I'm a little late coming to the party about the NY Times/Alessandra Stanley controversy over the article she wrote about Shonda Rhimes, whose production company is making the new series, How to Get Away with Murder. I’d seen the headlines about this, but didn’t read any of the stories, until getting a note from Nell Minow. (As I've mentioned, Nell and I are chief executives of the "How to Apologize" Association, and she brought the coverage to my attention. I’m now caught up.)
For those unaware, here's the original article written by Ms. Stanley, "Wrought in Rhimes's Image: Viola Davis plays Shonda Rhimes's Lastest Tough Heroine.". At issue were the opening sentence that included reference to executive producer Rhimes being an "Angry Black Woman" (a phrase repeated a few times in the piece) and a description of series star Viola Davis who doesn't "look at all like the typical star of a network drama. 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."
Reaction was swift, with cries of racism. Shonda Rhimes herself sent out a series of funny, but blunt tweets, in particular noting that the Angry Black Woman who created the series for her company was in fact a man, Pete Nowak. The New York Times Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, chimed in yesterday with a long article here.
Among many things, she quoted a long, heartfelt letter from a reader who was deeply offended by the original article, including how Alessandra Stanley even got her facts wrong because Shonda Rhimes isn't the executive producer of the show, and she also included a response from Ms. Stanley that didn't really apologize at all and more said how "I feel bad" if people were offended, and that her description of Viola Davis was, in fact, taken from comments Ms. Davis herself made in an interview, and that her article had been vetted by three editors. (One of whom is quoted as saying she "deeply regretted" that people were offended and for not being sensitive enough, offering suggestions for improving in the future)
It's worth reading the original article by Ms. Stanley and that by the Public Editor for this to make full, informed sense. But in lieu of that, the greatly trimmed-down version will have to do.
I have various reactions.
Alessandra Stanley's non-apology was terrible. It would be so easy to write a good apology, while defending her own work by, at the very least, starting with, “I am so sorry for not doing as effective a job as I hoped in how I phrased the article. I love Shonda Rhimes’ work and admire what she does so well, especially how she rushes and fights against the tide. I was trying to express that, and show how she has long contradicted the stereotype, and how Viola Davis herself contradicts the stereotype, as well, and that Ms. Rhimes does so wonderfully. But I phrased things in a way and left out explanations, for which I apologize, and am upset because I was trying to say the very opposite.”
I read the original article, and I found parts of it very thoughtful, and portions of it quite poorly written, but not racist. It was indeed attempting to say very positive things about Shonda Rhimes's work -- that was its point -- and did say a lot of very positive things. But it did so a few times in a few very thoughtless ways. In fairness, I’m not in a position to really how others should react and say if something like this is racist, and I can understand why some might think so – but I suspect most of those didn’t read the actual, full article. Just the headline-grabbing parts. Though I'm sure some did.
I think that if Alessandra Stanley had made the same points in her article that she did in her poor response, she’d likely have been okay. If in her article she’d have said, “As Viola Davis referred to herself in the NYT magazine, more bluntly…”, people would have understood. And if she’d have referred to Shonda Rhimes being an “Angry Black Woman” as a “painful and insidious stereotype” (as she explains in her response), it would have been clear. But to leave all that unspoken only allows them to take on a life of their own, and be read as written.
I can understand why she probably feels annoyed, “I wrote a valentine to her," she no doubt thought, "and people are trashing me as racist.” But in too many parts she did do a poor job writing and didn't make her points clear, and should have acknowledged that.
I thought the best criticism was by Shonda Rhimes, who never suggested racism, just that the article seemed stupid. As she points out, she didn’t even create the show, a man did. (In fairness, the show does come from her company so it’s not like she had no involvement approving things every step of the way. But still, she didn’t create it, and that should have been referenced clearly in the original article, another error.)
By the way, eloquent as that long letter was that the Public Editor printed from a reader, it too was wrong. It says that Slanley got her facts wrong, and that Shonda Rhimes isn’t the executive producer of the show. In fact, the article was correct: Rhimes is the executive producer. The Public Editor should have corrected that.
For what it’s worth, this is a show I’ve been interested in seeing since I first saw it promoted. I’m not completely sure of the premise, so I’m intrigued. Whether it’s something I want to stick around for remains to be seen. But it certainly looks interesting.
In the end – I thought the article was intended to highly praise Shonda Rhimes, but did a very poor job with some of its phrasing. And she and the editors who vetted the original were, as some have suggested, far too tone-deaf in overlooking it, There were highly-charged phrased being used, and they should have known that and not been so blithe in sliding over things. And the apology explaining that was poor. And finally, I’m sure that most commenters criticizing the article didn’t read it.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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