There’s currently a lot of brouhaha following an op-ed piece in the New York Times about Shonda Rhimes’ tough, black female characters including Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating on ABC’s new drama, How to Get Away With Murder. The negativity surrounding the article comes down two sentences (in a nearly 1,500 word piece): the opening line, “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman” and the real fire-starter, ‘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…” Some have referred to the comments as ‘racist’ and ‘offensive’. I have a feeling they did that without reading the article, but focusing on incendiary tidbits fed to them through the social media machine. I found the whole piece to be flattering (to Rhimes) and truthful (re: Davis). The author, Alessandra Stanley, smartly writes how Rhimes flips the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype on its head, giving us black female characters that seethe out volcanic monologues, but somehow never come across as cliched or playing into tired archetypes; she writes and creates tough and sometimes unlikeable black women without dealing with the societal burden of promoting nice black role models because ‘there’s only so many black characters on TV’. If folks had bothered to read what was written, they would have found the writer stating it more eloquently, “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.” As for Ms. Stanley’s point about Viola Davis being “less classically beautiful” than Kerry Washington, she has a point. Let’s not pretend that Hollywood, advertising and magazines don’t have a preference for certain types of beauty that skews lighter and thinner; it is these outlets that have framed our understanding of classic beauty, as well as Ms. Stanley’s. A couple of years ago, when asked why The Help was her first starring role, Davis replied, “There just aren’t a lot of roles for—I mean, I’m a 46-year-old Black actress who doesn’t look like Halle Berry—and Halle Berry is having a hard time.” If Ms. Davis doesn’t have a hard time speaking and facing the truth, why do we?
Just watched Kerry Washington do a stellar job hosting SNL and was even more impressed by the slick tap dance that execs and writers at the late night staple did skirting around the ‘no black female cast member’ issue. It was smart; by making it into a joke, and better yet, having a black woman help tell it, the problem was suddenly neutralized. It’s like that friend that does wrong, but they’re so apologetic, you can say much or be too mad because it’ll make you look oversensitive. The focus on casting, however, is the red herring meant to shift eyes from the lack of diversity behind the scenes at SNL. Say they hire a black women in the near future, once the cries of tokenism die down, then what? This poor woman will have a tremendous weight on her shoulders: to be outstandingly funny without the material. Sure, talent is the foundation, but good writing is the steel, concrete and brick. Maybe it’s not PC, but I have found white men to be terribly inept at writing non-white characters without dipping into stereotype. And, of course, one dimensional characters are right at home in comedy, but that shouldn’t be the full spectrum, which it tends to be on SNL…unless you’re a white male.