Every Thursday night, my friends and I gather to watch ABC’s “Scandal” and it never fails to keep us guessing about what will happen next. But the show does more than keep its audience on the edge of its seats for entertainment purposes: Every episode prompts viewers to analyze both its thrill factor and writer Shonda Rhimes’political correctness in her portrayal of African Americans — particularly women.
“Scandal” points toward a new era in network television. Finally, African-American women are being depicted in positions of power. Indeed, the show, which centers around Olivia Pope, a brilliant political consultant, is a positive stray from culture-tainting reality television like “Love and Hip-Hop.” A dignified and poised professional who shies from some of the stereotypes people have of black women is what many once craved on television. However, Olivia’s sinful flaw — her affair with the President — is the center of criticism and continues to raise questions about the show’s racial representation.
Views about her character are varied and at times extremist. As a contributor to “The Feminist Wire,” Brandon Maxwell explained his views in “Olivia Pope and the Scandal of Representation,” arguing, “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.”
Obviously, her character is flawed: Good acting portrays characters as imperfect human beings. When Star Jones asked Rhimes on Twitter why Olivia chooses to love a married, unethical and immoral man and ignore the love of an available and positive black character, Rhimes responded, “Because this show is not a fairy tale and Olivia is not a role model.”
Olivia Pope was not created to be an idol for little girls. She was not meant to symbolize all African-American women in the same way the stars of “Love and Hip Hop” were not. The question is not what Olivia Pope’s character does but why a character’s actions take precedence over Kerry Washington’s role as the star.
While the desire for fair portrayal is completely understandable, it seems that many, like Jones, want the unrealistic from Olivia. They seem to want her to be the safe role model living the cookie-cutter lifestyle by day and hunting crime by night.
The logic behind this is clear: People watch television and create generalizations about certain groups of people. Because people naturally stereotype based on what they see, it is important that they see Olivia as being perfect; that would then be the image non-African American viewers have of African-Americans. As Melissa Harris Perry notes in her book “Sister Citizen,” “Loss of social standing is an ever-present threat for individuals whose social acceptance is based on behavioral traits rather than unconditional human value.” And the actions of one are still perceived as being the actions of many.
Television characters are never meant to be role models. But because this show is widely considered to be barrier-breaking and pioneering, it is reasonable for many to expect perfect representations. But if Olivia were perfect and had “Scandal” been portrayed as a fairytale, the show would have faced a very different fate. Nonetheless, this perceived obligation still affects the show: While it tackles themes like infidelity and interracial relationships, both performers and writers unfortunately feel the necessity to treat the images they convey all too delicately.