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Shonda Rhimes has thoughts about that ‘angry black woman’ column

Shonda Rhimes at the 2008 Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Matt Sayles/AP)

A New York Times piece about Shonda Rhimes and her production company, Shondaland, set Twitter ablaze on Friday. Much of the discussion — and blowback — centered around the first paragraph, in which Times television columnist Alessandra Stanley wrote: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.'”

Stanley wrote that the new Shondaland show, “How to Get Away With Murder,” represents “yet another network series from her production company to showcase a powerful, intimidating black woman,” with Viola Davis playing a criminal defense lawyer and professor.

“And,” Stanley wrote, “that clinches it: Ms. Rhimes, who wrought Olivia Pope on ‘Scandal’ and Dr. Miranda Bailey on ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ has done more to reset the image of African-American women on television than anyone since Oprah Winfrey.”

In describing the show, Stanley noted that “Ms. Rhimes is the show’s marquee muse, but the writer is a ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ alumnus, Peter Nowalk.”

But the headline read “Wrought in Their Creator’s Image,” and Rhimes took to Twitter — where devoted “Scandal” fans are legion — to unload her frustration.

(Rhimes was referring to Grey’s Anatomy characters Meredith Grey, played by Ellen Pompeo, and Addison Montgomery, played by Kate Walsh. Both are white women.)

Joshua Malina, who plays David Rosen in “Scandal,” also had some words:

When asked to weigh in on the response to her piece, Stanley wrote in an e-mail: “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.”

In her column, Stanley mentioned the diversity of the casts on Rhimes’s shows and went on to write that she “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.”

Rhimes’s black female characters, Stanley noted, are “not at all like the bossy, sassy, salt-of-the-earth working-class women who have been scolding and uh-uh-ing on screen ever since Esther Rolle played Florida, the maid on ‘Maude.'” They also aren’t “benign and reassuring as Clair Huxtable” on “The Cosby Show.” They have “innate dignity,” and are “mysterious, complicated and extravagantly flawed, often deeply and interestingly. They struggle with everything except their own identities, so unconcerned about race that it is barely ever mentioned.”

The response from Rhimes was not unpredictable; she often pushes back on television-made-from-a-black-female-perspective narratives. In a 2013 New York Times piece, Willa Paskin wrote that Rhimes refused “to make an issue of her casting” diverse characters. Rhimes told Paskin then: “I think it’s sad, and weird, and strange that it’s still a thing. It’s 2013. Somebody else needs to get their act together.”

As to why characters rarely discuss race on her shows, Rhimes said: “When people who aren’t of color create a show and they have one character of color on their show, that character spends all their time talking about the world as ‘I’m a black man blah, blah, blah.’ That’s not how the world works. I’m a black woman every day, and I’m not confused about that. I’m not worried about that. I don’t need to have a discussion with you about how I feel as a black woman, because I don’t feel disempowered as a black woman.”

Paskin wrote that Rhimes “is often described as the most powerful African-American female show runner in television — which is too many adjectives. She is one of the most powerful show runners in the business, full stop.”

In another interview from this week, “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts asked Rhimes who would play her on television.

Here’s how she responded: “I think (the character) Meredith Grey, you know, Ellen Pompeo, was already playing me. I think Sandra Oh was already playing me. I think Chandra Wilson is already playing me. I think I’m being played every time I write a character. Those people are playing me in a lot of ways.”

Rhimes recalled being asked what it was like to “get to write the voice of a black woman” via Olivia Pope on “Scandal.” She responded: “Well, you know, McDreamy’s been speaking in the voice of a black woman for a long time now.”

“McDreamy,” of course, was “Grey’s Anatomy” character Derek Shepherd. He was played by Patrick Dempsey, who is neither black nor female.