N.Y. Times: How (not) to get away with sexism

By Tatiana Walk-Morris

The New York Times has ruffled the feathers of many women, particularly women of color, by invoking the “angry black women” stereotype in its review of ABC’s newest show “How to Get Away with Murder.” Titled “Wrought in Rhimes’s Image,” the Sept. 18 review by Alessandra Stanley said Shonda Rhimes, one of the show’s executive producers, should title her autobiography “How to Get Away with Being an Angry Black Woman.”

It turns out that the angry women being referenced are the characters in Rhimes’ series rather not Rhimes herself.  But by describing Rhimes in those terms, Stanley not only insults her but seriously distorts who she is.

As stars reacted to the piece, the Hollywood Reporter asked more than 30 actors to describe Rhimes in three words. Kerry Washington, Chandra Wilson and Viola Davis described Rhimes using adjectives such as courageous, shy and decisive. How is it that the New York Times could not describe Rhimes better, but those who have acted in her shows could?  

Further along in the review, the writer describes Rhimes’ new main character Annalise Keating—played by Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis—as powerful, intimidating and fearsome, adding that Davis is “older, dark-skinned and less classically beautiful than Kerry Washington or Halle Berry.”  

She suggests that Davis is a departure from earlier depictions of black women  as low-skilled laborers who either fade into the background or wag their fingers in stereotypical fashion. Yet Davis’ skin color or how it compares to anyone else’s is irrelevant, and calling her intimidating and fearsome conjures images of a bully. A better description of the character  I saw in a video clip is stern, assertive and smart.  

The “angry woman” Stanley credits Rhimes with conceiving isn’t even her invention but that of the show’s creator  Pete Norwalk—a white male who also worked with Rhimes on “Grey’s Anatomy.” The mischaracterization of Rhimes is important because a wide gap remains between men and women in television, although more women are working behind the scenes in primetime TV.   Women creators, writers, producers, photography directors and editors comprised only 28 percent of those behind primetime shows in 2012–2013, a 2 percentage point increase from a 2011–2012 analysis, according to the Status of Women in U.S. Media 2014 report.  That underscores Rhimes’ impressive achievement  as the producer behind hit TV shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” which captured the attention of 8.5 million and 9.3 million viewers, respectively, during the mid-season finales in December. Despite few women working behind-the-scenes on TV shows, having their input when creating and producing shows can lead to quality TV that resonates with a wide audience. 

Media outlets must be careful when writing about women in the public eye because their coverage directly affects the perceptions of women in leadership.  A May 2011 study published in Sex Roles, a research journal, analyzed participants’ measures of sexism and attitudes toward female senators after reading positive and negative articles and rating the politicians both on their warmth and ability. The results indicated that positive coverage counteracts the perception of senators as competent but cold, and negative coverage affirmed the beliefs of those with existing strong sexist attitudes. The benefits of having women in leadership are also not limited to TV. The companies that perform the best financially have the most women in leadership roles, according to a study conducted by The Conference Board, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit research among consulting group. In businesses e the top 20 percent in financial performance, 27 percent of leaders are women, but female leaders were not as confident as their male counterparts, the study found. 

Though they bring just as much value, women—for a variety of reasons—are not as confident taking on management roles. The New York Times recognized the review’s  offensive language, but it is part of a deeper problem—there are few positive images of black women in the media. The Status of Women in the Media 2014 report found that women of different age groups recognized stereotypes such as “angry black women,” “baby mamas,” “gold diggers” and “uneducated black women” in the media. Rhimes’ shows have replaced these stereotypes with her strong female leads. 

 The Times has corrected Stanley’s error, and many writers have already dressed her down for her language.  The incident serves as a call for women of color to pursue careers in creative industries, particularly in journalism, television and film, so they can accurately cover and portray areas that mainstream media otherwise overlooks.