Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Open Letter to Alessandra Stanley,Re: The Shonda Rhimes Situation

Dear Ms. Stanley,

I'm sure by now you are sick of hearing about your article in the New York Times the other week that featured Shonda Rhimes and yes, your executive editor made an apology of sorts(and included your take on the matter as well) yet something tells me that you really don't get the point that everyone is trying to make here.

From what I gather, you seem to think that those "Twitter people" are taking your words out of context,particularly your opening sentence that made a pun from the title of Ms. Rhimes' upcoming new drama How To Get Away With Murder using the term "Angry Black Woman." That wasn't the best use of wit on your part but I have to tell you that, beyond that opener, many of the things you said in that article were very troubling in more ways than one.

I don't use Twitter myself but even those who do read the entirety of your piece and I think it's safe to say that we were offended on several points. I'm just going to go over three of my personal beefs with the article, in the hopes that maybe you might get a hint of what has upset so many pop culture followers out there:


Yes, this distinction has been corrected recently by your editors but I still find it irksome. As a fan of the show, one of the main attractions for me is the strong female lead,Abbie Mills, that Ms. Beharie portrays here.

 Not watching Sleepy Hollow is no excuse, considering that you work for a national newspaper with vast resources and could easily double check such a reference.

Her character is a lead with just as much backstory and importance to the main story arc as Tom Mison(who plays Ichabod Crane) and also like Lucy Liu on Elementary, is placed into a professional partnership with a man that doesn't have a romantic nature to it. That in itself alone is noteworthy but I suspect that because the show she's on is supernatural based, you find it easy to dismiss. As a TV writer, you might want to be a tad more authoritative on such references:


As I read your article, this paragraph jumped out at me:

"Her(Shonda Rhimes) heroines 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.”

First of all, Esther Rolle was a well established theater and film actress before she received that part on Maude,which lead to a very successful spin-off known as Good Times that earned her a Golden Globe nomination.

I grew up on Good Times and her heartfelt take on working woman Florida Evans, who became a widow during the course of the series, resonated strongly with me. She was a strong solid maternal figure that reminded me of my own mother at certain points. Granted, the popularity of J.J. Walker's  character overshadowed hers to the point that she left the show but most fans agree that Florida was a much missed lynchpin that held that series together. To write her performance off as that character as just another stereotype is highly insulting and a touch elitist as well:


Some of your most controversial statements were regarding Viola Davis' age and appearance to which you have stated that Ms. Davis "said so herself in the NYT magazine more bluntly."

 I sincerely hope that you know that there is a world of difference between someone discussing their own physical appearance and another person doing so. Otherwise, I have to sigh and shake my head.

What I believe you're not recognizing is that Viola Davis is a character actress, the same way that Kevin Spacey and Steve Buscemi are. I see no difference between her starring on How To Get Away With Murder while Spacey is the lead on House of Cards and Buscemi is center stage on Boardwalk Empire. She and Mr. Spacey are both Oscar nominees and Mr. Buscemi is a Golden Globe winner just like her.

Their acclaim is based on their talent, along with their ability to be more believable as the average person than the type of actor who regularly is cast as the leading man or woman. Both kind of actors may be equally talented together but their looks can be a double edged sword. Many times, a character performer is taken more seriously than a marquee name in the same or similar role.

Also, it's become a trend for older actresses to take TV work that offers them better roles than Hollywood, from Glenn Close in Damages to Katey Sagal in Sons of Anarchy and Jessica Lange in American Horror Story(Ms. Lange was joined last season in AHS by a pair of powerful established actresses Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett,who will be major players this upcoming season as well). So having Viola Davis take a juicy part like Annalise Keating is not that surprising, if you keep up with what's going on, that is.

I am not a watcher of Shonda Rhimes' shows, mainly because medical dramas no longer interest me(the last one I was into was ER back in the day) and political dramas interest me not at all(have no plans to see Madam Secretary). What did engage my attention to How To Get Away With Murder was the fact that an actress of Viola Davis' caliber was headlining it. Plus, I do like mysteries and it sounds like fun.

 It is a shame that this much negative energy is being sent out as the show is about to premiere this week yet by this time next year, people may be talking about what's to come for HTGAWM's second season surprises instead of this controversy.  I have faith in Viola Davis and her amazing gifts as an actress that this will be so:

In conclusion, Ms. Stanley, what you claimed to have meant as a complimentary write-up of Shonda Rhimes' success came off more as damning with faint praise. Sentences like "Her women are authority figures with sharp minds and potent libidos who are respected, even haughty members of the ruling elite, not maids or nurses or office workers." are loaded with back handed compliments. For example, "haughty" is the type of word that describes Countess Violet's views about weekends on Downton Abbey and not in a good way.

While it is great that Ms. Rhimes is making strides that other women will be able to follow in that industry, surely you could found a better way to convey that sentiment about her and Viola Davis without sounding condescending or clueless, not to mention insulting to others in the field as well.

Accepting criticism is hard but it can help you to do better in your work. The apology that you gave was neither sincere or well delivered and I do hope that once the initial outrage has died down that you will take some time to reflect on that article. Otherwise, this will only be yet another brick in the wall that separates you from your readers and that's the last thing any writer wants.


Lady T and the rest of the home viewing audience

P.S. NYT, you guys need to step up a little more to the plate on this one. Your first attempt at damage control was well intended but still missing the mark:

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