I love The New York Times. I used to read it regularly before classes. I recently got a digital subscription so I could read as much as I wanted online and on my iPad. I even have a digital subscription to the NYT Crossword, which gives me access to every puzzle going back to 1993. They’re a great, storied organization committed to pumping out quality journalism and excellent writing. Yet every now and then they go and do something that makes me smack my forehead so hard I just about give myself a concussion.
Case in point:
When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.”
That’s the opening line of an article, published yesterday, entitled “Wrought in Their Creator’s Image.” The article, by Alessandra Stanley, is about the ways in which Shonda Rhimes, television creator extraordinaire, has worked to change the depiction of black female characters in the medium. It’s actually trying to be a positive piece, praising Rhimes’ success and finding in it a great new direction for black women, allowing them to be strong, sexy, and yes, even angry sometimes, and most importantly the central figures on TV shows.
Rhimes herself already responded to the piece on Twitter, pointing out that she wasn’t actually the creator of How to Get Away With Murder, the new series she’s producing, starring Viola Davis.
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
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
It’s a great rebuke to a tone-deaf article, rightly calling out the racially icky choices made by the writer. The sad part is that the article’s framing, and its insistence on directly connecting Rhimes to the leads in shows like Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, conflates the image of black women into one type, and a type that must of course be embodied by the force who created (or executive produced) them. Everything has to be simplified, and in that simplification The New York Times reveals its editorial simplemindedness on these issues. Any smart editor should’ve seen that line calling Rhimes an “Angry Black Woman” and nixed it, but they didn’t see the problem. That’s a problem.
It’s a symptom of a number of things, I’m sure, not the least of which is oversight on the part of the writer and her editors, but its also emblematic. There’s a condition which an outlet like The New York Times embodies in this case, where the good intentions of liberal progressives bump up against lack of awareness and careful thought. That the article looks to celebrate Rhimes as a tough woman in an industry often hostile to women and black women especially is great, but by trying to positively co-opt a stereotype, it merely reinforces the stereotype. Shonda Rhimes, who is breaking barriers from black women on television is nonetheless reduced to the racist trope of “angry black woman” by a supposed bastion for progressive thought, and all in the name of supposedly progressive attitudes.
Frankly, it doesn’t help that the Times seems to be continually surprised that great work, and truly progressive work can come from the television medium. It’s an old fogey mentality in which of course Rhimes and her characters must be fulfilling and upending a stereotype, because TV is generally only capable of sticking with basic tropes. Of course, shows like Mysteries of Laura often come along reinforce that way of thinking, but in the larger cultural conversation, it’s bold shows like Scandal and The Good Wife that end up mattering. TV has been very regularly pushing progressiveness into people’s homes for well over a decade now. Rhimes has been a part of that, not by embodying tropes, but by normalizing complex representations of the kinds of people we haven’t often seen on TV.
The New York Times is a great publication, but in the dwindling age of print media, their ivory tower is falling as well. The kind of cultural and racial blindness which results in their Shonda Rhimes article is the same one that fails to meet the larger culture at eye level. That can’t continue if they are to stay relevant as more than just a place for reporting on world events. Their arts section is one of the most important in America, and it’d be nice if it didn’t sometimes feel like commentary reserved for a set of pop-culturally removed white elites from the Mad Men era that A.O Scott discussed in his “Death of Adulthood” essay. Then again, maybe his lament was more sadly reflective of his station than I’d originally thought.
Corey Atad is a staff writer for Pajiba. He Lives in Toronto.