New York Times Critic Blames Twitter for Shonda Rhimes Story Backlash

Shonda Rhimes
Michael Tran/FilmMagic

The New York Times found itself in an Internet dust-up with uber producer Shonda Rhimes on Friday following the online publication of a story by TV critic Alessandra Stanley assessing Rhimes’ smallscreen milieu.

The story was taken to task by Rhimes and plenty of other readers for a tone that struck many as being tone-deaf and racist in parts.

Although the piece, “Wrought in Their Creator’s Image: Viola Davis Plays Shonda Rhimes’ Latest Tough Heroine,” was praiseworthy overall of Rhimes’ work, the references to the producer and female characters in her ABC shows being “angry black women” were lightning rods for many readers. The lead sentence is “when Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away with Being an Angry Black Woman.’”

In a statement emailed by the Times, Stanley appeared to blame the hothouse environment of Twitter for stirring such a negative reaction to her story.

“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,” Stanley said.

Rhimes took issue with the “angry black woman” characterization as well as the references to Viola Davis, star of the latest series from Rhimes’ shop, “How to Get Away with Murder,” as being “older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful than Ms. Washington,” a comparison to “Scandal” star Kerry Washington.

Rhimes further criticized Stanley’s story for not recognizing that “How to Get Away with Murder” was created not by her but by Peter Nowalk, a white man who is a “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy” alum.

Stanley’s story was published Thursday on the Times’ website and is scheduled to run in print in the Arts section of Sunday’s edition. Rhimes is scheduled to do a Q&A in Washington, D.C. tonight with NPR entertainment blogger Linda Holmes hosted by the Smithsonian Institution.

UPDATE: Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’ public editor, has responded to the outcry with a Sept. 22 post that is critical of Stanley’s piece and said that she was questioning Times’ editors on the matter.

“The readers and commentators are correct to protest this story. Intended to be in praise of Ms. Rhimes, it delivered that message in a condescending way that was – at best – astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch,” Sullivan wrote.

NPR’s Holmes, meanwhile, posted a lengthy essay on her Q&A with Rhimes.

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  1. kewlcate says:

    I read the article. So many swipes,
    “sharp minds and potent libidos” (code word – black women as hyper-sexualized)

    “haughty members of the ruling elite, ” (code-word – uppity)

    “In 2008, commentators as different as the comedian Bill Cosby and the Republican strategist Karl Rove agreed that it was the shining, if fictional, example of the Huxtables that prepared America for a black president and first lady.” (fictional as in doesn’t really exist, shining as in how we wish all black women looked and acted like Claire Huxtable)

    “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,” (sexual and menacing – see point 1 above) (doesn’t look at all like the typical star of network drama – WT?) (ignoring narrow beauty standards…dark skinned and less classically beautiful – beauty standards being white or near white. Oh dear. How dare she?)

    Ms. Stanley – your repeated and admitted surprise that Ms. Rhimes’ shows have gotten thru network filters says a lot about how un-progressive you are. I realize you like the good old days of mammies, maids and fictionalized but benign portrayals of black women. Here’s the thing though, Ms. Rhimes’ shows are projecting the future. Better get used to it. Do her (Rhimes) shows reflect her? Absolutely – that is, a black lady on top. Deal with it.

  2. How do you write an article about a show and not know who the creator is?

    • zyggie says:

      In my personal opinion, the author of this article about Ms. Rhimes is trying to get their name out there and what better way to do that than to be associated with someone who is professional, smart and strong. I don’t care to read anything else that author does because it will not be truthful only one sided and harmful. I don’t care to remember her/his name because they are not worthy of remembering.

    • cescomtl says:

      Because she too lives, whether she likes it or not, in a Twitterized world. ;)

  3. bnubian says:

    I found the entire article degrading to Black women who write, act and work for television and movies. She dragged out all the stereotypes and tried unsuccessfully to say that Shonda Rhimes’ characters are breaking the mold by being angry Black women with high sexual appetites in the highest environments of society who don’t take shit from no one and don’t think about race. When what the author really did was compartmentalize Shonda’s characters into each of the stereotypes she dragged out instead of realizing that what Rhimes has done with her Black women characters as she has done with all of her characters is allowed them to be three dimensional. But especially showcasing that Black women can be more than angry, sassy, serene, benign, less classically beautiful, sexually ferocious women. They can be intelligent lawyers who teach a highly sought after law class; doctors who have to wrangle in five hot mess surgical interns and the best “fixer” in Washington. In conclusion, Stanley and Littleton, the author of this article and editor of Variety who thinks that Stanley’s article was overall praiseworthy of Shonda Rhimes, can have several seats.

  4. Hunter says:

    To everyone in the “shame-on-you” crowd, please go read the NY Times article. Not just the snippets that were tweeted without any surrounding context, but the actual article. You may be surprised by its content.

    • kewlcate says:

      Yep, we read the article. It was one of worst examples of unflattering complimenting I have ever read. Ignoring the author (which is what she deserves at best), what’s going on NY Times? Do I need to cancel my very expensive subscription?

  5. vv says:

    Using the term ‘angry black woman’ is hardly ever (tbh never) a good idea. It’s almost like calling any woman that is viewed as powerful/strong or has an opinion a bitch or the idea that the whole ‘I have a black friend’ automatically exempts one from being a racist. Just don’t go there. The ‘angry black woman’ trope has been around for a while, and it is not positive. It doesn’t matter how many compliments she throws into the article. Words and phrases have meanings, they have history. As a writer, she should definitely know better than that. Readers are not as stupid as Stanley would like to think.

    Also, did she really watch these shows she wrote about? Angry women these are not. She’s completely out of touch and definitely reached with this article. It read like an unsuccessful, not well fleshed out essay one writes in college. What would have happened if she also looked at some of Ms. Rhimes film work when making her argument? And the NYT…I mean, c’mon.. Get it together people..

  6. Steven says:

    Anybody who thinks this article is racist is lacking reading comprehension skills.

  7. g. thorne says:

    no one missed the intent of the article except the writer of that article. she filtered her subject through the extremely limited lens of her very tiny life experience and came up so monumentally off the mark that she blames the “dim bulbs” out there for not being swift enough to grasp her meaning.

    We grasp. Trust. And some of those us who grasp are also writers.

    “Do better next time,” is my advice to Ms Stanley, or, “If you can’t do better, at least try to confine your opinions to subjects about which you actually have knowledge.”

    This was clearly not one of those.

  8. Arnie says:

    The thrust of the NYT piece was lost, because the author was both jealous and stupid. She meant to say : I wish I were you. But I am just a journo, so I am going to try to reduce you to a cultural stereotype. But in such a way that I have an escape pod.

    See, I am so hip, that black means white, but it can mean black, maybe, if I wink. If I nod a bit. Get it? Feel me? . . . No? . . . No one does?

    Well, black is black then. I never meant anything else. My prose, like my logic is, is infallible, for the first 140 characters, anyways.

    Help! Someone tell me: What did I ever mean? This writing is not my forte, after all.

    Help. Someone. Please.

    It hurts . . . “Banjo!” (Jon Hamm’s line viv-a-vis Tracy M, in 30 Rock)

  9. dioxinblues says:

    Perhaps now would be a good time for Ms. Stanley to assess whether the point of her article was properly conveyed. And, if not, what responsibility she bares in that failure as opposed to pointing to nameless “others” – also known as the readers of the New York Times – in a snide, condescending manner as somehow not being able to grasp her intent.

  10. 1favored says:

    “I did nothing wrong”…Blame Game 101. The writer should deal with her sub-level racist human interior and not blame “twitter”…NEWS FLASH…social media=real people NOT just some random technology having nothing to do with human response. If you’re blaming “twitter”, then you are really blaming people for reacting to your subjective opinion and guess what Ms. Stanley, we all have a subjective point of view that is no less valid or less valuable than yours. Just because you get paid to write your opinion, you should not be surprised others will respond. My suggestion to you, Ms. Stanley, is if you don’t want a response, then don’t write your opinion, instead construct a math textbook.

  11. Stanley is dumb, but the NY Times is dumber for printing her horribly racist article says:

    Ms. Stanley needs to get in touch with Les Moonves and Nina Tassler, Both of CBS. She is obviously just the kind of writer CBS prefers and encourages, as evidenced by the LACK of diversity in CBS programming. Stanley’s perceptions and her expression of said perceptions is just the kind of ignorant, racist drivel the public has come to expect from Moonves and his minions. The NY times should be ashamed for enabling such a malevolent voice. Fire Stanley! Stupid cannot be fixed!

  12. meg conway says:

    Ms Stanley’s comments about female appearances and female angry demeanor I’d expect from a misogynist if anyone. It’s ironic that a nyt writer would blame another media outlet for the public’s reaction to their article.
    Ms Rhimes, write on! Twitter, TV, film, wherever you want. Meg Conway, Asheville NC

  13. Bad articles get stupid writers in trouble says:

    Was the artical written by an angry white woman or a stupid white woman?

  14. Rita says:

    It seems like it’s a whole lot of carrying on about nothing.

    • LadyDT says:

      Rita, it’s definitely more to this than “nothing” and if you can’t see that then perhaps you’re an angry and stupid white woman or perhaps you’re the simpleton who calls herself a writer and goes by the name Alessandra Stanley!!! 😳

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