The Curse of Shondaland

It’s been an eventful year on planet Earth, that goes without saying. For the emotionally mature among us, lockdown has directed our gazes inward, to work on all the peculiar, debilitating little things we were too busy to confront when the outside world was so available to us. But — and let’s be honest — for the rest of us, the glimmering distraction of online proved too overpowering. Sure, we all might have managed a bit of introspection, but through the lens of viral tweets, tediously-curated Instagram feeds, and the irresistible binge-fests waiting for us on the other side of our screens.


I’ve always been hyper-aware of my own self-image. Call it vanity, insecurity, or just being a black girlie in western society — it’s something I’m always thinking about, something I’m always projecting wherever I go, onto whatever I’m looking at. Like most relatable quirks this grew intolerably apparent during lockdown, as most of my friends were finally ticking films/shows they’d been harping about for years off their watchlists, and recommending them to me in turn.


Most of the content they were lauding so passionately were things that I had already thrown into my appropriately-titled I AM NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES WATCHING THIS list. They were the most binge-able of the bunch — tight and fast thrillers like Scandal, multi-season behemoths like Grey’s Anatomy, and Bridgerton, Bridgerton, Bridgerton.


We would go on our silly little Zoom calls, and they would recommend their silly little shows, and I would shoot down every single one. I’d nitpick or complain about the things I didn’t like whether I’d seen the thing or not, things that offended me, writing I thought was reductive...


I could hear myself spewing shit, but it was like that scene in Mean Girls (which I also can’t really tolerate): I just couldn’t stop. I began to turn my shrewd, Virgoan gaze inward. What was wrong with me? What had quarantine turned me into? Couldn’t I enjoy anything? Couldn’t I take the bad with the good? I circled back to my no-watch list, scanning for a sign, something, anything — and I realized: most had a common denominator: their treatment of their black characters, especially if they were women.


And one other thing. Or rather, one particular showrunner. Shonda Rhimes.


Don’t get me wrong; I’m mindful of my elders. Heaven forbid anyone forgets how Shonda and her sprawling empire paved the way for black writers everywhere. She’s a goddamn night of television, for crying out loud — she’s the fairy godmother of the binge-fest, and she is almost solely responsible for the creation of the black leading lady — back when the concept of even one prime time drama starring a woman of color was a crime punishable by blackballing.

Art by Lyvie Scott

The image of the black American femme has been twisted since it was possible for us to even have an image. What started innocently enough with caricatures in folk tales was eventually distilled into the three OG stereotypes: the mammy (a portly black woman tasked with cooking and childrearing), the jezebel (promiscuous_girl.mp3), and the sapphire (angry black woman). From the 60s to the 80s, new characters were introduced to modify said stereotypes: the sassy working-class maid (Florida of Good Times) the single mother juggling it all — Dianne Carroll’s Julia — and the gold standard, Clair Huxtable of The Cosby Show.


In the 90s, stereotypes continued to evolve with shows like Martin, Living Single, and A Different World. These women had flaws and flairs for the dramatic, but healthy relationships and fiscal responsibility to offset it all.


Representation reached a new low in the 2000s after those shows were canceled, leaving a gaping hole to be filled by trashy reality television. But the 2010s and 20s have seen a rise in a new type of black woman: the superwoman.


The superwoman, also known as the “Strong Black Woman,” is the only trope created by black women, for black women. Pioneered by Shonda Rhimes, and her complicated assortment of protagonists, it combines the best qualities of the mammy, the sapphire, and the jezebel. She “offers unlimited support to friends and family” and has a “self-sacrificial strength.” She doesn’t need help from a man (be it physical or financial), and “goes to extremes to do what needs to be done.”

Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating, two of the leading ladies of Shondaland, are the most well-known SBWs in current pop culture. They’re the definition of fearless, influential, powerful. They have it all: the designer wardrobe, the attentive sidekicks, and (at least one!) hopelessly devoted love interest… the powerful moments of vulnerability where they rip off their glossy weaves in front of the mirror, bravely cover up murders, maybe accidentally murder one or two people themselves, destroy themselves over a toxic relationship…


Wait.


I’m not gonna lie and say that black women are the only ones taking a lot of shit in soapy TV melodramas. But there’s something… I don’t know… stinky about the depiction of black women in pop culture in general, even to this day. And it’s made me excessively picky about the media I consume.


That’s one of the main reasons the Shondaland oeuvre remains untouched in my DVR. Her characters just can’t seem to be ‘super’ unless they balance their violent or traumatic past with everyone else’s trauma simultaneously. They’re expected to have it all together, all the time. Their “self-sacrificial strength” often leaves them abused, drained, neglected, and just plain hard to root for. They are internalized misogyny and self-hatred covertly repackaged in a disguise of strength and sexuality.


Let’s break down a few Shonda shows in particular. Take How to Get Away With Murder, the series that essentially perfected the vulnerable wig-taking-off scene. I personally cut off Annalise & co. after the death of one main (*coughs* black) character whose name will not be disclosed — but not before witnessing the tumultuous love life of one protagonist: Michaela.


Michaela is introduced almost in tandem with her off-screen love interest. She is spoken for! It’s the first line out of her mouth when she is introduced in the pilot! Girlfriend is engaged, and anxiously looking forward to building a brand with fiancé Aiden — her “beautiful, shining black prince” — per her ten-year plan. Awesome. Looks like Black Love™ isn’t dead, after all.


It is later revealed that Aiden is gay, and they break up, but it’s no biggie. Michaela chooses herself in an empowering speech delivered to her ex-almost-mother-in-law and keeps it moving.


Then there’s Caleb Hapstall, the adopted son and suspected murderer of two affluent white parents. Annalise essentially uses Michaela to get information from Caleb — y’know, to aid in his defense case. They sleep together — despite a troubling rumor of incest between Caleb and his adopted sister, who is also accused of patricide. And for a brief moment, they’re happy (Caleb and Michaela, not Caleb and his sister!!!), despite the murder accusations.


But Caleb actually is the murderer. And he commits suicide just as the truth is revealed, effectively closing the case and his relationship with Michaela.


There never seems to be any chance of a happily ever after with any of the black male characters on the show. The only even remotely healthy relationship Michaela has is with fan-favorite Asher. And I admit it was cute while it lasted — it forced both characters to grow and change and open up in a way they never had before (almost like a real relationship!). But… Asher was white. And the literal embodiment of white privilege, before he too is forced to learn and grow. Subliminally, it’s a bit too apparent to deny.


Let’s move on to Still Star--Crossed, Shondaland’s highly anticipated remix of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. On paper, the show was promising, complete with colorblind, multiethnic casting and sweeping sets and costumes that reminded us all of Cinderella (you know, the one with Brandy). The protagonist, a dark-skinned black woman, had all of us jumping for joy and hoping for many successful renewals before the series even premiered.


If you don’t remember this show, that’s because it flopped, and was subsequently canceled, in a remarkable and ruthless hurry. The plot follows Rosaline, Juliet’s cousin and, implicitly, a Capulet. She’s torn from a tantalizing forbidden romance with Prince Escalus — the only black male on the show besides Romeo, who is seen either in flashbacks or as a horribly dismembered corpse — and forced to marry a Montague. She then tries to join a nunnery to avoid that fate — all before the premiere of the fourth episode.


Yeah. I’m a little dizzy too.


Then came Bridgerton, the new jewel in Shondaland’s crown, touted as the Pride & Prejudice/Gossip Girl mashup we never knew we needed. This alone was enough to intrigue me, enough to drive the bitter taste of Still Star--Crossed from my memory (where it had been festering, I’m ashamed to admit, for a number of years). I was poised to dive in headfirst, to throw caution to the wind, knowing I’d been hurt before! I didn’t care! Sure, the lead girl was white — a plot point I actively try to avoid in the big year of 2021 — but I was assured there would be a black girlie or two thrown in the mix to placate me. The glimmering distraction, the promise of another colorblind cast in a period drama, of the chance to be seen, to project myself onto somebody beautiful and black and in love — and maybe even happy for once, dammit — proved too overpowering.


Then, the reviews started to roll in. Reports of colorism, race-baiting, and reliance on tropes that should have never left the Antebellum era — critiques on the cautionary tale the only black girl in the series was reduced to, and [spoiler!] the assault perpetrated against the show’s black male protagonist — a plot point which should have never left the book the show is based on. I started to feel that wound festering again. It was all so disappointing, so unsurprising, and it took me back (rather precipitously) to how I felt when I was watching Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder — and ultimately reminded me why I stopped watching.


The problem, I think, lies in Shonda Rhimes’ vice-grip commitment to colorblind casting. It’s important — and has helped incite a revolution when it comes to diversifying (or to put it in Rhimes’ words, normalizing) 21st-century media. But it all starts to get a little dicey when you see how the more diverse characters are treated — how their trauma is normalized more than their actual presence in the show, how they always seem to get pushed around by their nonblack friend and partners… And while some might want to call it coincidental, you can’t ignore the pattern — can we still call centuries of systemic, subliminal oppression a pattern? — that diverse, “colorblind” shows often fall into.


The thing with Shondaland’s shows is that they’re meant to be binge-able. They had the soapy, serialized end-on-a-cliffhanger schtick down before Netflix was even a twinkle in the film industry’s eye. They are a nonstop ride, a bullet train so cutthroat and blistering they don’t allow the characters (or the audience, for that matter) to process their trauma before it’s time for another season, another series, another slap in the face. It’s a similar standard expected of black women on the other side of the screen — now called “superwoman syndrome” — and it’s something the rest of the industry has been replicating with some efficiency.


This past year I’ve seen the SBW trope reiterated in every corner of the media, I’ve seen it spread from protagonists to side characters, I’ve seen how it can even harm black male characters — and I realized I hadn’t recovered from the trauma of watching this happen over and over. I hadn’t gotten off the train. I couldn’t find a way off.

Art by Lyvie Scott

Again, there’s no denying the influence Shonda Rhimes has accumulated in her twenty-odd years in the industry. She’s a pioneer in a lot of ways, and while her power has ushered in a kind of renaissance for black female representation, it still somehow feels inadequate, like a spell that breaks at midnight. Rhimes seemed to assimilate into the role of an archetypal white male exec, accepting the harmful standards that still plague black characters, standards she could easily change in the tales she weaves. A black woman can wear the white hat in Shondaland. Can she get the happy ending without seven grueling seasons of trauma and character assassination?


The nihilist in me has one answer. But. I’m trying to be better, to work on all the peculiar, debilitating little things I’ve previously suppressed. To focus on what I can control, the good things and not just the bad. There is good that’s come out of Shondaland. A whole world has opened up for black writers, a rip in the veil. All we can do is continue to push through, to advocate for color-conscious casting, clamor for the subversion of harmful tropes, to subvert them ourselves in our own writing. Black female writers can take back our agency, our femininity, and our sexuality simply by being ourselves.


We deserve joy in our lives, we deserve to be depicted as joyful, and we deserve to just… breathe. There’s a chance at happily ever after for black women. It’s just a matter of hanging up the cape every now and then.

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