“When characters like Olivia Pope can be wildly misread by prominent white critics, at length, in the paper of record, how far have Rhimes’ shows brought us? – Daniel D’Addario for Salon
I started reading Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist a couple of nights ago. I haven’t gotten very far into yet, but I already consider it is the Gospel According to the Female Assistant Professor of Color. It resonates powerfully with me in so many ways, mostly because of personal and professional similarities I share with Gay. One thing I have been having trouble with, though, is Gay’s decision to claim bad feminism—that is, to marshal what I think is a productive interpretation of feminist identification under what I consider to be a negative signifier. I have not been able to understand why the thoughtful and self-affirming delineations Gay wants to make between her feminism and Feminism need to modified by the word “bad.” She might explain the negative modifier in a place I haven’t gotten to yet — no spoilers! — but up until yesterday’s web-based news cycle, the “bad” in Bad Feminist puzzled me. And then, a little birdie all the way from the my island in the sun put the name Alessandra Stanley in my ear and “bad” began to make sense to me as a term that engendered resistance to a status quo rather than a universal value.
Stanley, as a New York Times television critic, is no stranger to corrections. The piece I am discussing here appeared in the paper’s print edition on Sunday and you can read it for however long eternity means in the digital age. It is about a new show, produced by Shonda Rhimes, called How To Get Away With Murder. Full disclosure: until this show starts to get serious buzz, I don’t really care. I only gave in to the Scandal pressure last year when I got tired of not knowing what everyone else was talking about. I can’t stand not knowing what everyone else knows. What can I say? I am a know-it-all bandwagonist who has been on the tenure track for the last six years. Ain’t nobody got time to be picking up new TV shows. But I digress. As many outlets have noted, in ways I need not rehash, the very first sentence of Stanley’s piece alone conveys its tone deafness about Rhimes and an entire history of African American women on television. This much cited opening sentence reads, “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’” Yes. I know. Let us linger here for a moment, shall we?
The phrase “angry black woman” is a volatile one that, among other things, polices black women’s ability to healthily experience and express an emotion that is central to human functioning. The suggestion that Rhimes should title her autobiography with a reference to a reductive and stereotypical autobiographical trope is not only heartily insulting to Rhimes but also delegitimizes the right of black women, as human beings, to the emotion of anger. Because why? It’s so negative, anger. Especially when it’s scary black ladies who express this emotion. What happens in the course of this article is that Olivia Pope, Dr. Bailey, and Rhimes herself are all reduced to (in Ms Stanley’s words) “the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast … in [Rhimes’] own image and made … enviable.” So here, folks, is where I see the value of the word “bad” in the Gay’s title. This is difficult for me to explain; it’s still murky in my mind, but this is why I’m trying to make a habit of writing about the things that make me go hmmm, weekly.
I would like to claim the right to express anger, and any other human emotion, without the totalizing baggage that essentializes it as reductive tool in the political and socioeconomic discrimination against black women among others. (As we have seen from recent events at the University of Illinois, black women do not have a monopoly on having their anger policed these days.) Underlying this desire, of course, is also a personal understanding of civility that requires me to express my anger in responsible and considerate ways. Allow me to model this for you: in this moment, as I think about the way Shonda Rhimes’ work is treated in the article, I am an angry black woman. I have every right as a human being to express this anger in productive ways, like writing a thoughtful blog post, without having it become the be all and end all descriptor of who I am as a human being. To claim my right to the full spectrum of human emotions, though, I must own anger in particular. To advocate for a fuller, more complex spectrum of feminist identifications, Gay must also claim those spaces Feminism remains historically reticent in addressing – the “bad” spaces. As I read Gay’s book, I’m sure I will want to think more about these spaces, but for now, suffice it to say, I not only understand but feel how the assumption of a conventionally negative descriptor can be a productive critical gesture of resistance.
Back to Stanley and what was meant to be a laudatory piece about Rhimes. It isn’t enough to say that Rhimes is responsible for a popular new slew of variously empowered black female characters, who are everything but the help, on primetime network television. For whatever reason, Stanley makes this contingent on Rhimes imbuing her black female characters with an anger that in turn enviably glamorizes them; Rhimes has made caricatured anger “enviable.” Read that last independent clause again and let it sink it. To be clear, it isn’t the ability to express anger that is enviable, but rather “the persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast … in [Rhimes’] own image.” Rhimes is the angry deity and all of these successful and well dressed ladies are created in her angry image. There is something perverse happening here. Stanley seems to be celebrating the opening of a space for black women to be glamorized, despite (?) being angry people. Nonetheless, it is an essentializing glamorization that doesn’t encompass the full humanity of which the label angry black woman, no less than the denial of anger in resistance to the label, deprives black women.
I think we can see some of the dimensions of this particularly complex irony clearly in the erroneous autobiographical basis on which Stanley builds the essay, from the very first sentence. You see, in the case of the new show, How to Get Away With Murder, Rhimes’ holds the title of executive producer and Peter Nowak, a writer for Rhimes’ production company Shondaland, is the show’s creator. Because we err on the side of generosity over here at difficult subjects, I will say this is an understandable slippage. Rhimes is huge right now because of her brilliant grasp of the kinds of drama and characters people want to see. Arguably, I suppose, this is also understandable because of the depth of experience and character she is able to create for black women on television. This successful, yet angry, black woman must only be able to create these characters out of the lived realities of her own experiences, right? It seems Stanley is also saying that as audiences, the only black women we are interested in watching are angry ones flawlessly draped with kickass purses and oh so gorgeous coats, right?
That is as far as I can go with the generosity business, though, because really, what the NYT piece comes down to is careless sloppiness that in turn reveals an insidious system for policing anger. Conflating Rhimes’ work with her personal identity falls too comfortably into the often erroneous conflation between autobiography and women’s writing. Yes, there is a basis for this conflation, but to treat experience as the sole determinant of anyone’s creative imagination is reductive and insulting. It is thus all the more troubling that what Stanley assumes about Rhimes, as a black woman, is that she is angry and, for this reason, she begets and glamorizes angry characters in her own image. As D’Addario suggests in the epigraph above, though, how worrying is it that a writer from an outlet like NYT can get not only a person, but a slew of television characters who are black women, so reductively wrong? As with too many instances of thoughtless (perhaps unintended) racism– like the cartoonist who this week thought it was funny to use an actual image of slave ship for a joke about contemporary air travel and instead of backing off when criticized and saying “Crap. I didn’t think about that long enough. I messed up” – Stanley digs her heels in: “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.”
This is where it gets really interesting for me. This writer, who says that she wants to praise the successful pushing back on the “tiresome but insidious stereotype,” also marshals Phylicia Rashād’s portrayal of Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show as a foil to Rhimes’ protagonists: “They certainly are not as benign and reassuring as Clair Huxtable, the serene, elegant wife, mother and dedicated lawyer on “The Cosby Show,” she says. As if she has never seen that minute long scene that begins with “lemmie tell you something, Elvin…” I will give Stanley elegance, but benign? When? Clair Huxtable is every woman (cue Chaka Khan). The denial of the full spectrum of human emotion – human, not gendered, emotion – is the thing that really disturbs me about Stanley piece. It is a thing that always disturbs me. Anyone who has watched any episode of The Cosby Show knows Rashād gave us one of the most beautiful, gracious, accomplished, sequined strapless dress wearing, no blasted nonsense wife and working mother of five. She spoke different languages, she danced, she sang, she loved her children, she disciplined her children firmly, she had arguments with her husband, she schooled her sons-in-law on how to treat women equally as human beings, she had giggly sexy time with her husband. She expressed anger when she was offended, as the clip linked above shows, with grace and poise. She was a well-rounded human being. Neither “angry” nor “benign” can fully account for her. Fictional characters aren’t human beings, of course, but we need to acknowledge when their creators make them something more than one-dimensional stereotypes.
Anger is a tricky emotion, but is a necessary and human one. The fact that, historically, black women have been vilified for expressing anger should have given Stanley some kind of pause. What is offensive here is not only how anger, as an emotion, is deployed as an all encompassing, yet ultimately reductive trait of the entirety of tv show characters and of Rhimes as a human being, it is also the assumption that caricaturing the anger of black women – or in the case of Clair Huxtable rendering them benign – is a legitimate way to compliment anyone personally or about their work.
With thanks to Kimmy. Because, Jah know, I did not know what I was going to write this weekend, and I am still not ready to tackle that time when Beyonce made the ladies face us with their vulvas at the VMAs. xoxo