Welcome to the second decade of the twenty-first century, there are now two black women lawyers on Thursday prime time television thanks to screen writer, director and producer Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes, an increasingly powerful player in the broadcast world, first garnered widespread acclaim in 2005 as the creator and executive director of the long-running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy and its spin-off, Private Practice (2007-2013). In 2010 she entered the legal terrain with Scandal, about a high-powered Washington, D.C. political fixer who is having an affair with the married President of the United States. The fixer, Olivia Pope, is a well-educated and well-connected lawyer who runs a crisis management firm, Pope and Associates. Scandal started its fourth season on Thursday.
By the way, Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, and Shonda Rhimes, the producer, are black women. So unsurprisingly a flurry of anticipatory articles and posts appeared when ABC announced Rhimes’ latest production, How to Get Away with Murder, which also aired Thursday immediately after Scandal. Annalise Keating (played by Viola Davis) is a tenured black woman law professor who also runs her own law firm. (Isn’t this a no, no under the ABA rules?) But anticipation quickly turned into controversy when New York Times television critic, Alessandra Stanley, started her article about the new show with: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’” Oops, so perhaps we have not progressed that far in race relations after all.
Stanley’s column set-off a firestorm on the internet. One of the most interesting critiques of Stanley’s troubling discussion of Rhimes and black women actors was posted by Margaret Lyons on Vulture.com. Even Rhimes sent a few tweets. The result was an apology from the Times’ Public Editor and the obligatory “non-apology” from Stanley.
This much discussed controversy, however, is not the subject of my post. I am more concerned about the content of Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder than with how the executive producer and female actors are described by critics. As I celebrate the emergence of Kerry Washington and Viola Davis, as lawyers in starring roles on prime time television, I worry, not about whether these shows are breaking old well-worn stereotypes about black women as angry and sexually permissive, but rather whether my students will see these fictional women lawyers as legal icons to be emulated.