Saturday, September 20, 2014

Alessandra Stanley and how to get away
with stereotyping

NEW YORK TIMES chief television critic Alessandra Stanley just published an essay that doubles as a rhetorical crash course in how to get away with stereotyping (or try to). Its assertions illustrate, surely by accident,  the obstacles that African American actresses and actors face in pursuit of their profession. It’s also an object lesson in the dangers of making assumptions about people, culture and experiences outside one’s own.

Stanley wrote an op-ed piece on ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder,” and the series’ lead actress, Oscar nominee Viola Davis. The essay, first published in The Times on Thursday and again in the Sunday print edition, starts off on a very wrong foot.

She writes: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called 'How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’” It’s what’s known in journalism as a “grabber” lead, deliberately embracing an offending or provocative phrase in a shock-value way, establishing a thesis that the writer then sets out to categorically defend.

The trouble is, when you do that, when you stray into culturally-misunderstood realms of description, you need to know your way around the territory. You need to know something of the subtleties and complexities of what the trope “Angry Black Woman” entails — preferably as lived experience, or at least as the object of serious sociological study, not just as a phrase you think you kinda sorta know the meaning and nuances of.

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In Stanley’s blinkered, tone-deaf world, race is expected to be in others’ lives as much, as prominent a fixation of life as it apparently is in her own. How else to interpret this passage explaining the Shonda Rhimes cosmology, according to Alessandra Stanley:

“In that multicultural world, there are many African-Americans at the top of every profession. But even when her heroine is the only nonwhite person in the room, it is the last thing she or anyone around her notices or cares about.”

It escapes Stanley that African Americans do not spend every waking minute of their lives with race in the forefront of their minds, despite a society that does all it can to reinforce that as what black people should think about 24/7 — an immediate, default self-perception.

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SHE PULLS this again later in the piece: For Stanley, Rhimes’ characters “struggle with everything except their own identities, so unconcerned about race that it is barely ever mentioned.”

There’s the implicit assumption that black identity is fundamentally a daily, epic existential struggle waged from within. Note to Alessandra Stanley: Black people don’t think of themselves as a challenge or a problem to be solved.

It would be nice, too, if Stanley bothered to make a meaningful distinction in her assessment of Rhimes’ contribution to the “Murder” series. The critic assumes that the show was created by Rhimes, when it was in fact created by Pete Nowalk, a veteran of other Rhimes shows. This unforced error alone, ascribing to Rhimes the nuances of characters she didn’t even create, thoroughly undercuts the scaffold of Stanley’s essay.

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Undaunted, though, she goes on, betraying a perspective that’s anything but enlightened. Consider some of the words she uses to describe the black woman characters of Rhimes shows: “angry,” “volcanic,” “intimidating,” “slightly menacing.” Paging D.W. Griffith.

But Stanley hits a rhetorical low when she carves out physical distinctions between “Scandal” star Kerry Washington and Davis, described as “less classically beautiful.” Stanley betrays everything of her perspective with the words “classically beautiful,” a phrase that, despite its futile reach for the diplomatic, only reinforces the Eurocentric stereotypes that African American actresses contend with on a regular basis.

Then she goes on to take a swipe at another TV show. Writing about the addition of Michael Che to the “Weekend Update” segment of “Saturday Night Live,” Stanley writes that “SNL” “suddenly seems to be on a diversity jag” — looking at it as some kind of social experiment, rather than (first) a smart poach of a young comic talent in his ascendancy and (second) an overdue reflection of more of the national demographic.

It’s all so predictable.

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WILLA PASKIN, writing at Slate, had a more measured, panoramic take: “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. Describing these women and Rhimes as “angry black women” is a contortion, shoving them into a stereotype that doesn’t fit.”

At Vulture, Margaret Lyons does a righteous takedown of Stanley’s “classical beauty” canard: “I wonder if any of this ‘classical beauty’ aesthetic could have ever been influenced by racism, maybe, like, generations and generations of it, just like a tooooon of racism and colonialism, like so, so much. Hmm. Who can know.”

Other reactions are calling for action. Color of Change, the grassroots advocacy organization, is circulating a petition demanding an apology from Stanley and a retraction of the piece.

“Characterizing their supreme confidence and competence as ‘anger’ — and describing actress Viola Davis as sexy ‘in a slightly menacing way,’ and ‘darker-skinned and less classically beautiful’ — only plays into destructive stereotypes that impact the lives of Black women every day,” Color of Change wrote in emails sent to supporters. “With so few Black women both onscreen or behind the scenes in Hollywood, high profile, dehumanizing misinterpretations of their work cannot be tolerated.”

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Stanley, of course, defended herself in a statement: “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," she said. But her cheap dig at the Twitterati misses the point. Most of them almost certainly read the piece.

And ironically enough, it’s almost unnecessary. The 113 characters of her lead paragraph reveal more about her essay, and the thinking behind it, than she realized. They tell all of the story. If only there was more Stanley could have thoughtfully, incisively, intelligently volunteered.

Image credits: Stanley: WireImage. Shonda Rhimes: via; probable actual origin: ABC/ShondaLand Productions. Davis: ABC.ShondaLand Productions. Tweets by their respective creators.

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