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Shonda Rhimes, The New York Times And Why We Really Need ‘Black-ish’

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It was pretty clever of ABC to get the New York Times to do stealth marketing for the network’s promising new comedy, “Black-ish,” which premieres Wednesday.

Nothing proves the need for a show like “Black-ish” like the recent controversy over Times critic Alessandra Stanley’s essay about Shonda Rhimes, the producer behind “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder.”

In the piece, Stanley started out by invoking the stereotype of the “angry black woman” to describe Rhimes, and the essay only got worse from there. Several commentators have done a fine job of zeroing in on the the intensely problematic nature of Stanley’s piece, but it’s been hard for me to find a way to fully express why it horrified me so much.

The difficulty could arise from the fact that all of it is so very wrong — the framing and foundations of Stanley’s essay are so spectacularly off-base, prejudiced and poorly formed that it’s hard to fathom how any of those sentences came to be put in that particular order, let alone how the piece made through the editorial process.

One of the most important takeaways from this whole sorry affair is that this isn’t about one critic at an important media outlet writing a half-baked, badly argued, glibly condescending piece (again). This is about an entire editorial structure, including three New York Times editors, who thought that the foundations, assumptions and framing of that piece were just fine.

These editors apparently live inside such a hermetically sealed culture of complacency that they thought it was acceptable for Stanley to inexpertly and insultingly throw around loaded terms like “sassy,” “menacing” and “not classically beautiful” in relation to African-American actors and characters. Everybody thought describing one of the most successful television creators of our time as an “angry black woman” was perfectly fine. The editors who read that piece thought the diminishment, dismissal and degradation baked into it were absolutely acceptable.

I’ll get to “Black-ish” in a minute, I swear.

The point here is to provide a small slice of the context in which “Black-ish” will operate. It will not operate in a post-racial America, that’s for sure.

More proof of that: The editorial and authorial responses to the fury Stanley’s piece provoked made the situation worse. Some people, when deep in a hole, are possessed by an irresistible urge to keep digging.

When Stanley was first asked for comment about the piece, her response was to double-down on her contemptuous attitude (Twitter was to blame, naturally). Stanley’s second response, contained in a blog post by the Times’ public editor (who was appalled by the piece), rather efficiently combined a non-apology and a insouciant dismissal. Apparently readers just weren’t smart enough to get how smart Stanley’s piece was; we didn’t understand her rhetorical devices, her writing style, her deep thoughts, etc. You’ve heard of “mansplaining” — welcome to “Stansplaining.”

None of that imperiousness was a surprise, given the tone of lethargic condescension that pervades Stanley’s work. What was more troubling was the response of one of her editors, who resorted to a laundry list of derailment tactics and excuses: No one intended for anyone to be offended, the piece was largely positive anyway, and the article’s validity was unfortunately “swamped” by critiques. Well, intention isn’t magic, and words matter. Editors should know that better than anyone.

Far from rigorously examining the mistakes they made and coming up with a deeply considered and thoughtful apology, both Stanley and her editor, Danielle Mattoon, did everything they could to hold substantive criticisms at arm’s length. Based on their comments, they appear to feel — still — that Shonda Rhimes, her viewers and readers of the Times should take the piece as as compliment.

As a compliment.

Sometimes you have to laugh, or else you might cry. Hence the need for “Black-ish.”

I can’t see into the mind of Kenya Barris, the creator of the show, or “Daily Show” contributor Larry Wilmore, who, along with Barris, is guiding the show creatively before leaving for another commitment. As a white lady, I sure don’t want to make assumptions about the creative processes of these black men. But I’m grateful that “Black-ish” exists, first and foremost because it’s funny.

It’s entirely possible to appreciate the first episode of the show on a surface level: The pilot (which is ABC has released to the media) is a polished, entertaining and promising half-hour of comedy about a well-to-do American family. Most of the new half-hours on the broadcast networks are forgettable at best, but this one travels the well-worn and comfortable pathways of the family sitcom while proving there’s some life left in the old TV standby.

But “Black-ish” has to do double duty. Shonda Rhimes cannot simply be a successful creator of television, no different from peers like Hart Hanson, Greg Berlanti or Chuck Lorre; she is continually asked to address issues of race and gender because, as NPR’s Linda Holmes pointed out, Rhimes is one of the few women and African-Americans who is making televisions shows.

Similarly, “Black-ish” has to be more than just another pretty good sitcom. As one of the few comedies on a major network with a predominantly African-American cast, it has to navigate the issue of race in America. It can’t just be funny, it has to be astute and adept as well. The good news is that so far, it navigates that challenging territory with intelligence, wit and subversive purpose.

In the show, Anthony Anderson plays a successful executive, Andre, who is married to a doctor played by Tracee Ellis Ross. The couple has four kids, and one of the most miraculous things about the show is how subtle and good the kids are (many child actors set my teeth on edge by embracing the hammy, obnoxious mannerisms common on Disney-ish tween shows, but that’s a rant for another day).

Like many a sitcom patriarch of yore — many of them, most notably Archie Bunker, came from the working class — Andre’s worried about his kids losing touch with their hardscrabble roots and becoming too soft and pampered. One of the best running jokes of the show deals with the fact that his son, Andre Jr., would prefer to call himself Andy, the better to fit in with his posh school’s field-hockey crowd. The issues of class, status and assimilation are artfully handled throughout, and should prove relatable to anyone who’s ever encountered kids — possibly one’s own — who are a little spoiled or oblivious.

Though the home-life stuff is fine, the workplace scenes are probably the strongest segments of the “Black-ish” pilot. Anderson’s character is one of the few African-Americans in a senior position at his firm, and as such, he’s constantly called upon to code-switch and calibrate just how black he can be in a given situation. A few months ago, BuzzFeed published a hilarious/sad list called “31 Things You Have to Deal With as the Only Black Person in Your Office,” and I get the impression that Andre could have written it.

Andre probably would love to spend all his work-oriented mental energy on doing his actual work, but he doesn’t have that luxury. Shonda Rhimes would probably like to be asked how her creative process, which Emily Nussbaum explores in a great recent post, differs from that of Aaron Sorkin or David Simon, but Rhimes doesn’t have that luxury. That’s not to say they are without access to luxuries: Rhimes, Barris and Wilmore (who leaves “Black-ish” soon to work on his own Comedy Central show) aren’t making their shows for free.

But they have to deal with the fact that the vast majority of people making television are white. (ABC, it should be noted, has a number of shows from people of color this season). Shonda Rhimes has to deal with the fact that women, and women of color, are still rare as creators, directors and executive producers. In their lives and careers, these professionals have no doubt encountered the kinds of situations, dynamics and attitudes that Andre has to handle on a daily basis. They don’t get to choose to be oblivious.

But we’re all part of these conversations, which need to happen. Creatives who work behind the scenes and those of us in front of the screens also have to deal with the failings of the media, which are not few. Beyond Stanley’s latest debacle, there’s the New York Times’ entire approach to TV criticism, which has been frustrating for years. Just one mystifying aspect of the paper of record’s approach is its continual toleration of a lead critic with a history of not just disdain for the medium but of error-prone writing.

But the mindset of that critic and the Times’ editors did not evolve in a vacuum. Let’s not forget the “joke” the Onion made about Quvenzhané Wallis last year. Let’s not forget that, after an outcry, the Economist recently retracted a review of a book about slavery that complained that the author wasn’t nice enough to the slave owners.


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