Warning: Recent spoilers from Scandal included.
I am a devout fan of Shonda Rhimes’ latest hit drama, Scandal, and have been involved in many debates surrounding Kerry Washington’s role as Olivia Pope. As the first African American woman to play lead on a primetime television show since 1974, many believe that her character further perpetuates stereotypes about Black women and is, therefore, invalid. Arguments that Pope’s character is demeaning or responsible for the comprehensive representation of all Black women, however, are deeply flawed and unrealistically demanding.
The many cases that I have heard against Olivia Pope’s character reference the fact that she is involved in an affair with U.S. President Fitzgerald Grant (played by Tony Goldwyn). Although their affair recently ended in the second season, there is a possibility that they will eventually get back together, presuming that the President is still alive. Regardless of whether or not their love story will continue, Olivia’s affair does not at all jeopardize her validity as a progressive African American character.
Olivia Pope is an independent, dangerously effective, professional “fixer.” Everybody who is somebody in Washington D.C., and sometimes elsewhere, comes to her to make their crises disappear. At the start of the first season it was hard to determine what was wrong with her. Viewers were soon exposed to her vulnerability as the President’s extramarital love interest and the instability of her “gut.” Throughout the show, it is made clear that she was more than a typical mistress. While leading Fitz through a successful presidential campaign, they fell in love despite his prominence, her secret agendas and his marriage.
While I certainly don’t condone infidelity, especially within the context of marriage, Olivia’s complex relationship with the President is simply a part of her character flaw. Like all television characters, she is not immune to flaws and vulnerability. The fact that she is African American should not exempt her from this fundamental element of character development. As racially conscious critics and observers, it is imperative not to demand more or less of a character simply based on their ethnicity. While it is crucial to consider the implications of certain portrayals of underrepresented minorities, it is unrealistic to demand that every minority character be perfect.
In reducing Olivia’s character to the common hypersexual image of Black women, critics are choosing to ignore all that she has to offer. Not only is her character multi-dimensional, but even in the intimate scenes featuring her and Fitz, she is depicted as any other woman would be in the same situation. It is not uncommon for both male and female drama leads to have some sort of love story subplot. In fact, love stories and relationships often drive entire shows. As a Black woman, Olivia’s love life is treated no different than that of any other lead female character, as it should be. The fact that her race is never referenced on screen also plays a significant role in her deviation from the stereotypical Black character.
Teresa Graves, the last African American woman to a play lead role in a drama, played a “sexy and sassy black undercover cop” derived from the then popular blaxploitation films (IMDB). With, “you’re under arrest, sugah!” as her catchphrase, she was nothing like the sophisticated character that is Olivia Pope. Ironically, Get Christie Love, the aforementioned TV show, and Scandal are products of the ABC Network.
Unlike Graves’ historic role, Kerry Washington’s role in Scandal is not in the least centered around her life as a Black woman. While some viewers and critics will continue to critique her with heightened scrutiny, it is important not to seek redemption in every character that depicts an underrepresented or misrepresented demographic. Unfortunately, Olivia Pope is not able to fix everyone’s racial complexes. She is too busy making good, progressive television.