I managed to catch Melissa Harris-Perry on her eponymous MSNBC show yesterday, while waiting for two friends to stop by for a day of downtown Tampa sightseeing.
To introduce her brilliantly titled “Now in Color” segment (which pitter-pattered my 90′s kid heart with a panel that included Theo Cosby and Harriette Winslow), she covered a recent New York Times piece that I won’t acknowledge with a hyperlink.
In it, Alessandra Stanley analyzes the upcoming Shonda Rhimes production How to Get Away with Murder, starring one of my favorite (and one of the most under-used and underestimated) actresses of our time, Viola Davis.
Viola has deserved a role like this for a very long time, but because she was born with dark skin and a vagina, her charisma and equally jaw-dropping acting talents never got the platform that her peers snatched up with ease.
And Stanley, blind to the obvious injustice of this — and to the fact that a white man, not Rhimes, actually created the show — decided to turn her think piece into an exposé about the Angry Black Woman.
I assume she was doing what so many entertainment writers do: trying to play the white hero by stomping on stereotypes and expecting “more” of those who suffer because of them yet continue to “perpetuate” them. It’s the same mentality that calls for a “better spokesperson for domestic violence victims” than Rihanna, and the same self-righteous ignorance that calls President Obama “articulate”, and the same shamelessly insular privilege that accuses black kids of “keeping themselves down” by speaking in a dialect that doesn’t sound “white” enough.
Basically, Stanley is an idiot. And the piece has garnered some very justified indignation, from serious analyses (are white feminists finally acknowledging intersectionality?!) to superficial defenses of Viola’s serious beauty (she really is a gorgeous woman, not that that should matter at all).
Jezebel, for one, offered a thoughtful analysis (“The New York Times, Shonda Rhimes & How to Get Away with Being Racist)”, and Black Girl Nerds covered it through the perspective of Melissa’s book (How the New York Times Got Their Criticism of Shonda Rhimes Incredibly Wrong).
But Melissa herself hit a huuuuuuuge home run with her tongue-in-cheek segment, asking this incredibly important question: what if white men, not black women, were caricatured as angry?
I’m SO glad I caught it live. This is the best thing I’ve ever seen on MSNBC (or any news network, period). Her justified diatribe centered around a brilliant premise: rewriting part of Stanley’s article, “nearly word-for-word”, about another fall show.
Setting aside (after acknowledging) the fact that Shonda ISN’T EVEN THE CREATOR (that honor, ironically, goes to a white man), Melissa cast Aaron Sorkin in the role of prodigious show-runner, complete with trademark semi-autobiographical characters.
It started with this gem:
When Aaron Sorkin writes his autobiography, it should be called How to Get Away with Being an Angry White Man.
Then she zeroes in on Newsroom, which is returning for a third season this November (and which we’ve been marathoning with the aforementioned couple, because we’re all bleeding-heart liberals who can’t resist a sharp-tongued show). I love Sorkin’s style in spite of myself, but everything she says about him rings SO. TRUE. Namely:
It is yet another series from Sorkin that showcases a powerful, intimidating white man. This one: Will McAvoy, blustering monologue-prone workplace bully played by Jeff Daniels, who won an Emmy for the role in 2013.
And that clinches it.
Mr. Sorkin, who wrought Dan Rydell on Sportsnight and Toby Ziegler on The West Wing, has done more to reset the image of white men on TV than anyone since… Dr. Phil.
Because Stanley couldn’t write a piece about powerful black women without comparing them all to Oprah. Because of course.
But it gets even better:
Mr. Sorkin has embraced the trite but persistent character of the Angry White Man, recast it in his own image, and made it enviable.
You know: a character so common that it isn’t a trope at all; it’s just a fact of life. Men — especially white men — are cast in multifaceted roles, given enough back-story to allow us some insight into their characters’ flaws, and most importantly, they’re not pigeonholed because of them or compared to every other actor with the same skin color.
And in a move that makes light of something seriously awful — Viola’s career-long dismissal because her skin’s not quite light enough and her body’s not quite lithe enough to make white America lust after her — Melissa wraps it up with a stinging indictment of the White Actor’s immunity to body image issues:
As Will McAvoy, Jeff Daniels, 59, is sexual, even sexy in a slightly menacing way. But the actor doesn’t look at all like the typical star of a network drama. Ignoring the narrow beauty standards some white men are held to, Mr. Sorkin chose a performer who is older, paunchier, and less classically beautiful than, say, Patrick Dempsey of Grey’s Anatomy or Scott Foley, who plays Jake on Scandal.
This is a ridiculous analysis, obviously, but the satire will fly over the heads of men’s rights activists who only cry ageism when they start aging and acknowledge unrealistic beauty standards when women show some agency and reject them.
Melissa concludes with a side-eye at Stanley’s depressing desire for black-on-black altercations (“if only this Angry Black Woman would pick some fights with Angry Black Men”, basically), which all but guarantees the reporter would’ve been in eager attendance at minstrel shows if she’d been born 100 years earlier.
Melissa’s comparisons were so uncanny — and her delivery so good — that I wanted a mic drop and standing ovation to follow. Instead it whipped away to a commercial break (even better), leaving me and Joel breathless and angry and elated all at once.
Because she’s right, of course. Not just about the differences between black and white or female and male, but about the blistering combination of privileges and lack thereof, and how that dictates the way the media (and the majority of America) handles the same exact attributes.
Take that, New York Times. Take that, white male privilege. Take that, shockingly mainstream racist stereotypes, and everyone who actually does perpetuate them by placing the onus of progress on the oppressed, not the oppressors.