Don't call her an angry black woman

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Amid a scandal involving a New York Times television critic's controversial essay on producer Shonda Rhimes, the newspaper's public editor admitted on Monday that the article published online last Thursday was "astonishingly tone-deaf".

Alessandra Stanley's essay was meant to highlight how Rhimes has broken down racial stereotypes by producing series - including Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder - which showcase powerful African-American female characters.

She credited Rhimes with doing "more to reset the image of African-American women on television than anyone since Oprah Winfrey".

She added that Rhimes has "embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable", therefore trampling "a taboo even Michelle Obama couldn't break".

But the article went viral for calling Rhimes an "Angry Black Woman" and describing Viola Davis, the star of How To Get Away With Murder, as "older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful" than Kerry Washington, the star of Scandal, said Entertainment Weekly.

Rhimes herself protested on Twitter last Friday, saying she did not know she was an angry black woman, reported USA Today.

In a post on the website of the Times, public editor Margaret Sullivan took the side of angry readers. She wrote: "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."

She said she had asked Stanley to explain herself, and also posted the critic's defensive response.

Stanley said she "referenced a painful and insidious stereotype solely to praise Ms Rhimes and her shows for travelling so far from it".

"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 wrote.

Explaining her description of Davis, Stanley said the star had "said it about herself in the NYT magazine, more bluntly". The critic added that she had "said the same thing about Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect".

She said she often began pieces with "arch, provocative" sentences that would be undercut by following paragraphs, and she had not expected Times readers to take her introductory line - "When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called How To Get Away With Being An Angry Black Woman" - literally.

Ms Sullivan said she spoke to culture editor Danielle Mattoon, who said she deeply regretted that Stanley's piece had offended readers.

Ms Mattoon said at least three editors had seen the piece. "Alessandra used a rhetorical device to begin her essay, and because the piece was so largely positive, we as editors weren't sensitive enough to the language being used."

She added: "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."

In conclusion, Ms Sullivan said she planned to speak to the newspaper's executive editor Dean Baquet about the essay.

She added: "The Times has significant diversity among its high-ranking editors and prominent writers, but it's troubling that with 20 critics, not one is black and only two are persons of colour."

 
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