By Brandon Maxwell
April 5, 2012 Shonda Rhimes premiered yet another television drama that
would entice millions of viewers to faithfully return to their couches
weekly to watch her newest production – Scandal.
In case you haven’t seen it, this drama purportedly centers on
protagonist Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), a “Professional Fixer,” and
her efforts to make political problems go away. While this is the
drama’s claim, a closer examination reveals that Scandal actually
centers on the seemingly salvific protagonist of imperialist white
supremacist capitalist patriarchy* and the lengths to which all people –
women and men, black/brown and white, gay and straight, etc. – will go
to preserve it.
This should not surprise viewers. Today, very few
films, plays, and TV shows take seriously the task of not only imitating
life but also critiquing it, and thus turning it on its head. One might
even argue that they fail to truthfully imitate life. In an essay
entitled Mass Culture and the Creative Artist, James Baldwin echoes this sentiment. Critiquing a couple films of the late 1950s, he writes,
movies are designed not to trouble, but to reassure; they do not
reflect reality, they merely rearrange its elements into something we
can bear. They also weaken our ability to deal with the world as it is,
ourselves as we are. (Baldwin 4)
Rhimes’ canon of work is no exception. Her most acclaimed productions to date – Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice
– rely greatly on the indistinct subtext, which reassures us that
anyone can survive (thrive, even) within the white male patriarchal
world. That is, as long as they play the role demanded of them. Sadly, Scandal
falls into the same trap. Though the characters are diverse in many
ways, they are the same to the extent that each of them plays their role
to preserve the system at all costs. And it is not just any system they
are fighting to preserve: it is the American Political System under the
fictional portrayal of the leadership of the Republican Party. The show
relishes in essentialized representations of Republican Politicians
(see characters Sally Fields and Hollis Doyle). However, these somewhat
essentialized, fictional portrayals highlight an extreme irony of the
show. Constituents whose support the actual Republican Party has in
recent years struggled to garner – people of color, particularly black
women (Olivia Pope), and gay folks (Cyrus Beene) – are fighting tooth
and nail to uphold it.
On the surface, the show seems progressive.
It is rare to see such a diverse and unlikely group of characters come
together to fight for a shared cause within a mainstream TV show.
Furthermore, Rhimes appears to break the normative Hollywood modus
operandi wherein the protagonist is typically both male and white. In
fact, she is portrayed as “the great white hope” who is required to save
the day alone. But the assumed central character of Scandal, Olivia Pope, is neither white nor male: the flesh of a black woman appears to be at the center of this drama.
a black woman is allegedly at the center of the storyline, the standard
“ingredients that make Hollywood Hollywood – sex, violence, violation
and action – “ (hooks 122) are an ever-present force in Scandal.
Little changes about the normative Hollywood M.O. other than the fact
that Olivia Pope, a black woman, is the one allowed to save the day
alone; or in her case, with a team of “gladiators.” But ultimately,
everything hangs on Pope’s shoulders alone and her ability to work her
magic. [Is Kerry Washington joining the ranks of Hollywood’s magical
And we love it! We love seeing someone – especially a
black woman –wield so much power at the flip of her hair, quiver of her
lip, or with her cold blank stare. It is exciting to see a black woman
playing the political game just as well as, if not better than, her
white male counterparts. Moreover, there is something historic about the
show. In a recent interview on Oprah’s Next Chapter, Kerry
Washington discussed the fact that it has been nearly 40 years since a
black woman has stared in a network drama in this capacity. The last
time the American public saw similar casting was with the 1974 ABC drama
“Get Christie Love!” starring Teresa Graves.
the excitement over the show and the calls to celebrate a seemingly
progressive image of a black woman on television are in some ways
understandable. However, I contend something else is also happening on Scandal.
The subtle clothing of Olivia Pope – black female flesh – in the
garments of “the great white (male) hope” narrative should also give
While some may call for us to celebrate the portrayal of a black woman in a way that seems new and creative, Scandal
is actually peddling the same tired societal representations of black
womanhood albeit under the guise of progressivism. When a white man is
the protagonist the story is typically one of redemption for the white
man and salvation for his non-white, non-male counterparts through and
by his own redemption. But black flesh does not behave the same way when
it is clothed in the garments of “the great white (male) hope”
narrative. When black female flesh is at the center of the drama the
result is quite different. Scandal shows us that even when black
female flash is wrapped in “the great white hope” narrative, the
restraints placed on black bodily performances in media are just too
strong for that narrative to succeed.
First, let’s acknowledge
that Olivia Pope is an amazingly flat character. While the incessant
presence of yelling, sexual antics, conspiracies, cover-ups, etc. keep
us glued to the television, they distract us from the fact that Pope
possesses no real depth. The writers seem to believe that as long as all
the parts are moving, and Pope is tugged to-and-fro by various
political demands, we will not notice that nothing is actually happening
with her character. We know little-to-nothing about her family/personal
life, her educational/professional trajectory beyond the Grant
Presidential Campaign and Administration, nor do we know the passions
and motives fueling her actions. If this were standard for all
characters on the show, this would be a moot point. However, we know
quite a bit of background information about other characters on the
show, particularly President Fitzgerald Grant, III (Tony Goldwyn),
Olivia’s love interest.
When compared with the information we know
about Fitz, the limited information we know about Olivia is magnified.
We know Fitz’s wife and father, as well as a generous amount of
information about his estranged relationships with each of them. We know
about his (scandalous) military career. One might even suggest that the
aforementioned relationships and career give us a better understanding
of what possibly undergirds the passions and motives of the character.
what of Olivia? Viewers are not privy to this type of information where
her character is concerned. All we know is that this black woman
committed herself to Republican Presidential Candidate, Fitzgerald
Grant, and has been a fixture of his campaign and administration to
varying degrees throughout the show. Thus, any depth Pope possesses is
always connected to the American Political System and/or Fitz.
might argue that this is a way of providing the character with a deep
and meaningful storyline. It is, however, problematic when the type of
information we are allowed to know about Pope is limited in this way and
that limiting is not standard for other characters in the show. To date
we know the least about the show’s three black recurring characters,
Olivia Pope, Harrison Wright (Columbus Short), and Edison Davis (Norm
The type of information we are allowed to know about
Olivia is quite reminiscent of the ways black actors and actresses
accent the story lines of white folks in television shows that do not
claim to place them at the center of the drama. As a result of this
sacrifice of significant character development, the character of Olivia
Pope must rely on stale media representations of black women for the
semblance of substance.
In most episodes Pope is little more than a
political mammy mixed with a hint of Sapphire who faithfully bears the
burden of the oh-so-fragile American Political System on her shoulders.
The mammy characterization has always had the goal of redeeming the
relationship between black women and the white people whom they serve,
particularly in the slave economy. Post-slavery, the mammy image has
been repackaged time and time again in order to imbed itself within an
ever shifting culture. Pope is one of the latest manifestations of this
characterization. Similar to how the mammy of slavery was normally
portrayed as neat, clean, and happy to serve and maintain the
inner-workings of the massah’s house; Olivia Pope is neat, clean, and
well-dressed; she understands the inner-workings of massah’s house — The
White House, and tirelessly works behind the scenes to ensure the house
continues to function as expected. Furthermore, just as the mammy
stereotype would have us believe, Pope is happy with her life of service
to the good white folks running the country.
But she’s not always
all smiles as we’d expect a typical mammy to be. Pope just as quickly
puts her hands on her hips, hardens her facial features, and roles her
neck ever-so-slightly letting us know that she won’t take anything lying
down. Just like the Sapphire representation, Pope is up for a fight.
But to only portray Pope as a political mammy with a hint of Sapphire
would be too obvious to viewers and would make her character even more
noticeably flat. So, the show utilizes the ingredients of sex and
violation masked as a romance to make her character seem a bit more
[Enter Jezebel stage left.]
When Pope is not
gleefully maintaining the house or being overbearing, thus undesirable,
she’s in the back shed with massah — the Oval Office — Fitz where we
realize she’s actually quite desirable (see Season 1 Episode 1).
President Fitzgerald Grant can’t keep his hands off of her. He
continuously expresses his incalculable love for her, but can only seem
to express this “love” by forcefully grabbing her and feeling her up
whenever he gets the chance. In the very first episode he forces himself
on her while she attempts to decline his advances. But because of our
conditioning, we see Pope as a Jezebel: she really wants it, we think.
So, we accept the violation and believe there’s nothing wrong with
Fitz’s unwelcomed advances; apparently “no” really doesn’t mean “no” in
this case. The problem is, sexual intrigue and force do not equal love.
We have seen no actions that support Fitz’s claim to love Olivia; but we
do have plenty that suggest she is the object of his sexual desire.
must acknowledge that Rhimes has seemingly attempted to address these
race and gender concerns in Season 2. The most clear ‘race’ conversation
occurs in Season 2 Episode 8,
when Olivia tells Fitz she’s starting to feel a little “Thomas
Jefferson, Sally Hemings” about their relationship. Initially this seems
like a point where the plot may turn and Pope may move on from the
constant violation. Shortly thereafter, however, Fitz and Olivia meet in
a garden where he accuses her of playing the race card because she
knows he has a role to play as the leader of the free world. In a fit of
rage he yells at her saying, “There’s no Sally or Thomas here! You’re
nobody’s victim, Liv. I belong to you; we’re in this together!” And
before Olivia can rebut he storms off. Fitz gets the final say in how
their relationship is to be defined. But no matter what Fitz may claim
or how romantic the storyline seems, the script is all too familiar, and
we already know how the story ends. And the moral of the story, you
ask? Black female flesh = object to be desired sexually; white female
flesh = desirable/acceptable in every other way.
second explicit conversation about ‘race’ occurs (briefly) in Season 2
Episode 12. Fitz, having recently cuddled with death, is now ready to
divorce Mellie and move on with life – presumably with Olivia by his
side. Cyrus quickly reminds Fitz, however, that Mellie, his wife, is
pregnant. What’s more, he tells him “Now Liv is a lovely, smart woman – I
can’t get enough of her – but she’s not exactly a hue that most of your Republican constituents would be happy about.”
of these ‘race’ conversations merely graze the surface of the complex
race and gender concerns at play. Neither conversation seems to be an
opportunity for transformation. Additionally, neither conversation seems
to take seriously the web of representational dominance that Pope’s
character is caught in. Both conversations function as tools to make the
characters and viewers continue accepting the status quo. In an almost
undetectable fashion, Rhimes highlights the problematic race/gender
concerns at play, only to dismiss them and make them appear not to
matter as much – at least not in her stories.
In spite of the
crafty stereotype switching that occurs on a weekly basis, the character
of Olivia Pope is the ultimate amalgamation of three of the dominant
media narratives about black women. She seamlessly switches between each
in ways that would lead us to believe she transcends them. In this
way, Scandal very subtly tricks us into celebrating these images as opposed to being critical of them and demanding better.
all things considered, can we honestly suggest that Olivia Pope is the
protagonist of this drama? The “great white (male) hope” narrative she
is being forced into just doesn’t seem to fit her properly. Furthermore,
the played out representations of black women that her character relies
on for substance suggest that she is not truly the center of this
drama, but merely ornamenting someone else’s story.
[Enter imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy stage right.]
Olivia Pope is actually a supporting actress in Scandal.
The American Political System takes center stage and sets the tone of
every episode. It is quite easy to miss if one isn’t looking for it.
Because the show wants us to believe that Kerry Washington’s character
is the protagonist – the great black female hope – the true protagonist
cannot be embodied as a white man as it normally would. So instead the
American Political System – with its foundation of imperialism and white
patriarchal reasoning – is very subtly casted as the invisible
While we would normally rely on the storyline of a white man named Jack [i.e., Jack Bauer (24), Jack Shephard (Lost)]
to orchestrate the proceedings of a weeknight television drama, we must
rely on the ebbs and flows of the American Political System to
coordinate the plot in Scandal. Every episode centers on something that threatens to crack its foundation. In the same way that characters in 24 mindlessly respond to the intuition and violent interrogation techniques of Jack Bauer to save the country, the characters in Scandal
also mindlessly respond to the ever-cracking foundation of the American
Political System in order to do the same. Their ultimate goal? To make
sure that the cracking foundation remains unnoticed, or at the very
least accepted as okay/natural, by the general public.
plays their role in the process. Olivia Pope leads the other characters
in this role playing by example; playing not only the one role that the
system demands of her, but three of them. The only way Pope is empowered
and seemingly in control is through service to the system that demands
her powerlessness and capitulation. Ultimately, Scandal is not
concerned with the life of Olivia Pope or portraying a black woman in a
new way in spite of our celebrations of the show. It is concerned with
the fragile foundation of the American Political System. It’s goal is to
subtly train us in the ways of imperialist white supremacist capitalist
patriarchy and teach us that playing our roles is the only way to truly
succeed and be happy within its confines. The show merely rearranges
the elements of our world to make them more bearable and reassure us
that political mammies like Pope are out there tirelessly fighting to
maintain the system we so greatly desire to uphold.
*Term coined by bell hooks
bell hooks. Writing Beyond Race.
James Baldwin. “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Personal Notes.” The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings.