Nope. That Is Not A Compliment.

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.

PS

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

Nope. We are Still Not Ready For This Jelly

In the past week, Vogue Magazine declared in an article headline, “We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty.” Patricia Garcia, the article’s author, credits first Jennifer Lopez for introducing us to big booty appreciation, then Kim Kardashian for helping us become more comfortable with full curvy bottoms, and then Jennifer Lopez again as our era’s preeminent big booty pioneer. Garcia also cites Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious” as a gateway track of sorts – getting us ready for when big butts finally become a mainstream thing and wotnot – but swiftly dismisses the song and video since “it would be another decade before people were ‘ready for this jelly’ to become the ultimate standard of beauty.”

Who are these “people” who needed the decade after 2001 to get ready for the bootylicious jelly? That women (and not only ones of colour) have long reveled in their possession of this particular asset seems conspicuously immaterial in the article. Also immaterial is that Sir Mix A Lot sang praises of the big butt, despite derision, in the hallowed halls of mainstream culture a little over a decade before Jenny From the Block appeared in the same sphere. This popular homage to buns also predates by two decades the moment when Kim Kardashian started facing us with her behind in selfies. I won’t talk about Iggy Azalea’s unreal proportions, because, as with Nikki Minaj, I can’t substantiate any of that, and puzzling the difficult subjects is not about throwing shade. Suffice it to say, I am thinking about how something African descended women have worn naturally for centuries – with varying degrees of swagger and shame – does not become “a thing” until white women begin flaunting their own equally naturally occurring derrieres. This isn’t about who wore it best or made it popular or acceptable, though. That is too simple and we do difficult subjects over here. Stick with me; I’m going somewhere.

Which brings me to the next stop on this journey. Also, this past week, on September 11, Danièle Watts, an African American actress best known for her role as Coco in Django Unchained, was handcuffed and roughly handled by a police officer for canoodling publicly with her boyfriend. By canoodling, I mean witnesses say she was straddling her boyfriend in a car, fully clothed in broad daylight. The officer said he received a call that folks were performing lewd acts in public, and insisted on Ms. Watts showing him her ID, a request she refused. I’m sure some would say there would be nothing to write about if she had simply shown her ID as requested. Given the too-many-to-wrap-your-mind-around incidences of racial profiling – too many recent ones ending fatally – I can understand why she refused and why she asked the officer if it was a race thing. But let us be clear, asking why she didn’t just show her ID is akin to asking why Janay Rice married a man who physically abuses her or why she stays with him. All of these are the very wrong questions that displace culpability unto the injured party and leave a destructively violent patriarchal status quo unchecked.

If you are also still hung up on questions of indecency and pubic lewdness – things like why she was straddling the man in public in the first place – permit me to cite another related incident involving three other black women who were perceived as behaving “inappropriately” in public. These women, a lawyer and two educators, in late last month were hanging out at The Standard Hotel in Manhattan. Their professional affiliation, I think, should be immaterial here, but as with the ID, various versions of “papers” are often required. The women spent some time in the hotel’s club and then settled in the lobby for drinks, where they were approached by an African American man who introduced himself to them. Shortly after a security guard approached, whispered something in the man’s ear and ushered him away. One of the women, Kantaki Washington, said the following of the incident: “After the security guard ushers the brotha away, he comes over to me and my friends and says, ‘Come on, ladies. You can buy a drink but you can’t be soliciting,’ … ‘We were like, soliciting?’ He said, “Don’t act stupid with me, ladies. You know what you’re doing. Stop soliciting in here.” If you missed it, the guard, seeing three African American women talking to a man in a bar, was unable to imagine any other logic for this scenario beyond prostitution. These women had to be selling their bodies. Let’s bring this back to Ms. Watts and whatever this adult woman was doing in a car, fully clothed, with another adult. The police, and perhaps whoever called in the report, seem to have made assumptions about Ms. Watts similar to those that The Standard’s security guard made about Ms. Washington and her companions. Black female sexuality is not only automatically equated with the clandestine; in these two instances it is also criminalized.

But I’ve really cited these two seemingly unrelated things, the Vogue piece on bottoms and the harassment of black women by the security and law enforcement, to think about how to process something else that’s been on my mind: Lifetime’s new reality show Girlfriend Intervention. Briefly, the show features four black women, who each week stage an intervention for a white woman the show dubs a “BW” or “Basic Woman.” The basic here is meant to be derogatory; as one of the show’s hosts explains, it is how women who are unable to keep up with themselves and those around are described “in our culture.” Think about this show as TLC’s What Not To Wear meets Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but with four black women who will tell you, bluntly but with love, what all the other suburban moms (read white women) are thinking but won’t say. There is a platform/runway where the individual being helped via fashion intervention is critiqued by the show’s hosts for her wardrobe choices, and there are four areas (fashion, design, hair/makeup, and soul) in which the four differently skilled individuals help dig some poorly dressed schlub’s confidence out of the trenches. In Queer Eye the style mentors were gay men; in GI they are black women. Those being helped on GI are always white women, because as the show’s tagline suggests “trapped inside every white girl is a strong black woman ready to bust out.” Shall we linger briefly on the “girl” versus “woman” here, and all the attendant implications for maturity and capability to function? I’m going to put the Mammy card on the table now, to signal that this show does deal heavily in problematically essentialized racial and gendered stereotypes, particularly ones that determine how women of different races are situated culturally in relation to each other. But again, like the matter of who wore big butts first and best, binaried and hackneyed frames will only get us so far in thinking about what is going on in this show. So let the Mammy card sit in the corner for a little bit.

You see, it is too simple to say this show is all bad. Its reclamation of non-traditional standards of beauty – full figures, post-baby and mommy bodies, for example – through black female bodies and sexuality, is a powerful thing. When Tracy (hair and make up) tells a young wife and mother, whose confidence has flatlined and who disparages what she calls her “baby area,” to look at herself in a mirror sans extensions and makeup, and then asks her “do you understand how beautiful you are,” it is a powerful and countercultural thing. It is a gesture that forces the BW to recognize herself as beautiful before any of the make-up brushes and hair extensions come out. The show is also body positive in ways I can completely appreciate. In the premiere, when Tiffiny and Tanisha say a size zero androgynous mannequin that is prominently placed in a store’s window is not “equal opportunity,” it speaks an emotional truth about the struggles the many women who cannot wear mannequin clothes have with dressing and feeling comfortable with themselves. There are real feel good moments here, especially when the BW seems to begin experiencing very real and life-changing confidence boosts. The four girlfriends are good at what they do. All four also have different body types, none more or even less fabulous for their variation. This also sends a powerful message about standards of beauty, reclaiming glamour as a space of equal opportunity.

Ultimately, though, the show’s overly simplistic version of sisterhood, which is marshaled via thickly laid references to the hip-hop gods, what white women do versus what black women do, and girl talk over pink drinks in martini glasses, traffics too heavily in the same problematic stereotypes that overshadow the good the women do for their BWs. The positive affect associated with offering counter-narratives to traditional standards of beauty does not automatically equate to good politics. So, while Tanisha, Tracy, Tiffiny, and Nikki are teaching white women to reclaim their sexuality and become more confortable with their bodies through burlesque or salsa dancing, what has last week’s example of Ms. Watts and Ms. Washington taught us about the lived reality of black women who publicly express varying degrees of their own sexuality? What these events have taught us is that black women’s sexuality – when expressed by black women – continues to be cast as lewd and indecent. When looked at alongside GI, however, a commodified version of black women’s sassy sexuality is raced as a “sista thing” available to white women who get inducted into the sisterhood. It does so, moreover, in a void that renders this raced sense of confident sexuality as an entirely unproblematic thing. Black women in America are safe in their public expression of no-nonsense confidence and sexuality, right? Wrong. What happened to Ms. Watts and to Ms. Washington and her friends is evidence of a very real lack of safety.

What does it mean then for white women – like the show’s BW’s, Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, and now even Taylor Swift – to mobilize elements associated with black femininity for their own benefit and commercial success? What does it mean to put black women in charge of facilitating this phenomenon? Further, what does the successful mobilization of black culture by white women mean when compared to the criminalization of black women who are simply trying to exist, publicly, in their own skin? What does it mean to render white-girl problems as fixable by equally essentialized black-woman solutions? Why is a show in 2014 rendering white women as children that only black women can take care of? Do I need to make the connection between the infantilizing of women and the paternalistic ways women’s bodies continue to be treated in political and economic policy? Moreover, what does it mean to make feminine salvation/transformation contingent on the acquisition of consumer goods – a home makeover, new clothes, hair extensions?

Over at Girlfriend Intervention, they did get the memo that African descended women have proudly worn prominent behinds as “the ultimate standard of beauty.” Nonetheless, this knowledge only seems to matter when it is pressed in the service of white female self-improvement – who um, surprise (!), also come well endowed, posteriorly.