Can WOC on TV Get a Break? Offensive Media Responses to “How to Get Away with Murder”

On Sept 18, a week before the premiere of ABC’s newest show from executive producer Shonda Rhimes, “How To Get Away With Murder,” The New York Times published an article by Alessandra Stanley which opened with the line: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’”

It was titled “Wrought in Rhimes’s Image,” and suggested that these “angry black women” are a reflection of Shonda Rhimes herself (because obviously when a black woman writes about other black women it has to be autobiographical, right?) I wasn’t surprised, beginning with the opening line, as Stanley’s article got more offensively stupid.

She went on: “On Thursday, Ms. Rhimes will introduce ‘How to Get Away With Murder,’ yet another network series from her production company to showcase a powerful, intimidating black woman. This one is Annalise Keating, a fearsome criminal defense lawyer and law professor played by Viola Davis. And that clinches it: 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, but how are these women angry?

“Her women are authority figures with sharp minds and potent libidos who are respected, even haughty members of the ruling elite, not maids or nurses or office workers. Be it Kerry Washington on Scandal or Chandra Wilson on Grey’s Anatomy, they can and do get angry.”

Oh, right. Because they’re black. A black woman can’t just get angry, she automatically becomes an Angry Black Woman.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Stanley wrote: “Ms. Rhimes has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable. She has almost single-handedly trampled a taboo even Michelle Obama couldn’t break.” Wait, so now the racist stereotype of the Angry Black Woman is enviable?

Later in the article, while talking about Viola Davis in “How To Get Away With Murder,” Stanley had this amazing insight:  “As Annalise, Ms. Davis, 49, is sexual and even sexy, in a slightly menacing way, but the actress doesn’t look at all like the typical star of a network drama. Ignoring the narrow beauty standards some African-American women are held to, 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.’”

Alessandra Stanley actually sat down and wrote that Viola Davis isn’t as “classically beautiful” as Kerry Washington and Halle Berry because she is “older and darker-skinned.” Is this happening? Did I actually read this in the New York Times in 2014? How did this article even make it past editors?

Predictably, people were pissed.  Shonda Rhimes was (rightfully) not pleased. At all. There were critical articles everywhere from Slate to The Guardian to Us Magazine.

The New York Times’ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, posted a non-apology on September 22nd. It had the usual “There was never any intent to offend anyone” excuse, this time coming from the Times’ Culture Editor, Danielle Mattoon.

But what stood out to me was Sullivan’s own admission that the whole situation raised questions “about diversity, about editing procedures and about how the Times deals with stories about women and race.”

This point is further illustrated by Mattoon’s explanation: “Alessandra used a rhetorical device to begin her essay, and because the piece was so largely positive, we as editors weren’t sensitive enough to the language being used.”

Rhetorical device? Largely positive piece? What article was Ms. Mattoon reading? How is using a racist trope to not only open your piece, but also using it over and over again, positive?

I completely agree with Sullivan that the Times needs more newsroom diversity, especially when prior to being published, the piece went through “multiple editors — at least three — [who] read the article in advance but … none of them raised any objections or questioned the elements of the article that have been criticized.”

A correction at the bottom of the “apology” post noted that although an earlier version had stated that the Times only had one person of color in their staff of critics, there’s actually two. Wow.

What did the author of the incendiary piece, Alessandra Stanley, have to say? She blames the readers for “not getting it” by providing links to her old articles and writing: “I didn’t think Times readers would take the opening sentence literally because I so often write arch, provocative ledes that are then undercut or mitigated by the paragraphs that follow.” Oh, our bad, we just weren’t familiar with your work. Really, dude? When you have to make excuses for your article by providing links to your old ones, I think the problem might be your writing. Own up to it and do better.

You would think that after the whole NYT fiasco, publications might be a little more careful as to what their staff puts out there, at least regarding How To Get Away With Murder. But no, of course not. While live tweeting the premiere of the show, People magazine posted this:


Fans immediately replied with disappointment that this was the first thing People magazine felt they had to reference when seeing Viola Davis’s amazing performance and People magazine responded by … promptly deleting the tweet. This, however, is the Internet and nothing is ever, ever gone!

Again, why is this still happening in 2014? Is People magazine unable to see black women as anything besides the help? As easy as it would have been to dismiss this as a one-time error by an intern, referencing Viola Davis’s Oscar-nominated performance in the movie “The Help,” let’s not forget that recently People magazine was sued for racial discrimination by former editor, Tatsha Robertson.

According to a Huffington Post article: “Robertson, reportedly the only black senior editor the magazine ever had, alleges her former boss left her out of meetings, dismissed pitches for stories centered on black victims, and verbally dissed her as well, once telling her, ‘You need to talk like everyone else here. You’re not at Essence anymore.’ (…) The suit also has pointed accusations about People’s editorial policy. In legal papers the magazine is described as ‘a discriminatory organization run entirely by white people who intentionally focus the magazine on stories involving white people and white celebrities.’”

It’s really hard to see that tweet as an isolated incident after reading that, and it just makes me feel so disconcerted that in 2014, WOC —and POC, in general— still have to deal with this bullshit.

Strong WOC characters —and, again any POC on TV, really— often seem to be judged way more harshly than their white counterparts (Tara in True Blood, anyone?) and end up being characterized unfairly.

Shonda Rhimes and her production company, ShondaLand, is finally bringing intelligent, complex, magnetic, complicated female lead black characters to our TVs — but when I see things like the NYT article and the People magazine tweet it makes wonder if strong black women are ever going to get a break, or are they simply doomed to being dismissed as angry?

Kat Pao
Kat Pao lives in South Florida with her Curmudgeon Love, Mark, their punk rock toddler, Francesca, their saintly dog, Bruce Campbell and their fatass dick of a cat, Bela Lugosi. She loves being a Pop Culture/TV Analyst and loves that writing about TV gives her yet another excuse to watch more of it. Did she mention she loves TV?
  • botenana

    well, apparently the NYT is super happy that Ebola thing happened cause that’s all I’m seeing now.

    • Jen Pink

      I am so freaked out about the ebolaz, you’d think I was a FOX News enthusiast.

    • Kat Pao

      The conspiracy theorist in me things this is too convenient lol

      • Kat Pao


  • Jen Pink

    No. POC, particularly WOC, will probably never get a fair shake in the media. Not in our lifetime anyway. I deliberately avoided reading the NYT piece in question because I’d already seen the push-back in headlines. And I can’t even with that People tweet. What in the everliving fuck?

    • Kat Pao

      I love how they deleted it real quick like no one would notice.