Handling Shade with Subtext: a lesson in writing and interracial dating

My screen shot from Oprah’s Next Chapter site


As a writer, I love subtext, and Shonda Rhimes does it brilliantly. The genius behind “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” took it to a new level last night when character Olivia Pope, who is black, said this in reference to her affair with the president, who is white: “I’m feeling a little ‘Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemmings’ about this.” A couple scenes later, the president expressed how much he disagreed.

The dialogue was what’s called “on the nose,” or stated plainly with little room for interpretation. The subtext was in who the characters, or in this case, executive producer Shonda Rhimes, was talking to. That scene was for everyone–and there were plenty–who said the relationship depicted in “Scandal” was too ” Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemmings,” just because of the race of the characters.

Dear conscious black people et al, we can’t think ” Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemmings” every time a black woman and white man have a relationship onscreen or in real life. Things like power, consent and context matter, and it’s naïve to ignore them. The lasting effects of this country’s complicated history may make something about black/white sexual relationships rub us the wrong way forever, but like Shonda Rhimes, I think we can address it and either let it hold us back from love (or maybe just passion in the case of Scandal–the relationship is problematic for a host of other reasons) or not.

(And just FYI, Rhimes has gotten flack before for having ‘colorblind’ shows and not making race an issue, even though it wouldn’t enhance the plot. I remember the first time she stepped away from that on Grey’s Anatomy. It didn’t work well.)

So, Ms. Rhimes, thanks for addressing the topic, and for doing it in such a classy way. As Helena Andrews tweeted last night, hope everyone throwing you all that shade caught it.


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