haven’t kept up with continuance of the saga, Stanley named Rhimes as the creator of the show “How To Get Away With Murder” when it was actually created by Peter Nowalk, who is a man and is white, which dissipates the point of Stanley’s piece and shows that there was clearly an eagerness to spend some writing time on petty labeling and stereotyping.