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Leadership, media, and the angry black woman


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By ROBERT NAYLOR JR.

 

Those who often find themselves on the wrong side of stereotypes become sensitive to them − sometimes overly so. We see that when someone takes offense to something supposedly offered as a compliment.

It’s no wonder then that a New York Times critic created a public furor by referring to television producer Shonda Rhimes as an “angry black woman.” Writing about Rhimes’ newest show, How to Get Away With Murder (which premiered last night), Alessandra Stanley said in a Sept. 18 piece that the producer’s autobiography “should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’” Rhimes retorted via Twitter that she didn’t know she was angry and pointed out that the creator of the show was a white man, Peter Nowalk. The ruckus only grew after that.

Women seeking to enter and rise through corporate leadership ranks can be castigated for behavior that wins praise for male counterparts. A man is assertive; a woman is … well, something else. A man is a risk-taker; a woman is reckless. This is especially true for women of color, who often must overcome multiple negative labels.

The term “angry” is considered a harmful stereotype among many African Americans − women and men alike − who believe it is arbitrarily slapped on those who are  confident, assertive and dare to speak up. It can bring an upward career trajectory to a screeching halt because angry equates to temperamental, volatile, difficult to work with, and someone we just don’t like being around.

It was surprising then to see the term applied to Rhimes − whose obvious talent has earned her ABC’s entire Thursday night prime time lineup − by an opinion writer for the nation’s How to get away with murdermost influential newspaper. The Times has since backed away from the review, with Public Editor Margaret Sullivan calling it “astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch.” But Stanley herself initially took exception to the condemnation, insisting she intended to compliment Rhimes. Stanley did praise the producer for doing “more to reset the image of African American women on television than anyone since Oprah Winfrey.” Still, she either ignored or was ignorant of the stereotype she made the centerpiece of her review. It only made matters worse that she deemed the dark-skinned Viola Davis, star of How to Get Away With Murder, “less classically beautiful” than some lighter-skinned black actresses.

In writing about characters played by Davis, Chandra Wilson in Grey’s Anatomy and Kerry Washington in Scandal, Stanley said Rhimes had “embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable.”

Stanley reviewed shows with strong white female characters but didn’t see them as angry. She described Téa Leoni, who plays the lead role in the new series Madame Secretary, as having “a loose, engaging manner.” She called Alicia Florrick, the character brilliantly played by Julianna Margulies in The Good Wife, as having “guile as well as gumption.” I’m inclined to agree.

Stanley’s opinions − and those of influential writers like her − both reflect and sway public opinion. That may be the biggest problem with her review. Many of the perceptions we develop about people who are different from us come from what we see, hear or read in media reports. Given that, it doesn’t require much of a stretch to imagine a hiring manager or senior executive seeing a Téa Leoni as engaging or a Julianna Margulies having guile and gumption but a Viola Davis, Chandra Wilson or Kerry Washington as angry.

If Stanley wants to compliment Rhimes and the characters she creates, she should look beyond trite but persistent (to use her term) labels. The things we see on television and in movies influence our perceptions about people, and imaginary characters create real-world consequences. No one deliberately hires or promotes someone they perceive as angry for no apparent reason. A hiring manager who believes Stanley − that Annalise Keating, Dr. Miranda Bailey and Olivia Pope are all angry − might be unlikely to hire someone with similar qualities.

It’s easy for labels to stick, but they can be very difficult to shake. Those seeking to shape public opinion need to be careful about when, where and how to apply them.

 

©2014 Robert Naylor Coaching and Consulting, LLC. All rights reserved

 

Robert Naylor is a journalist, consultant, certified coach, facilitator, and speaker who helps people become better leaders, improve workplace performance, and find focus in their careers and life. He is available for on-site training, private coaching, keynote presentations, and commentary. For more information visit naylorcoaching online or contact robert@naylorcoaching.com.

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