My friend Willa Paskin, Salon’s TV critic, has a very interesting profile of Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Scandal, a show in which “America is run by an African-American spin expert, a scheming first lady and a mercenary gay guy who also happens to be in one of the sexiest homosexual marriages on television,” in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. There’s a lot to chew over here, including how Rhimes built a hit factor by writing shows about ambitious women, and by embracing soap opera tropes and insisting on diverse casts, or the fact that she wants to make a spy show. But I wanted to pull out this section of the piece on writing race in television, since it’s obviously a subject that’s been on my mind a great deal lately:
While race on Rhimes’s shows is omnipresent, it is not often discussed explicitly. This has led to a second-order critique of her shows: that they are colorblind, diverse in a superficial way, with the characters’ races rarely informing their choices or conversations. Rhimes, obviously, disagrees. “When people who aren’t of color create a show and they have one character of color on their show, that character spends all their time talking about the world as ‘I’m a black man blah, blah, blah,’ ” she says. “That’s not how the world works. I’m a black woman every day, and I’m not confused about that. I’m not worried about that. I don’t need to have a discussion with you about how I feel as a black woman, because I don’t feel disempowered as a black woman.”
This is a framework for handling race on television that sounds absolutely terrible, narratively and otherwise. Any writer, of any color, who writes for a character of color and can only come up with things to say about that characters’ race hasn’t done the work of thinking through who this character is as a full person. Race matters, but gender, class, geography, faith, sexual orientation, and cultural affiliations do too. A well-designed character should have idiosyncrasies because actual humans do, and multiple interests, because ditto, and be precise in their perspectives because we’re not handed talking points at birth but develop them over time and filter them through our personal experiences.
But I’d also have been curious for the story to spend more time on Rhimes’ argument that “I don’t need to have a discussion with you about how I feel as a black woman, because I don’t feel disempowered as a black woman.” Does she mean that being equal means that her race can be treated as a neutral default, much like whiteness? Does she think that the only narratives African-Americans are given on television are drawn from disadvantage, and she doesn’t want to write those? I wouldn’t blame her for that, but it seems like a oddly limited perspective on what people get from their racial or ethnic heritage that can be portrayed on screen, which is why I’d find that interpretation somewhat confusing. Or does she mean that she doesn’t want to have to stand in for black women everywhere, and doesn’t want her characters to have to either? Again, I wouldn’t disagree with her at all for wanting to avoid that fate. But I’m not sure not talking about race in text (her argument that her characters don’t have to talk explicitly about race because “The discussion is right in front of your face,” in their actions is more convincing) is the only writerly solution to the problem she’s putting forward. In any case, I recognize the irritation of wanting to parse a subject Rhimes thinks is overplayed. But I’d be curious what writing lessons she has to offer to those white writers she complains about.