Table For Two: Scandal‘s Brush With History

Spoiler Alert: If you didn’t watch last week’s episode of Scandal, do not read any further.

While Shonda Rhime’s “Scandal” has become a reliable source of Twitter water-cooler talk every Thursday night, last week’s episode especially touched a nerve, after this scene between our protagonist, high-powered problem-solver Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn):

“I’m feeling a little Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson about all this,” Olivia told Fitz, who looked about as stunned as many shows reacted online.

So what to make of this in a broader context? As the season finale approaches Thursday, Guest Contributors T.F. Charlton and Arrianna Conerly Coleman weigh in on this special Roundtable.

Arrianna: I am, admittedly, quite wary of the comparison between Oliva Pope and Sally Hemings — especially given some of the backlash against the New York Times piece about Thomas Jefferson’s cruelty and staunch refusal to abolish slavery. While it is important to examine the power relationships between Olivia Pope and Pres. Fitzgerald Grant, I think the comparison treads dangerous ground, especially as there is a tendency to perpetuate revisionist, ahistorical images of Thomas Jefferson.

I’ve also noticed that there is this tendency to misunderstand what consent is within relationships where there is a power differential. Olivia Pope can consent to her relationship with Fitz; Sally Hemings could not consent to her relationship with Jefferson. In fact, she was 12 when Thomas Jefferson “chose” her, AND she was his “property” (and his wife’s half-sister). By contrast, Olivia Pope is a free woman who has relative autonomy and class/social mobility. To posit a false equivalency between Hemmings and Pope is to ignore the very real questions of consent and agency.

T.F.: I really appreciate Arrianna raising this point. The discussion of Hemings/Jefferson as historical subtext for the show has mainly been between folks with a shared framing and understanding of that history – none of us are coming from the perspective that Jefferson was a great guy or that this was a grand romance. Given that it might be easy to lose sight of how the comparison between Fitz and Jefferson in particular takes on very different meanings depending on the perspective of the viewer. The implications are completely different if you think Jefferson and Hemings were really “in love,” or if you believe as some Jefferson defenders do that he had no sexual contact, coerced or otherwise, with Sally Hemings.

But that also raises a point about Shonda Rhimes explicitly invoking this subtext in this episode: not all viewers will be in on the reference she’s making. It’s an interesting choice to respond to a specific criticism of Fitz and Liv’s relationships knowing that some viewers may not understand why the reference is so racially loaded — why Olivia feels the way she does, and perhaps also why Fitz responds as he does.

Arrianna: Also, the dynamic of Fitz telling Olivia that she was not his Sally Hemings was … interesting. It’ll take more thought for me to unpack that.

T.F.: Yea, it’s not really his call to make, is it? I’m also intrigued that Shonda has Olivia be the one to invoke the Hemings reference. To be honest, her throwing Sally Hemings in Fitz’s face was the first time I found their romance remotely interesting.

Anyway, I’m not sure who we’re supposed to side with in Fitz and Liv’s exchange. Having the heroine of the show raise the issue invites viewers to identify with her to some degree, but I think we’re also meant to see Fitz’s side of things as well — that he’s in this untenable position of having found the love of his life, but being unable to act on it in any honorable way, and apparently also unable to not act on it.

Which personally I think is a load of crap. Sure, he’s in a tough position as president, but there’s very little about Fitz/Liv’s relationship that says “great love” to me. It may very well be that they can’t stay away from each other, but that isn’t necessarily love. More like toxic and codependent.

Again, I really appreciate Arrianna’s point about clearly articulating how the issues of age and ownership separate the Hemings/Jefferson case from Fitz and Liv’s relationship. The Trudz makes a similar point in her reflection on the role of race and history in this episode. I got a lot out of her thoughts on it, especially her reading of the Hemings/Jefferson scenes in light of the scene where Olivia and Fitz are viewing the Constitution.

The juxtaposition of those scenes adds some interesting layers to the episode, and to Olivia and Fitz as a couple. It gives the sense of a relationship that’s heavy with all of this history and meaning, first off by simple virtue of the fact that they’re a black woman and a white man navigating any kind of relationship in America. But that history weighs especially heavy on them given that he’s the president, given that he has power over her, and given that her part in his life is by necessity clandestine and unofficial.

And I think The Trudz makes a really good point that it’s very hard to pinpoint exactly how race and history matter in their relationship, both for viewers and for them. But it’s clear that it has does — it has to — matter in some way. Their dynamic can’t be easily captured by a single historical episode, certainly not by a simplistic analogy of Olivia as a slave; it’s all just sort of swirling around them.

At the same time, though I was initially annoyed by it, I’ve kind of come around to seeing why the Hemings/Jefferson comparison occurs to people — not just because of the race issue and the power and status differential between Fitz and Olivia, but also because of how Fitz treats Olivia. He does treat her like he owns her.

He constantly ignores her boundaries and repeatedly refuses to listen when she tells him no. There have been several scenes in the series – beginning, I think, from the very first time we see them being “romantic” with each other – where Liv has had to push Fitz off her, where she’s told him no and he goes ahead anyway. We saw another scene like this in the most recent episode, with Fitz pushing her on the desk – that felt really uncomfortable and rapey to me. I think we’re supposed to think that Olivia really does want what Fitz wants in these encounters, but rational considerations are keeping her from giving in to her desire … but come on, that’s pretty rapey.

And of course there’s the issue of him having her under surveillance. I mean, he’s basically using his position as President to stalk her.

I was really skeptical of the Hemings/Olivia comparisons some critics made after the first season. I understand those comparisons a lot better now. It clicked for me in the scene where Fitz and Liv are meeting in the woods and he tries to impose himself on her in full view of his Secret Service detail (and again, while she was saying no). To me the message was that he really feels entitled to have her – physically possess her – any time and anywhere he wants.

Fitz’s wife Mellie has the privilege not only of socially sanctioned sex with him, but also of private sex; Fitz never seems to consider this when it comes to Olivia. He’s perfectly comfortable literally exposing her in front of his (white, male) guards. The race and gender dynamics of the scene make it extra disturbing. Of course there’s no reason to think Shonda Rhimes would have written the scene any differently if the race/gender breakdown were different, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s a white man, and an incredibly powerful one at that, who so clearly feels this sense of ownership over a black woman’s body and desires.

  • Foxessa

    O, one more thing — in a lot of affairs, the married man gets so cocky about having more than one woman, he wants his friends to know just what a big swingin’ d*ck he is, and he will expose the mistress to his friends and / or associates in absurdly provocative ways, downright dangerous ways, because he’s so pleased with himself he can’t resist showing off. And in that extra-testosterone high level of risk taking bubble, even thinks everyone is going to be as pleased and impressed with him as he is himself — sometimes even his wife.

    So this behavior of Fitz exposing Olivia to the secret service and others fits that pattern of married men in affairs too. It’s even more exaggerated when the married man is rich and powerful. What he doesn’t understand is that it is exposing himself as the d*ck-b*ast*ard he actually is. Most people find that kind of behavior — not that of having an affair — but deliberately exposing it like that, deeply uncomfortable at best, and will lose respect for the person who is behaving that way.

    That is, if one can believe all the tales of infidelity, whether fictional, romances, sociological studies, anecdotal when you sit around talking with your girlfriends, etc.

    And — I, for one, do not have sympathy for Fitz, and have lost respect for him along the way (yes, I love this show, and I have hopes for how I want things to turn out!) — and I cannot figure out how Olivia could be in such an affair with — a republican! Eeeeeeeuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!

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  • http://twitter.com/ashe_phoenix Independent George

    Very good points in this post. I recently read Once Upon a Secret about a young woman who had a sexual relationship with JFK (she was very clear not to call it an affair), and one of the interesting dynamics about their relationship is how she very rarely refused him. The underlying subtext of her story was you do not refuse the President, no matter how objectionable his conduct may be. I think Scandal may be trying to show this same dynamic in the context of Fitz and Olivia, and the President’s power constantly impinges Olivia’s ability to exercise her consent over the course of their dalliances together. It’s hard to love in that entanglement, let alone feel a sense of independence when your partner can and does abuse power to get closer to you. I think Shonda threw in the Hemings/Jefferson reference as a sloppy way of asking the viewers to evaluate whether or not Olivia can refuse him.

  • http://twitter.com/themiddlespaces Osvaldo Oyola

    Is there a link to info on the backlash against that Jefferson piece from the NYTimes? Google is failing me.

    Thanks.

    • Foxessa

      There’s lots of discussion about this wherever American historians gather, and particularly those who work in the subjects of slavery, the slave trade, the constitution, the Civil War and aftermath of the Civil War. In connection with this article in the Times, which itself was a response to Annette Gordon-Reed’s response on Slate to the excerpt from Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slavesby Henry Wiencek in the Smithsonian Magazine there were several long, deep and interesting discussions on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic Monthly blog. Go to the site and his blog and you can backtrack and find it all easily. Be prepared there are many, many comments, and many of the people who post are historians, whether professionally or by avocation.

      So this discussion is also deeply interesting.

      Among other things, all the language that Olivia and Fitz use in this episode is the same language you find through the ages between the other woman in an affair with a married man — and it doesn’t matter what country, what language, what historical era. A supposedly free woman in an affair with a married man who must keep it secret — she generally will snap at least once — and these are the verbal fireworks that ensue. Though I’d noticed this rhetorical sameness in affairs — and the same is true when the person being cheated on finds out — the rhetoric of the pain and fury are the same too — I’d never thought to connect it to master and slave rhetoric, despite how deep my studies into slavery are. Because — there’s never any doubt in my mind when it comes to slavery that as there is no way to consider any of those relationships without the consideration of coercion, whether overt or implied, even if politely and gently implied.