Commentary: Shonda Rhimes Isn’t Angry and Viola Davis’s Beauty Is Classic

Viola Davis, Shonda Rhimes

Commentary: Shonda Rhimes Isn’t Angry and Viola Davis’s Beauty Is Classic

The scandal behind an article that seemed to attack two of TV's most powerful Black women.

Published September 22, 2014

Apparently not everyone is excited that Scandal is coming back this week. As the rest of us clear our Thursday night calendars and stock up on red wine, writer Alessandra Stanley isn’t so amped. Instead, as she painstakingly detailed in an article published Friday in The New York Times, she thinks show creator Shonda Rhimes is making her millions — and her mark on television history — by exploiting the stereotype of the "Angry Black Woman."

Stanley goes on and on and on, each sentence sinking her deeper into a hole of race-baited ignorance. Stanley believes, “Ms. Rhimes, who wrought Olivia Pope on Scandal and Dr. Miranda Bailey on Grey’s Anatomy, has done more to reset the image of African-American women on television than anyone since Oprah Winfrey.” Okay, fine. But she believes Rhimes has done it by creating characters who are "Angry Black Women" like she is (even though Rhimes isn’t angry at all). In addition, these women seem to be oblivious to race, says the Times, because they rarely discuss it — and clearly Stanley believes that if she were a Black woman, all she would do at work (which is when we usually see these characters) is talk about race. After all, what else could they do when they are trying to run a hospital, save the White House and just be people who collect a paycheck?

Stanley has a few other thrown-off ideas. She calls Nicole Beharie a sidekick on Sleepy Hollow, though nearly anyone else who watches the show would call her the lead actress. She laments that Rhimes’s female characters are “haughty” instead of “benign” and “elegant” like Claire Huxtable.

The Twitterverse and Facebookverse and Bloggerverse went into overdrive to smack some sense into her. And so did Rhimes herself, who tweeted how inane it all was. For one of the most concise, thorough takedowns of what is wrong with Stanley’s piece, read Kara Brown’s on Jezebel, appropriately called “The New York Times, Shonda Rhimes & How to Get Away with Being Racist.

Which brings us to How to Get Away With Murder, Rhimes’s newest show on television, premiering this week after Scandal.  The series stars Viola Davis — the Oscar nominee and insanely talented actress — in the role of a lawyer and professor who gets involved in a murder case. For Stanley, it is not enough that television gets one of the big screen’s best talents so that we can all enjoy her work weekly. No, Stanley needed to bring up how Davis is “sexual, even sexy, in a slightly menacing way.” Because she doesn’t see how problematic it is to identify a woman in sexual terms even though her entire career has shown her in way more clothing and in way less sexual situations than her white peers. Also…menacing? But Stanley wasn’t done. She also said that “Ms. Rhimes chose a performer who is older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful than Ms. Washington, or for that matter Halle Berry, who played an astronaut on the summer mini-series 'Extant.'"

Let’s ignore the obvious question (What does Halle Berry have to do with this!? ), instead, let’s look at a couple of other American “classics”: white privilege and Eurocentric beauty ideals. These are some of the classics which Stanley was apparently indulging in as she wrote this. How else to explain why you think it is decent and wise and appropriate to say that a woman is not beautiful — and then qualify her beauty with the adjective “classically” in the same sentence about her age and skin tone?

This idea of “classic” beauty is not new. It is the reason that the bleaching cream industry is thriving. And why little girls and grown women believe they are lacking. And why casting directors and beauty pageant judges and a journalist at the New York Times think they can stand in judgment of women who look Black, not biracial or close to white or pretty in a way that does not require them to look beyond their narrow list of “acceptable” features. Also, there seems to be no reason at all why Stanley throws in this paragraph about Davis’s looks. It is not followed up or justified by anything else in the piece, just another zinger in a piece that read like an attack.

If what Stanley was hoping to achieve was turning any reader into an Angry Person, regardless of race or gender, then she can consider it a job well done.  


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(Photos from left: John Sciulli/Getty Images, Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Written by Ayana Byrd

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