Alessandra Stanley’s big error: A plea for better criticism
A lot of effort has been made to describe exactly what was wrong with Alessandra Stanley’s piece about Shonda Rhimes. The answer: Too much, and a lot of people have already written more eloquently about it than I could. Racist, unresearched and just plain wrong are the first critiques that come to mind. Underneath the racism is another concern: the need for better critics covering the medium that is becoming the locus for the most important cultural conversations today.
BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Peterson highlights this need and takes these critiques a step further to analyze more precisely how this article made it to the press. Simply put, The New York Times has a long history of underestimating the relevance of television, which means assigning unqualified journalists to write about the medium. Television has a long, nuanced history that should be taken into account if one is going to write meaningful criticism on it. The result over this oversight is pieces like “The Angry Black Woman” piece, which lacked research and any kind of insight into Rhimes’ work (Actually it made me wonder if Stanley has ever actually bothered to watch a Shonda Rhimes show at all – It certainly didn’t seem like she bothered to reach out to Rhimes for any kind of comment. How she presumed to speak on the personal aspects of Rhimes’ work with such authority without even consulting her is beyond me). I highly recommend reading the whole article.
You have to deeply respect an art form and the artists who create it to write thoughtful criticism about it. Critics need to have the capacity to respond to their own blind spots if they have them. While a piece this blatantly racist never should have made it the press in the first place, regardless of the systems The Times uses to assign its top critics, I so far have yet to see anyone responsible truly acknowledge the validity of the anger of those Stanley has offended and seek to address these issues. To me that demonstrates a deep lack of respect for those individuals and for their own craft, as well.
Criticism is an important art, and on behalf of critics and aspiring critics everywhere, I think it’s time to consider how we go about appointing people to these positions. There are loads of people out there doing awesome critical work. Stanley’s experience as a foreign correspondant from Russia is impressive, but hardly a prerequisite for insightful writing that inspires conversation and deeper thought about a medium. Maybe it’s even time to start poaching PhDs like BuzzFeed did. Oh, and when you write something wrong and offensive, there should be consequences. Like being fired, demoted, or replaced with someone more qualified? Even a legitimate apology would do.
I don’t necessarily know who or what criticism is for, except, maybe, to inspire deeper conversation about important art. Important art is important in part because it’s a barometer for vital social issues like race, feminisim and other issues surrounding privilege. Great criticism acknowledges how these social issues are intwined within the mediums that discuss them. Arguably, that’s what Stanley was trying to do with her article in September. But she got it wrong. Dead wrong. And it’s time to hire someone who will get it right.
I will say that there are a lot of non-white film and TV critics but they’re couched in webpages like Huffington Post “Black Voices,” Slate, and other “alternative” news sources…which is problematic and says a lot about mainstream news sources. We should definitely not have to hunt down off-the-beaten-path news websites in order to read criticism that isn’t racist! But, on that note, here are some excellent articles and interviews that handle race in a much more informed way (I was bummed that I couldn’t find one on Shonda Rhimes):