Angry or Complicated?: Misrecognizing Black Women

Anyone who may have seen interviews with Shonda Rhimes, read her forthright speech on diversity on television, or watched her hit TV show Scandal, would not recognize her in Alessandra Stanley’s description of an “angry black woman.”

It would be easy, actually, to become an “angry black woman” after reading Stanley’s New York Times review, but what such descriptors ultimately reveal is how certain critics fall back on readily available stereotypes and misrecognize the complexities of black womanhood.

Rhimes has rightly been lauded for bringing much nuance to her portrayals of black female characters in her television shows: the brilliant and assertive Dr. Miranda Bailey on Grey’s Anatomy, the ultra competent but vulnerable, wine-guzzling Olivia Pope on Scandal, and now the take-charge but flawed Annalise Keating in the new murder mystery, How to Get Away with Murder. Such characters have demonstrated a wide array of emotions on screen. Yet, Stanley reduced them all to “Angry Black Women.”

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In her clumsy attempts at praising Rhimes for enabling more complicated portrayals of black womanhood, Stanley revealed the often difficult task of transcending the White Gaze, which has a long history of racial distortion and misrecognition. “Confidence” or any behavior not characterized as servile from a black woman becomes “angry” and “scary.”

These distortions often manifest in other ways too, so that dark-skinned Viola Davis becomes “less classically beautiful” and “menacing” in her sexiness, and Nicole Beharie, who stars in the Fox TV show Sleepy Hollow, is reduced to a “sidekick.” Even when these women land leading roles in their respective TV shows, Stanley reduces their star power (through looks or character status).  No wonder, then, when black women assert themselves, appear confident, or fail to merely be “of service,” they can only become the “Angry Black Woman.”

At best, the White Gaze can be challenged on Twitter (see: #lessclassicallybeautiful); at worst, it can get you killed (see: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin). And for black women, in particular, our complex experiences disappear in the crossroads of intersectional oppression. Where racism and sexism meet, we fall through the cracks.

This is why so many have been eagerly awaiting Shonda Rhimes’ latest drama to arrive at Shondaland this Thursday. We know she will feature shows that reinforce black women’s humanity.

In a culture where Janay Rice‘s suffering at the hands of her husband, Ray Rice, was only believed once her privacy was breached by TMZ’s release of a video illustrating her husband’s violence—and not when earlier video showed him dragging her out of an elevator, which merely prompted conversations that she must have “deserved” his treatment (i.e. a black woman’s “anger” instigates domestic violence)—and in a society where Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw can have his bail reduced when he is accused of raping and sexually assaulting eight black women, the “Angry Black Woman” trope makes it difficult to view these women as “victims.”

And even when black women’s bodies become the site on which national outrage and public conversations emerge to address problems such as domestic and intimate partner violence, they are still excluded from the table, as occurred when the NFL’s attempts to form an advisement panel—in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal—failed to include women of color. If we are not readily recognized as “victims,” we are also not recognized as “experts” or sources of knowledge and wisdom. And when we complain of this unfair treatment, we once again become “Angry Black Women.”

Of course the media landscape does not have sole power to transform our society and change what ails us. However, media normalizes concepts of race and gender, and any portrayals that advance our humanity can help us unpack our assumptions and challenge the racialized and gendered gazes that we bring to such images.

Will we recognize complex characters when we see them? Or will we resort to convenient stereotypes, as Stanley did in her review?  And I don’t wish to only single out this one New York Times writer.  Recently, advertisements for Fox’s new TV show Red Band Society, featuring Octavia Spencer as Nurse Jackson, described her as a “scary bitch“; they were eventually pulled from Los Angeles public buses after complaints from community members. Obviously, this rush to stereotype manifests not only in the pages of a widely read newspaper.

We need more diverse stories and more complex characters and images of black womanhood in media. But more than that: We need viewers to push themselves to interpret what they see on screen beyond recognizable stereotypes.

Fortunately, Rhimes has led the way. It’s time the rest of us learn to complicate our views.

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Photo of Shonda Rhimes courtesy of Disney | ABC Television Group licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.


Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.