Olivia Pope & the Scandal of Representation

On April 5, 2012, Shonda Rhimes premiered yet another television drama that would entice millions of viewers 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 (to use a term coined by bell hooks) 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, or 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 several films of the late 1950s, he writes:
“These 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.”

Rhimes’ corpus 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, 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 trades in essentialized representations of Republican Politicians (see characters Sally Fields and Hollis Doyle). However, these glossed-over, fictional portrayals highlight a profound irony of the show. Constituents who 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 to uphold the party tooth and nail.

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 on 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 Pope, the assumed central character of Scandal, is neither white nor male: the flesh of a black woman appears to be at the center of this drama.

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 in 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, Washington discussed the fact that it has been nearly 40 years since a black woman has starred 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.

So 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 viewers pause.

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 actions. 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 flesh is wrapped in “the great white hope” narrative, the restraints placed on black bodily performances in the media are just too strong for that narrative to succeed.

We must acknowledge that Olivia Pope is an amazingly flat character. To the extent that the incessant presence of yelling, sexual antics, conspiracies, cover-ups, etc. keep us glued to the television, they also 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, it 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 have about Pope is magnified. The audience knows about Fitz’s family history and his military career. All we know about Pope is that this black woman committed herself to a Republican Presidential candidate 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 by way of Fitz.

One 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: Pope, Harrison Wright (Columbus Short), and Edison Davis (Norm Lewis).

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 many television shows. 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. The mammy of slavery was normally portrayed as neat, clean, and happy to serve and maintain the inner-workings of the massah’s house. Pope is neat, clean, and well-dressed; she understands the inner workings of massah’s house (that is, 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 complex.

[Enter Jezebel stage left.]

So, 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 protagonist.

While we would normally rely on the storyline of a white man named Jack (i.e., Jack Bauer in 24, Jack Shephard in 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 of that System. The show’s goal is to make sure that the cracking foundation remains unnoticed, or at the very least accepted as okay/natural, by the general public.

Everyone plays their role in the process. Olivia Pope leads the other characters in this role-playing by example. 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, contrary to our celebrations of the show. It is concerned with the fragile foundation of the American Political System. Its 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.

—Brandon Maxwell

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