The Internet has been aflutter today over a decidedly — though not uncharacteristically — strange piece by New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley, which seems to attempt to argue that showrunner Shonda Rhimes, who has created or produced shows that have created unprecedented starring roles for black female actresses, is subverting or reclaiming the stereotype of the “angry black woman.”
There are a lot of problems with the piece — Stanley meanders wildly, perpetuating her chosen stereotype as much as analyzing it and saying some oddly un-self-aware things about black women and beauty. But perhaps most prominent among them is the fact that Rhimes’s characters are not really particularly angry As Slate television critic Willa Paskin wrote:
[“Scandal" lead] Olivia Pope is conflicted, tortured, in a self-destructive relationship — but she is never anything but ultra-competent. If she has occasionally lost her temper, she has more often bit her tongue, kept her secrets, gulped down her wine. [“Grey’s Anatomy" character] Dr. Bailey dispenses a kind of faux-anger, behaving like a grump and a curmudgeon to cover up her huge heart. And as for Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating, in the one episode of the “How To Get Away With Murder” available to critics, she is severe, sexy, and Sphinx-like: Who knows, yet, if she even does angry?
There is something dangerous and political about defining down “angry” in this way. When a person is characterized as “angry,” we weight their arguments and behavior differently than we would if we see them as generally calm and measured. We round down their frustrations to irritants, and when they call something an outrage, we assume it is a minor slight.
If losing your temper occasionally and under extreme duress makes you an angry person, then I do not know who among us is exempt from that label. If being tough on your law students suggests you are not in control of or reasonable about your emotions, every fictional legal instructor in history is dangerously unstable.
These kinds of rhetorical moves to constrain the behavior of women, particularly women of color, in both entertainment and public life, cost us. In politics, dismissing women of color as “angry” and irrational is an excuse not to act on their concerns. And in entertainment, suggesting that women can only behave a certain way and still be loved by the audience denies us great characters.
What would pop culture be if we had more characters like LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander) in David Simon’s “Treme”? LaDonna has plenty to feel grief and rage about — her younger brother disappeared in the chaos of Hurricane Katrina, she is struggling to repair her bar and keep it open without much support from her husband, who would rather shift their family permanently to Baton Rouge, and she survives a brutal sexual assault. Her anger is not the result of grievance or pettiness. It is not unfair or distorted. LaDonna’s fury is a rational and crystalizing response to her circumstances.
Or what about the slow burn of Claudette Wyms (C.C.H. Pounder) in “The Shield”? Claudette is a principled and talented cop who works in a corrupt district, defined by a team of corrupt, mostly white male detectives who view their shields as a license to behave however they wish. Claudette has to work alongside Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), a man she despises. Her promotion to captain is thwarted by a superior with political ambitions. But her anger runs cold, instead of hot. It fuels Claudette rather than destroying her. And at the end of “The Shield,” she wins.
There are a lot of different ways to be angry, and there are a lot of different reasons to feel that way. Giving us those characters and telling those stories would make television a much more interesting place.