Forget The ‘Angry Black Woman’ Problem; Does Shonda Rhimes Have a Mistress Problem?

Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, Private Practice and, now, How To Get Away With Murder. They all have one thing in common.

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This article deals with plot points in How To Get Away With Murder, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and Private Practice. Handle with care, spoiler-phobes. 

We all remember the hullabaloo surrounding Alessandra Stanley’s tone-deaf piece in The New York Times last September, upon the U.S. debut of Shonda Rhimes’ latest television success, How to Get Away With Murder. In the article, Stanley equated Rhimes’ black female characters, such as Scandal’s Olivia Pope, Grey’s Anatomy’s Dr. Bailey and HTGAWM’s Annalise Keating, with the “angry black woman” trope so often seen when black women are on screen.

Cue: a whole heap of backlash. After all, Rhimes is widely believed to be one of the only showrunners in mainstream TV who is actively championing a diverse portrayal of people of colour. As Vulture’s Margaret Lyons wrote in response at the time, “[Rhimes] didn’t “embrace the caricature” of the Angry Black Woman — she rejected it completely and wrote other things.”

The NYT critic may believe Rhimes has an “angry black woman” problem — but after episode five of HTGAWM, which aired this week in Australia, it might be more pertinent to ask whether she has a mistress problem instead.

Mo’ Mistresses, Mo’ Problems

HTGAWM focuses on two opposing timelines that race to catch up with each other: the present day, in which lawyer and professor of Criminal Law 101 Annalise Keating (played by Viola Davis) discovers that her husband Sam has been having an affair with a murdered student; and several months in the future, in which her law students attempt to cover up their crime of murdering the husband in question. In last week’s shock cliffhanger, Annalise found an image of her husband Sam’s penis on the dead girl’s phone — and last night we learned that it wasn’t Sam’s only indiscretion: Annalise was once his side piece.

This is not Rhimes’ first rodeo, however: For those who tuned in to Grey’s Anatomy in its heyday, you’ll remember the shock felt when, after a whole season of falling in love with Meredith and Derek falling in love, it was revealed that Derek actually had a wife in another state: Dr. Addison Montgomery Shepherd. The titular character, Meredith Grey, identified strongly as a mistress in the following seasons (albeit — like Annalise — one who eventually got the guy).

Rhimes’ next show, Private Practice — a Grey’s spinoff starring the abovementioned Dr. Montgomery (who dropped the ‘Shepherd’ when she dropped the Shepherd) — took place in Los Angeles, as Addison attempted to move on from her failed marriage and became a mistress herself for a brief sojourn.

Enter Rhimes’ third show, Scandal, about a political fixer in Washington, D.C. who, you guessed it, is having an affair with the President of the United States. The fact that the President happens to be a married Republican and Olivia Pope is a black woman brings up many political, racial and sexual issues for Gladiators (fans of the show who draw their name from Olivia’s collective problem-solvers) to sift through.

It’s clear that Rhimes, who acts as an executive producer on HTGAWM, has a fascination with mistresses, who come with a ready-made helping of drama unavailable to single characters.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with these portrayals of ‘the other woman’, but there are two areas where Rhimes may run into trouble: her mistresses’ subordination to their more powerful lovers; and, in the case of Scandal and HTGAWM, the race of the characters involved. With surgeon Gabrielle McMillan’s recent comments about female surgeons succumbing to sexual harassment from their male superiors, and the long-standing power imbalance between black women and white men, Rhimes is not exactly busting stereotypes here.

Mistresses Make for Good TV

Scandal and HTGAWM avoid the “lazy black woman” trope, as Phoebe Robinson writes in a recent issue of Bitch magazine, by ensuring her black female characters have stable careers — but something’s gotta give, and that would be their love lives. Vulture’s TV critic Margaret Lyons echoed this sentiment on their debut TV podcast: “There’s nothing exciting about having your shit together.”

Shondaland’s original mistress, Meredith Grey started out as a single woman — but as we saw throughout the first few seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, her personal life was anything but sorted. Her mother was dying of Alzheimer’s, her father had long stopped wanting anything to do with her, and drinking and having casual sex was a way to escape the pressures of her new job as a surgical intern. It was only in later seasons that she grew into a self-assured woman who knew what she wanted and was ruthless in achieving it.

Of all the mistresses, Olivia Pope probably “handles” her personal life best but, like Meredith and presumably Annalise as HTGAWM progresses, we see her slowly unravel, as her private life collides with her professional one. We are yet to see Olivia mistrust Fitz based on his extramarital activities with her but, as is slowly coming to light in HTGAWM, Annalise’s marriage is rife with suspicion. This is perhaps because of her daily exposure to lies as a lawyer, but probably mostly because she was once the woman being lied about.

The Trojan Horse

It’s easy to dismiss Rhimes’ mistresses as stereotypes defined by, in the case of Grey’s and Scandal at least, the powerful men who are cheating with them. But if Orange is the New Black’s Piper was a “Trojan Horse” to expose audiences to the stories of women we don’t often get to see, maybe Derek Shepherd and President Grant are too. It would be nice to have a break from pop culture about the default white, straight male, and TV is certainly making strides towards that, with Orphan Black and OITNB. Meanwhile, HTGAWM’s black woman protagonist is perhaps the first of her kind in a long time not to yield to her male partner — sure, he doesn’t stick around for long, but we’ll have to take what we can get.

Rhimes’ work often gets criticised for far-fetched plots that aren’t rooted in reality (tell that to Game of Thrones or House of Cards), but if we were hankering for a medical procedural we’d put a documentary on, right? As much as we may value stability in our own lives, it makes for boring television — and if HTGAWM’s ratings are any indication, Rhimes has elicited the Midas touch once again in portraying a mistress whose mess we want to watch unfold.

Scarlett Harris is a freelance writer and blogger at The Scarlett Woman. You can follow her on Twitter at @ScarlettEHarris.