When The Help came out in 2011, there were a lot of critiques written about how the movie portrayed the historical roles of Southern black maids as empowering. There was one review — written by black critic Wesley Morris — that had a different perspective.
He starts by recalling a memory of a restaurant owner with a ceramic statue of a black woman propping open a door.
“I was the lone black person in our group, which also included only one native Southerner, and as a confrontation brewed between this woman and the young people in her restaurant, I watched her defiance turn into something else. “Mammy is strong,’’ she kept saying. “Mammy raised me.’’ We saw a loaded insult. She saw an emblem of welcoming. We were mad. And our anger broke her heart.”
The New York Times’ recently published a maddening article online in which the very first sentence includes a well-known stereotype about the modern black woman.
“When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.”
I’m a newspaper person, so critiquing the New York Times is a hobby for me. With that said I don’t believe the New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley (who despite her own history with flubbing history) wrote the article intending to offend.
Stanley is clearly mystified by Shonda Rhimes’ subversive women. It’s just unfortunate how she took Rhimes’ signature characters and reduced them to nothing but ‘Angry Black Women’. Yes, her characters have fire and passion. That’s not the only interesting thing about them though. Black women aren’t monoliths and #BlackTwitter let the NYT know that immediately.
Minority creators and the people who admire their work are more vocal than ever. In the digital age any push back against a journalist can be seen as rabid fans sticking up for their favorite director or actress. However, this time criticism of the New York Times’ piece on Shonda Rhimes and Viola Davis is bad because of it’s casual racism and sexism presented to the audience as a compliment.
The ‘Angry Black Woman’ is a TV trope that predates TV tropes. Stanley doesn’t seem to know that this archetype goes back way further than Maude.
‘Angry Black Women’ rose to popularity during the Blaxploitation Era when stars like Pam Grier were kicking butt and taking names in movies like Foxy Brown and Coffy. During the Civil Rights Era though, the Angry Black Woman first appears in her original form: the aforementioned ‘Mammy’ or ‘Sassy Black Woman’.
Melissa Harris-Perry explains in her book Sister Citizen how the sassy Mammy stereotype became a thing in minstrel shows and movies like Gone With The Wind. The Mammy not only plays second fiddle to white characters but have traits often associated with black masculinity like intimidation, hostility and aggression. It’s a fancy way of saying, ‘Look at this black woman behaving like a man!’
You can Google the history of these tropes and stereotypes (I did!) and yet Stanley didn’t. Fans are absolutely justified in calling out The New York Times about her attempt to turn a stereotype with these kind of roots into a good thing. To imply that Rhimes is trying to “embrace” the negative Angry Black Woman meme by making it “enviable” is silly. Who wants to glorify an insult?
Now the journalist in me is saying, “Could be an editing mistake. No need to be this hard on Ms. Stanley.”
As a journalist you can’t control how people react to your writing. In mass media, it’s not necessarily your fault if your audience gets offended or misunderstands what you were trying to say. But these excuses get old fast when it is always the same stereotype making the rounds. When the same people, concepts and ideas are always being critiqued by the same elite media organizations, then it goes from an observation to something more questionable. (See: ‘Unfortunate Implications’)
As some on Twitter have already pointed out, showrunners like Aaron Sorkin have never had their writing and male characters analyzed by gender alone. It’s easy to blame this on demographics. After all film critics are mostly male, according to one study released in 2013.
In this case, demographics don’t have anything to do with the blatant disregard for historical accuracy.
All journalism on diversity requires historical context. And not just a couple footnotes. To imply, like many with ESPN did during the Jeremy Lin caption debacle, that you didn’t know a particular phrase or word could be seen as super racist is lazy at best and bad journalism at worst.
One woman’s compliment is another woman’s slap in the face and both sides need to be discussed. If you’re not going to give history due props in your analysis of anything about race and gender, then maybe you shouldn’t be writing about race and gender at all.
PS – Kudos to the NYT for choosing a photo of Viola Davis in which she looks angry. Someone should call Real You Public Relations
Melody Gordon is a roaming 20-something from the American South. She works in media and overanalyzes stuff. She loves hot tea, technology, books and culture. She is also a huge history nerd and proud of it.