The New York Times public editor has called television critic Alessandra Stanley’s controversial piece about Shonda Rhimes “at best – astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch.” Stanley, among other offenses, called Rhimes an “angry black woman.”
Despite an ultimately positive assessment of Rhimes, Stanley’s piece was itself reductive—Viola Davis was described as “less classically beautiful” than African-American actresses like Kerry Washington and Halle Berry—and appeared misinformed about Rhimes’ work and other depictions of black women on television. (She initially called Nicole Beharie, the co-lead on Sleepy Hollow, a “sidekick.”) The article prompted vocal pushback from both Rhimes, members of her casts, and other writers, who condemned Stanley’s article.
Times public editor Margaret Sullivan ultimately concluded that “the readers and commentators are correct to protest this story. Intended to be in praise of Ms. Rhimes, it delivered that message in a condescending way that was – at best – astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch.” In a response to Sullivan, Stanley defended her work. “In the review, I referenced a painful and insidious stereotype solely in order to praise Ms. Rhimes and her shows for traveling so far from it,” she wrote. “If making that connection between the two offended people, I feel bad about that. But I think that a full reading allows for a different takeaway than the loudest critics took.” She added that she didn’t think Times readers would take the first sentence of the article—”When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman‘ “—literally because she frequently writes “arch, provocative ledes that are then undercut or mitigated by the paragraphs that follow.”
The Times’ culture editor, Danielle Mattoon, told Sullivan that multiple editors read the story and none anticipated the criticism. “This is a signal to me that we have to constantly remind ourselves as editors of our blind spots, what we don’t know, and of how readers may react,” Mattoon said.