Respectability Politics and Shonda Rhimes, a Black Woman Showrunner

This post is part of our online roundtable on Black Women and the Politics of Respectability.

Shonda Rhimes. Photo: James White / Simon & Schuster via NPR.
Shonda Rhimes. Photo: James White / Simon & Schuster via NPR.

Black women’s visibility on television has undergone a sea change because of television showrunner Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes has experienced a meteoric rise in Hollywood, from being the nameless, faceless writer behind the Brittany Spears vehicle Crossroads (2002) to becoming a cult figure whom fans and the media alike celebrate for redefining evening melodrama—some might even say television itself—with her hit shows Grey’s Anatomy (2005–present), Private Practice (2007–2013), Scandal (2012–present), and How to Get Away with Murder (2014–present). Rhimes’s success has belied television executives’ oft-whispered reasoning that audiences only want to see African American characters on sitcoms, and it has helped usher in a new era of “diversity” on television. Off-screen, Shonda Rhimes’s leading ladies preside over awards ceremonies, social media, and fashion and gossip rags. On-screen her Black women characters are elite professional women whose work lives showcase their superstar success and whose home lives showcase their tempestuous and deliciously messy interpersonal relationships. They rule our TV fantasy versions of the Washington, D.C. political landscape, toney law schools and law firms, and top-tier surgery suites. They thrive in multiracial cast shows where their race is rarely, if ever, explicitly discussed; they unselfconsciously embrace interracial relationships and interracial friend groups. These characters are also seldom seen in community with other African American women, appearing to prefer the sisterhood of non-Black women. Race functions as but one of many personality traits in Shondaland.

The auteur of such groundbreaking and cult-like characters quite unusually garners almost as much interest in the press as her stars. The way she presents herself in the media provides a precious archive of one iteration of contemporary Black female respectability politics. In the decades that have passed since Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham coined the phrase “the politics of respectability,” contemporary notions of African American respectability have changed, largely because of the rise of post-racial ideologies that blame the victims of racism instead of the racism itself. For example, figures like Bill Cosby communicate respectability as he did in his famous 2004 “Pound Cake” rant at the NAACP’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Black respectability politics have been a way for elite African Americans to police and blame poor (or perceived-to-be poor) Blacks, instead of focusing the lens on either interpersonal or institutional racism. While Rhimes does not, like Cosby, chide other African Americans for disreputable culture, she does “disavow the folk,” in the words of Higginbotham, by featuring elite and professional Black women characters on her cult TV shows who are not in community with other Black women and by largely ignoring institutional and historical racism. In other words, Rhimes and her Black women characters garner success while remaining distanced from communities of Black women; they don’t appear to “lift as they climb.”

However, this does not mean that subjects like Rhimes performing Black respectability politics remain silent regarding 21st-century racism, and especially regarding the racism of microaggressions, what psychologist Derald Wing Sue describes as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” Rhimes speaks back through a coded performance that gauges the microaggressions in the air and, if the space feels hostile to explicit resistance, performs colorblindness as a means to an end. I call this performance strategic ambiguity. Strategic ambiguity is a strategic and mindful choice; it is also ambiguous, deploying a primary facet of post-race, not naming racism. It is ambiguous in that its explicit goal is to simply claim a seat at the table; it is strategic in that inclusion provides an opportunity to repudiate racism. Unlike the direct action of call-outs, walkouts, pickets, or sit-ins, strategic ambiguity is a safe way to respond to racism that comes in a post-racial guise because it does not appear to upend the space. Strategic ambiguity is not silence or evasion; it’s a choice to take on a certain amount of risk, to play with fire, to appropriate something that is used against you and make it work for you.

Shonda Rhimes. Photo: ELLE/Robbie Myers.
Shonda Rhimes. Photo: ELLE/Robbie Myers.

As a Hollywood powerbroker, Rhimes’s performance significantly differs from the way Higginbotham describes respectability politics, and not simply because it is a century later. Our historical moment—the Michelle Obama era—illustrates a discursive meeting of post-racial ideologies and #BlackLivesMatter, a time when popular discourse toggles between proclaiming that race and racism are irrelevant in the lives of both people of color and Whites and acknowledging the daily brutalities disproportionately suffered by Black Americans. Rhimes’s performance of strategic ambiguity channels a quiet, coded, polite form of Black female resistance that does not shout #BlackLivesMatter slogans or uncomfortably point out interpersonal, structural, or institutional discrimination. One exception is a very special Scandal episode, “The Lawn Chair,” that took on police brutality of Black men and the issues of Black protest and Black armed resistance.

While racialized subjects seeking access to dominant forms of success must play the bait-and-switch game of strategic ambiguity, prominent Black women caught between hypervisibility and invisibility roll out this strategy as well. While Black men such as Jesse Williams claim the discursive space to speak truth to power, similarly prominent Black women do not or cannot do the same without facing retribution instead of hero-worship. Rhimes, alongside celebrities such as Michelle Obama, Tyra Banks, Oprah Winfrey, Rhimes’s leading lady Kerry Washington, and yes, even our Queen Bey, deploy a different form of resistance through strategic ambiguity.1

Scandal episode "The Lawn Chair." Photo: Flavorwire.
Scandal episode “The Lawn Chair.” Photo: Flavorwire.

Like these women, Rhimes’s self-presentation in the press performs a carefully-controlled post-racial twenty-first-century Black respectability. Her strategic ambiguity allows forthright language about race and gender to wax and wane within conventional public discourse. In the pre-Obama era and at the beginning of her first show, Grey’s Anatomy, when she stuck to a script of colorblindness and garnered entry into an elite Hollywood club, Rhimes performed a clenched-teeth approach to all aspects of self-disclosure, and in particular, to talking about race and gender. In Ebony Rhimes said (with my emphasis), “With casting, I don’t care what color they are. If a Black man comes in and he’s great for a part and a White woman comes in and she’s great for the part of his wife, well then, suddenly it’s an interracial couple. And I don’t care. It’s about who’s the most talented getting the parts.” In O: Oprah Magazine, Rhimes noted, “We read every color actor for every single part. My goal was simply to cast the best actors.” Further, to Winfrey’s inquiry, “Did you set out to elevate the country’s consciousness in terms of racial diversity?” Rhimes replied, “I just wanted a world that looked like the one I know” [my emphases]. Rhimes’s responses both predicted and warded off journalistic assumptions that a Black woman showrunner was going to be myopically driven by race and race alone. In Rhimes’s narration of her scripting and casting processes she performed impartiality and an attitude unswayed by race. Rhimes granted only a handful of interviews in the first season of Grey’s Anatomy and in all of them she stayed on her main talking point: colorblindness.

In the #BlackLivesMatter moment and after a string of hits, Rhimes unambiguously called out racialized sexism and redefined Black female respectability. After becoming the target of a racist attack in the New York Times, Rhimes responded quickly and unequivocally and diverged from her then-to-date performance of controlled, respectable strategic ambiguity. On Twitter, home of her Gladiators, she blasted the article on the basis of inaccuracies and racialized sexism. Rhimes cast off the cloak of colorblindness by stating, in no uncertain terms, that the media treats White and Black women in wildly divergent, racially stratified ways and that racialized sexism is still very much alive. The stars of all four of Rhimes’s shows and her Gladiators exploded with support across Twitter. This response highlighted the racism that still exists even in vaunted spheres such as the New York Times, and even against celebrities such as Shonda Rhimes.

Rhimes’s public statements reveal the magic of strategic ambiguity which allows for her metamorphosis from colorblind to fierce Black feminist subject, all while remaining a pinnacle of feminine, Black respectability. Strategic ambiguity enables the shift from the pre-Obama era to the #BlackLivesMatter era, where Rhimes’s careful negotiation of the press demonstrates that, in the former moment, to be a respectable Black woman is to not speak frankly about race, while in the latter, respectable Black women can and must engage in racialized self-expression, and thus redefine the bounds of respectability.

Click here to read the journal article on which this guest post is based.

  1.  I write about these particular celebrities’ performances of strategic ambiguity in my forthcoming book, Screening Strategic Ambiguity: Reading Black Female Resistance to the Post-Racial Lie (NYU Press).
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Ralina Joseph

Ralina L. Joseph is an Associate Professor in the University of Washington’s Department of Communication and the Founding Director of the Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity. Ralina’s first book is Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial (Duke University Press, 2012). Her current book project, Screening Strategic Ambiguity: Reading Black Female Resistance to the Post-racial Lie, is forthcoming from NYU Press. Follow her on Twitter @RalinaJoseph.