How Not To Handle A New Voice In TV

How Not To Handle A New Voice In TV

12:26pm Sep 25, 2014
Shonda Rhimes (left) with Scandal star Kerry Washington at a 2012 press conference.
Shonda Rhimes (left) with Scandal star Kerry Washington at a 2012 press conference.
Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images

This is what happens when voices that have normally been pushed to the background take center stage.

That's the reaction I usually offer these days whenever someone asks me about a race-based media firestorm — this time, in reference to the nuclear-sized backlash against New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley's bewildering commentary on Shonda Rhimes, one of the most successful showrunners in television history.

In trying to assess Rhimes a week before shows from her production company take over all of ABC's Thursday night in prime time, Stanley kicked off her piece by suggesting the producer's autobiography should be called "How to Get Away with Being an Angry Black Woman."

Stanley has said her piece was an attempt to praise Rhimes. But others, including Rhimes herself, noted several instances in which the New York Times critic seemed to invoke the very stereotypes she was supposedly deflating.

NPR pop culture blogger Linda Holmes, who interviewed Rhimes for a Smithsonian event last week, wrote about how her status as the most successful black female producer means that's often all she's ever asked about. Even the newspaper's public editor weighed in, calling the Times analysis "at best ... astonishingly tone deaf and out of touch."

What's happened here is that a new voice has asserted itself at the highest levels of the television industry, and folks are scrambling to figure out what that means. The only other producers to control as much real estate in prime time TV are white men like Aaron Spelling, Dick Wolf and Norman Lear. That Rhimes has achieved all this while showcasing black female characters in bold new roles is nothing short of revolutionary.

So I wasn't surprised to see at least one critic stumble while trying to see this new paradigm through old sensibilities.

The heart of the issue in many modern racial controversies — especially involving black people and violence, as in Ferguson, Mo. — is the fear that African-Americans will be labeled as dangerous, aggressive and, yes, angry, for expressing emotions that are perceived in less alarming ways when voiced by people who are not black.

This is the semantic quicksand Stanley leaped into with her first, ill-chosen line. I saw two basic issues in this, um, scandal that often arise in similar race-based dust-ups.

Problem No. 1: Articulating the actual racial issue at hand. It remains amazing to me how many people react to race-based controversies without knowing exactly what the problem is that has caused the controversy.

When speaking about media coverage of Trayvon Martin, the black 17-year-old killed in 2012 by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Florida, I often ask: Why was this such a huge story? I usually get blank stares; some people mention the concern that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin. Almost no one notes the alarm about institutional racism: the worry that police and prosecutors in Florida treated the death of a black teen differently from that of a white teen by, for example, waiting 44 days to arrest Zimmerman.

So, in the case of Stanley's piece, what exactly was she articulating? That Rhimes has destroyed the stereotype of the angry black woman, or that she's just found a way to bend it into a form that works for her shows?

The critic is right when she notes that Rhimes "has done more to reset the image of African-American women on television than anyone since Oprah Winfrey," but too many other parts of the piece read like backhanded compliments couched in racially clumsy language.

Problem No. 2: Seeing the rise of new voices as a conflict instead of a liberation. What's wonderful about Rhimes' Scandal for so many women is that there are few female characters on TV — let alone black female characters — who are as powerful, focused, conflicted, vulnerable, capable and compromised as Olivia Pope.

But it is too easy to see the rise of new voices in combative terms, as a threat or gimmick, mostly because they demand we rethink all the images shown to us in other, less evolved settings. Stanley seems to pingpong between praising Rhimes as a revolutionary and dinging her results, calling her a "romance writer." Small wonder so many readers had a tough time discerning whether the critic was praising or panning her work.

Rhimes told me in July that she often avoids talking about race with journalists because she feels their questions are simplistic and misguided.

Still, she also has figured out how to get mostly white TV audiences to watch her subvert many of the tropes applied to black female characters in one show. And one reason Scandal has succeeded is because viewers are well aware of how much ground Pope's character breaks every week on network television, embracing the show for exactly that quality.

Rhimes succeeds in these things precisely because she doesn't talk about it a lot, allowing her fans to fall in love with the characters before they are distracted by how revolutionary they are. Even as she's shifting what audiences think they know about certain kinds of people onscreen, she's teaching them to love the new vision.

It seems like a steady progression in her effort to turn classic melodrama into a new form, in part, with casting that cuts against stereotypes and shows TV audiences new kinds of characters.

Now all Rhimes has to do is wait for some critics to catch up.

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TV show runner Shonda Rhimes is going for a hat trick at ABC. She already has two hit shows under her belt, with the long-running medical drama "Grey's Anatomy" and the operatic, Washington-driven "Scandal". Now Rhimes, one of network TVs most successful producers, is backing a provocative new series starring Oscar nominee Viola Davis.


VIOLA DAVIS: (As Annalise Keating) I'm Professor Annalise Keating and this is Criminal Law 100, or as I prefer to call it - How To Get Away With Murder.

CORNISH: "How To Get Away With Murder," a drama from Rhimes' Shondaland Production Company debuts tonight. Now this means Rhimes has locked down ABC's primetime Thursday night programming. Here to talk about how it happened is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Hey there, Eric.


CORNISH: Alright. So now Shonda Rhimes has a huge chunk of ABC's primetime block. How'd it happen?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, Rhimes is a prolific producer. And she's the creator of some of their biggest shows with young people, especially young female viewers - "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal." So when CBS got Thursday Night Football; it only made sense for ABC to turn all the Shondaland shows into a night of counterprogramming, and it's only increased Rhimes' visibility. I mean, she's already a rarity - a black, female executive producer in a town run by white men. And there's a sense that she's carefully built up her empire of shows to the point where she's now got two dramas in primetime starring powerful, black, female characters. That's something that's never happened in the history of television, let alone involving one producer. So we've got a great clip of her writing for Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope on "Scandal," and she's telling her boyfriend, a married President of the United States...

CORNISH: You know. (Laughter).

DEGGANS: About their toll their affair is having on her.


KERRY WASHINGTON: (As Olivia Pope) You're married, you have children, you're the leader of the free world. You are away. By definition you're away. You're unavailable. I wait for you; I watch for you; my whole life is you. I can't breathe because I'm waiting for you; you own me; you control me; I belong to you.

TOM GOLDWYN: (As President Fitzgerald Grant) You own me.

DEGGANS: So much passion.

CORNISH: That's a lot of - probably more than we need. Now, Eric, there's already some drama actually surrounding the show with a recent review in the New York Times. Critic Alessandra Stanley wrote that Rhimes has, quote, "embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the angry black woman." She goes on - recasted in her own image and made it enviable. How'd that go over?

DEGGANS: Not too well. That piece was criticized by a lot of people, including the New York Times Public Editor. The writer didn't point out, for example, that "How To Get Away With Murder" wasn't created by Rhimes. It was created by Pete Nowalk, a producer, who worked on her other shows. And he's that series show runner. As the show runner, the top creative voice, on "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal," Shonda Rhimes has managed to get mostly white TV audiences to embrace her vision of a melodramatic, multicultural world in which gay characters, female characters and characters of color all have more visibility and power than we're used to seeing on television. And that just makes for a more vibrant and creative show, which also happens to look a lot more like America.

CORNISH: Now is part of the issue not that she's a black woman, but the fact that she's a well-known show runner, right? And there aren't that many sort of brand-name producers on network TV anymore.

DEGGANS: Yeah. That might be possible. I mean, once upon a time we had producers like "All In The Family's" Norman Lear, or "Dynasty's" Aaron Spelling, or "Ally McBeal's" David E. Kelly, and they were household names. You'd see their names featured in the opening credits to their shows, and they were serious powerbrokers in Hollywood. And now we've got fewer famous names like that in network television. You know, you think of somebody like "Family Guy's" Seth McFarlane maybe as the exception. And the spotlight has moved to cable TV show runners like "Mad Men's" Matt Weiner or "The Sopranos'" David Chase. Now Shonda Rhimes is special for a lot of reasons because she's the only person doing what she's doing, and she's doing it in a way that proves the value of fresh and diverse voices on TV. She's poised to become the backbone of one of the most important nights on major TV network, and it's all part of network TV's desire to find what works and replicate it. So if they can find a producer that knows how to draw an important audience and spread that sensibility around their network, then they've got a greater chance of sustaining strong ratings.

CORNISH: Eric, thanks so much for watching for us.

DEGGANS: Always glad to talk to you.

CORNISH: That's Eric Deggans. He's NPR's TV critic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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