by Sommer Ingram
ABC’s hit series “Scandal” is not your typical political drama. This fast-paced show leaves America breathless every Thursday night and cheering for a black female as lead character. It has been nearly forty years since a Black woman has played lead in a network drama, raising strong feelings from both Black and White audiences.
Played by actress Kerry Washington, Olivia Pope is a beautiful, well-educated force to be reckoned with. Loosely based on a real life crisis manager, Judy Smith, Olivia is talented lawyer whose job is “professional fixing.” If there is a crisis, disaster or scandal within the Beltway, Olivia Pope is always a person’s first call. A former communications director for the President, Olivia wields an almost unreal amount of power in the elite circles of the nation’s capital.
Olivia is confident and well-respected, with lightning fast problem-solving capabilities that often leave heads swirling. She is fiery and passionate; well-dressed and well-educated; unflinching and effective. Black women have looked to Olivia’s character as something of a role model. Finally, there is a main character who gives the average, educated Black woman an image to be proud of; a character who gives young Black girls something to aspire to be. Olivia is strong, professional and sexually desirable, with both Black and White men wanting to be with her. It is this cross-section of characteristics that make viewers respect and admire her, even with a character flaw as significant as having an affair with a married man.
From the first episode, the audience learns that Olivia’s biggest client also happens to be her secret lover and the President of the United States. Almost as quickly as she is exalted, the show gives up her potential biggest weakness. Her affair with President Fitzgerald Grant—a married man with children— is a storyline that spans all of the seasons of the series thus far. It is in these moments that we see Olivia at her most fragile.
Race is rarely mentioned explicitly in the show, but it did come up in the context of Olivia’s relationship with the president, who is White. During an argument Olivia snidely remarked to Fitz, “I’m feeling a little, I don’t know, Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson about all this.”
The fact that it is a White man and a Black woman alone would saddle the relationship with historical baggage, but the fact that Olivia is the president’s secret, at least to the American public, and the fact that he has power over her add even more layers of complication. Olivia, who the audience had come to know as an unshakeable force is reduced to lip quivering indecision when it comes to the president. As the show has gone on, it is clear that she seems incapable of breaking away from him entirely, even after fleeting moments of self-respect (for example: telling the president if he wants her, he has to earn her). Because the show so rarely addresses race, it is not entirely clear to the viewer how race plays into their relationship, but what is clear is that it does matter in some way.
Although Washington’s character has remained fierce and strong, her ongoing relationship with both the president and another White male character has become increasingly a focus of the show, with sexually charged scenes becoming more obvious and frequent. Time and time again viewers are made privy to Olivia and president’s clandestine sexual encounters, whether they be in the Oval Office or a secret spot out in Vermont.
Some critics are disappointed with Shonda Rhimes, the show’s Black creator, for letting Olivia become over-sexualized. For many, it is a dangerous harkening back to the same tired Jezebel image–an aggressive, sexually promiscuous Black woman who can’t control herself. Branding Black women this way historically created the illusion that White men could never take advantage of Black women because Black women constantly wanted sex.
This portrayal of the Black woman as a sexually insatiable creature has a greater effect than just on Black women’s views of themselves. The Jezebel image coupled with the idea of Black women as loud spoken and domineering creates a dangerous presumption that Black women cannot be sexually harassed, much less sexually assaulted. How can you be harassed in the work place, for example, when you are boisterous and intimidating? How can you be taken advantage of sexually when you are never sexually satisfied? The Black woman often does not feel the protection of laws that are aimed to protect women in the workplace and elsewhere, because society has been overly exposed to the picture of Black women as dominant, both sexually and otherwise.
There is already a problem with getting people to understand that sexual assault and violence is not always the “stranger-jumping-out-at-you-in-a-dark-parking-garage” scene. Sexual assault often happens between people who know each other, and even people who are dating or in a relationship. When these relationships are interracial, particularly a Black woman with a White man, there is an aura of skepticism and dismissal about the woman’s story rather than support and empowerment. Scandal, sadly, may be perpetuating this cultural misunderstanding. If Olivia Pope can get the President of the United States to beg for her body—beg for her—then that must be what it is like for Black women and white men everywhere.
So, just when it seems that mainstream media has found a way to portray a Black woman without repeating the same stereotypes that have dominated for decades, it seems we have to think again. Do Olivia’s intelligence, wit and other positive characteristics outweigh the hyped up sexuality the writers have also given her?
I’m not sure what the answer is. I do know that it is disappointing to watch Olivia take control of all other areas of her life, but melt into a whimpering girl when it comes to the president. The fact that she spends so much time pining after a man who says she is the love of his life, but ultimately goes home to his wife every night, is cringe-worthy. However, before we rush to write off Olivia Pope as just another stereotype, maybe it is worth celebrating the fact that there is a Black woman playing a lead role in a mixed cast—and doing it successfully. Maybe it’s worth celebrating that the character of Olivia Pope gets people talking and thinking about what life looks like as an average, educated Black woman. That doesn’t mean we settle there, on this single depiction. It just means we have a place to start, and that can be seen as something good.