The New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley just published an essay that begins, “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman,” a flame-throwing start if there ever was one. The piece argues—admiringly—that Rhimes, the creator of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, and an executive producer of the forthcoming How to Get Away with Murder, and a singularly powerful figure—black or white, male or female—in the TV universe, has “embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable … single-handedly trampled a taboo even Michelle Obama couldn’t break.”
With compliments like these, who needs insults? Rhimes is no more the “angry black woman” than her characters, who are angry the way that a bird is bipedal: It’s not false, but it’s not to the point.
To understand Rhimes’ work as a reclamation and redefinition of the phrase “angry black woman” is to take an extremely narrow, arguably undermining view of what she has accomplished. It would be far more accurate to say that, in her work, Rhimes has embraced and subverted the stereotype of the career-first woman and the mistress rather than that of the “angry black woman,” but even these reclamation projects are selling Rhimes’ achievements short. Rhimes has not just re-framed the stereotype of the “angry black woman,” she has blown open what black female characters are allowed to do on television, including, most importantly, fronting a TV show. (Before Scandal, a network show had not been headlined by a black actress since the 1970s.) Rhimes’ black characters are allowed the entire range of human emotion—anger being just one. This, of course, goes for Rhimes’ non-black characters as well. It is not just Grey’s Anatomy's Dr. Bailey or Scandal’s Olivia Pope who have been cast “in Rhimes’ image.” According to Rhimes herself, that’s just as true of Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey and Scandal’s own Mellie, all of whom get angry from time to time but are not likely to be indentified as “angry non-black women” anytime soon.
Angry, like bossy or shrill, is a particularly loaded word to use about women, and even more so about black women. It comes with the implication of unreliability and unreasonableness, the connotation that the unhinged woman in question is easily dismissed, qualities that Rhimes’ characters—and Rhimes herself—barely ever display. Olivia Pope is conflicted, tortured, in a self-destructive relationship—but she is never anything but ultra-competent. If she has occasionally lost her temper, she has more often bit her tongue, kept her secrets, gulped down her wine. Dr. Bailey dispenses a kind of faux-anger, behaving like a grump and a curmudgeon to cover up her huge heart. And as for Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating, in the one episode of the How To Get Away with Murder available to critics, she is severe, sexy, and Sphinx-like: Who knows, yet, if she even does angry? Describing these women and Rhimes as “angry black women” is a contortion, shoving them into a stereotype that doesn’t fit.
What all of these women are is intimidating as hell. That quality is much more intrinsic and specific to all of these characters—and to Rhimes herself, whom I profiled last year—and it’s that quality, I think, that Stanley is actually admiring. (Though imagine the controversy this piece would have caused if it were titled more accurately as a celebration of Rhimes and the “scary black woman.”) Stanley’s conclusion, that Rhimes’ work (especially Scandal) has both “inspired imitators” and “shamed holdouts,” putting additional pressure on a show like Saturday Night Live, for example, to have a black woman in its cast, is, I think, true—but not because Rhimes has breathed new life into the stereotype of the “angry black woman.” It’s because she has shown that a black woman doesn’t have to be a stereotype at all. She can just be the star.