The Only One: A Talk With Shonda Rhimes
I saw Shonda Rhimes at a panel presentation at the Television Critics Association press tour this summer where she helped introduce How to Get Away with Murder, the new ABC drama she helps produce but did not create. I found her pleasantly (and a little amusingly) transparent in not loving some of the questions she was asked (including one about whether she was worried that #HTGAWM, which was printed on the promotional cookies ABC handed out, was an unwieldy hashtag), and I thought, “She is an interview for which you would want to be on your toes.”
So when the Smithsonian Associates asked me to spend an hour talking to her on stage in front of 550 people at the Natural History Museum, I thought, “Hey, what’s the worst thing that can happen, other than me looking like never mind let’s not think about it sure OK let’s do it.”
And then on Friday morning, about 12 hours before we’d be settling into a couple of armchairs, a piece by Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times blew up online. The lede was this: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be calledHow to Get Away with Being an Angry Black Woman.” I read that lead about four times, but the words were still there.
The title was “Wrought in Their Creator’s Image,” and the photo was of Viola Davis, who plays the lead in How to Get Away with Murder, of which Shonda Rhimes is not the creator — a white man, Pete Nowalk, is. It went on to describe how, to Stanley’s eye, Rhimes had appropriated, embraced and ultimately made “enviable” the idea of the stereotypical “angry black woman,” which Stanley felt was a title that could be applied in varying degrees to every black woman Rhimes has ever written on any of her shows, essentially. And Viola Davis — playing, remember, a character Rhimes didn’t write — was the zenith of this effort by Rhimes to create interesting, brave, unapologetic angry black women in her own image.
At the same time, it managed what appeared to be backhanded slams at Davis’ not being as “classically beautiful” as Kerry Washington, backhanded slams at characters like The Cosby Show‘s Clair Huxtable (not really true to Clair’s often emphatically feminist spirit, but necessary to underscore the thesis that only Rhimes has broken television’s black women out of limited roles), and a raft of — as Rhimes would later put it in conversation with me — coded language that would never be applied to men or white people in the same way. (Continued at the source.)