The New York Times Agrees: Shonda Rhimes Not An ‘Angry Black Woman’

shonda_rhimes2-620x412Here’s a topical reminder that words matter on the editorial side, too. Twitter blew up — as it tends to do — this weekend thanks to a New York Times profile of Scandal /Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes. Why? Here’s the lede by Alessandra Stanley:

“When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.'”

Get that? She’s black, she’s angry, and yet she somehow manages to get away with it.

It’s not that Stanley wanted to insult anyone. In the next paragraph, she writes: “Ms. Rhimes, who wrought Olivia Pope on ‘Scandal’ and Dr. Miranda Bailey on ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ has done more to reset the image of African-American women on television than anyone since Oprah Winfrey.”

That point is settled. But Rhimes took issue with Stanley’s piece, and today NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan agreed.

First, there’s the fact that Rhimes did not create the show How to Get Away With Murder — she merely produces and promotes it.

Then there was Stanley’s description of star Viola Davis:

“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 than Ms. Washington, or for that matter Halle Berry, who played an astronaut on the summer mini-series ‘Extant.'”

That passage inspired many to adopt the #LessClassicallyBeautiful hashtag:

Davis’ own response (itself a quote from Maya Angelou):

The point of the piece was to prove that Rhimes’ creative direction has allowed black female leads to become more prominent and, dare we say, assertive characters than in the past. But Sullivan writes that many “rightly” took issue with the article because:

“…it delivered that message in a condescending way that was – at best – astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch.”

In other words, it was everything The New York Times doesn’t want to be. The lesson applies across all communications, but it’s especially relevant when you’re trying to reach an audience that isn’t exactly like you: be respectful, even if you’re courting controversy.

If you have to explain the manner in which you delivered your message, then you’ve already lost.

[Pic via Reuters/Fred Prouser]

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.