A Scandal Roundtable Discussion On “Olivia Pope and the Scandal of Representation”

Last week, Scandal roundtabler Jordan St. John brought attention to an Feminist Wire article, “Olivia Pope and the Scandal of Representation” by Brandon Maxwell. We thought it relevant to hold a special roundtable about it, in addition to this week’s episodic roundtable.

I advise that you take a read of the article on Feminist Wire to form your own opinions too–and be sure to share them in the comments.

Jordan St. John pretty much takes the helm on this, but T.F. Charlton and Johnathan Fields also took some time out of their week to share their cogent analyses.

Jordan: I disagree with the author’s perception that the characters in Scandal fight to “preserve the system at all costs” with the “system” being a “white male patriarchal world.” I also take issue with the idea that they must play the role that is “demanded of them” to thrive. Demanded of them by whom? If there is anything that Scandal shows, it is that pretty much everyone is looking out for their own interests and their own power. Olivia is looking out for her business, her clients, and her relationships. She does nothing selflessly.

Johnathan: While I don’t 100% agree with the author’s stance, I can certainly see how the characters fight to “preserve the system,” though I’m not sure “at all costs.” I think some of the characters can be seeing doing risk analysis. I’m interested in the idea that Olivia doesn’t act selflessly. While many of her motives can be interpreted as selfish–particularly as they relate to her protecting the rigging scandal–I think Olivia acts selflessly in many of the scenarios we’ve caught her in, particularly in protecting people from their world of mistakes.

T.F.: I think Maxwell is half right here. It is true that Fitz is a central figure for many of the characters on the show. This is mainly because he’s the president–and his whiteness and maleness are certainly relevant to his position. But Maxwell really misses the boat in arguing that the story being told here is one of Olivia saving white capitalist patriarchy. So much of the dysfunction in this “team” comes from everyone being so heavily invested behind in Fitz’s success. Fitz is the public face of power that Olivia, Cyrus, and Mellie can’t be for various reasons. He’s the focal point of this deeply warped quasi-family–and they’re so messed up precisely because of their obsession with power. So I don’t see Olivia as being a prop to white patriarchy at all–if anything, she and most of the characters on the show are a cautionary tale.

Jordan: To say they are fighting to preserve the American Political System feels simplistic. They are fighting to preserve the illusion of the American Political System as justification for their own power. The show is very clear that no one–not Liv, Fitz, Mellie, or Cyrus are true believers in the purity of the American Political Process. If they were, they would have never fixed the election, and Fitz, when he heard about the fixed election, would have stepped down.

I also took offense at the phrase “the flesh of a black woman appears at the center of this drama.” Actress Kerry Washington/Olivia Pope is at the center of the drama, not just her flesh. We hear Olivia’s thoughts, turmoil, and perspective; we don’t just see her body. To me the use of the word “flesh” conjures up images of a body being used, of skin that is on display, and it objectifies her instead of fully recognizing her role and all she brings to the show.

Johnathan: I understood it to mean that audiences become distracted from the prevailing “great white hope” narrative that undermines the performance because we see Washington/Pope’s skin color. This is one of the points I think the argument drops off. At what point do we connect the identity of the character to the tropes, if at all? Can a black female character be chalked up to fulfilling the role of “great white hope”? Or could it be argued that Washington, as an actress, or Pope, as the character, participates in a system that fancies the protection of white men?

Jordan: The author also makes the statement that “Pope is the one allowed to save the day alone” and then quickly adds “or in her case with a team of gladiators.” Let’s take that statement apart. Pope is “allowed?” Who is doing the allowing? Who is this person saying what Olivia Pope will or won’t do other than Olivia Pope? I have watched every episode and never seen this person. On the show, after Olivia became uncomfortable with the direction that her relationship with Fitz was taking, she left the White House on her own terms, opened her own firm under her name, and decided to become a political fixer. Pope chooses to save the day for payment and judging by her clothes, offices, and the resources she has at her disposal, a lot of payment. She may, at times, flirt with the greater good but being selfless doesn’t pay for the Prada purses she favors.

As for her “team of gladiators.” I find the author’s dismissive attitude towards what they do for Olivia extremely interesting. It is Olivia’s name on the door (as she is fond of reminding people), but they are the selfless ones who make things happen. Harrison, Abby, Huck, and Quinn put their devotion to Olivia above all else. They offer her sideline wisdom–and sometimes question her judgment–but they destroy the lives of lovers and friends, clean up murder scenes, torture people, lie, cheat, and steal all in service of whatever Olivia asks them to do. Depicting that kind of blind faith in an African American female character is extremely rare–and I would say a revolutionary television choice.

Image via ABC.com.
Image via ABC.com.

Jordan: To call Olivia Pope a Magical Negro is an extreme trivialization of the cunning and intelligence attributed to the character. As mentioned, Olivia is not selflessly helping people: she is helping people (of all shades, we should note, as long as they have the money/prominence to garner her services) for business, and she is not doing it magically but with a deep insight into the way power and perception work. Olivia isn’t doing anything with magic potions and mama’s family herbs; she’s getting it done though her political brilliance and calculated manipulation. Let’s not dismiss her capability as mysticism.

Moving on…saying that you don’t know that much about a character’s backstory and that they are a flat character are very different things. In Sex and the City, we never see the women’s parents and certainly, less than two seasons in, we didn’t know a ton, if anything, about their lives before we met them on the show. They weren’t flat. The creators simply chose to focus on a particular aspect of their life (their romantic relationships). I will agree that, at the moment, Harrison is pretty flat. He is slavishly devoted to Liv, and I know she saved him from a lifetime of mid-level drudgery, but I would imagine they are even by now. There is no talk about what he finds fulfilling about this blind devotion, what he was sees for his future, and a full accounting of his past other than the transgression that caused his trouble with the law. From comments he’s made, I assume he isn’t in a relationship, but I have no idea. He needs some fleshing out for sure, but he’s part of the supporting cast of a show in its second season. I will give Rhimes a little time. Same thing with Abby–she was in a marriage and was smacked around. She seems the most conflicted about following Olivia blindly. Also, she picks locks and from time to time and carries on with David Rosen. Where is her family? Why is she OK breaking the law? All of these things need to be answered, but part of the reason I watch the show is because I want to find out. I would say one of the people we know the most about is Huck, another character of color: we have a sense of his story, his struggle, and his motivations. If we are putting characters of color into boxes, where does he fit in?

I will not concede that Olivia is flat. She is not a character who is brought in to give exposition or assistance to other characters. A flat character is one that the creator doesn’t care enough about to flesh out. They exist to support the main character and represent an idea rather than a full person. We spend time with Olivia at home, in her office, as she’s walking, talking, crying, thinking by herself, being with one man or another man. Part of Olivia Pope is the hype of Olivia Pope, both to the audience and to other characters. Olivia knows how to make an entrance; she shows us the side of her she wants us to see. Part of what I came to like about Edison’s character was that he saw her differently. I loved when he talked about seeing her do her hair. It reminded me that we, the audience, have never seen Olivia truly unkempt: hair half-straightened and half-not, makeup smudged. Even when Olivia took to her bed depressed, she did it fabulously. Liv is at the center of the story, but she is a nuanced and enigmatic character. We should not perceive Rhimes’s measured doling out of information about her central character as a negative.

As for the author’s assertion that we know a lot about Fitz, I would day that is false. Fitz is a father, but we never see his children and certainly don’t see him interacting with them. He is the President of the United States, but we rarely see him doing anything other than looking thoughtful at meetings and showing up at photo ops. The audience has no idea what his policies are and if the country is doing well under his guidance. He is a husband but, from the first moment we meet him, he is at odds with his wife. Given that he says Mellie has always been pretty much the same person, we don’t get any indication of how he and Mellie ever had a relationship strong or happy enough to decide to get married. Again, I am fine with not having that information at this time, but the example points out that there is a lot we don’t know about all of the characters. That doesn’t make them flat.

Johnathan: In Kanye fashion, “Jordan, I’m gonna let y’all finish” but Diahann Carroll was the first Black actress (of all time) in a primetime television series. Maxwell brings up Theresa Graves as Christie Love and Olivia Pope have plenty in common, but I’ve seen very little media coverage about the overall spectrum of leading roles for Black women on television. And as Jordan’s talking about revolutionary television choices, can we acknowledge the fact that Kerry Washington is the third Black woman to have a leading role on a primetime television show in the history of television? Does it mean we ignore whatever canon the show feeds? No. Does it mean we don’t examine it critically? No. But one scandalous component of this piece is its inability to step out of a zero-sum game.

Jordan: The characterization of Olivia as a “political mammy with a hint of sapphire” who “faithfully bears the burdens of the oh-so-fragile American Policial System” is deeply troubling. As mentioned before, Olivia talks a good game about the values of the constitution and the political system, but she and everyone around her abandons those concerns (by lying to congress, lying to the press, obstructing the police, keeping information from the American people, etc.) when they don’t fall in line with their personal interests or ambitions. Is the author forgetting that when it suited her, Olivia left the White House and prepared to expose the president’s mistress to the world, telling the woman she would gladly rip the Fitz’s presidency apart for her sake?

Olivia is trying to further her career and her own power, and she is doing it within a system run by a white man but, according to that logic, just about anyone working could be seen the same way. Is the author saying that any African American woman who works inside a white-run business should be subjected to the title of mammy and have the work she does to better herself and her position diminished? Also, is the author saying that any black woman who dares to raise her voice, show some attitude, and speak her mind should be slapped with the title of Sapphire?

Jordan: Ummm…Olivia in the “back shed with massah…” What?

I will be the first to admit that the depictions of Liv and Fitz often play on the “no means yes” scale–and Fitz does take far too many liberties with grabbing Liz whenever he feels like it–but we the audience think Pope is okay with that treatment not because of our conditioning but because of Pope’s actions.

She says no, and then she says yes. She tells him to stop calling but then answers his calls. She says she doesn’t want to be with him, but then she waits for him. Olivia is a flawed woman, and Fitz has some possession and aggression issues (as well as one hell of a mean streak) but ,problematic as her “no means yes” portrayal is, it is clear that Olivia is ultimately saying yes when she has the power and the option to say no. In that point, I did agree with Fitz. She did play the race card on the Sally Hemmings call out.

I don’t know about nobody being a victim, but you cannot truly compare the interactions between two free and consenting adults and that of a master and a slave. To me, to do so minimizes the atrocities and horrors enslaved men and women had to deal with. Yes, he’s a president, and she’s a black woman who is sleeping with him, but that’s about it. Liv is not owned by Fitz: he cannot force her to have sex with him with impunity and sell her or her relatives if she displeases him. Liv can walk away from their relationship at any time or go to the media and end his career. She–a free, educated, independent woman of means–is not a slave.

Image via ABC.com
Image via ABC.com

Jordan: My last point: saying the American Political System is at the center of every episode is like saying Seattle Grace and medicine is at the center of Grey’s Anatomy. Both are shows that are very grounded in a location and particular professional world, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a main character. Also, have we forgotten about the Season One episodes where main storylines revolved around a millionaire’s son and rape (“Hell Hath No Fury”), who was to blame for the downing of a flight (“Crash and Burn”), and the kidnapping of a dictator’s son (“Enemy of the State”). In those eps, political intrigue was secondary and the thing tying the stories together was protagonist Olivia Pope.

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  • NeoGriot

    I have to say that I’m really baffled that the general position of the Racialicious user comments and the contributing commentators is one of defending this show. I agree with many of the points Brandon Maxwell presented in his article, and these issues are part of the reason I decided to stop watching “Scandal” after last week’s episode.

    First of all, I just find the show tedious now. Every character is despicable. It’s really hard to stay interested in a show where all of the main characters are awful, corrupt people. The fact that we are supposed to sympathize with Olivia (the protagonist), shows just how coercive this show really is while maintaining the illusion of Olivia Pope as being a progressive representation. Olivia is able to shamelessly assume her role as the accomplice adulterer, even in the very face of the First Lady, and march herself right across all boundaries of public access because she agrees to aide in institutional injustice, corruption, and terror by cleaning up after the messes of powerful white people (the argument in the Roundtable says he “fixes” for all races, but someone please give me examples of this from the show other than the dictator and his family storyline.) and, LITERALLY, wiping the blood off their hands. Why does she do this? So she can have her nice apartment, hire the finest hands to perfectly straighten her hair, and get penetrated in secret (and uncomfortable) places by the most powerful white penis in the world.

    I can’t believe anyone can watch the onscreen drama unfold between Olivia and Fitz and honestly feel that that is a depiction of two people in love. That is NOT love. We have never been shown or told why these two people love each other, only witnessed countless clandestine and semi-violent sexual encounters. It appalls me that Jordan can defend these acts of “love” by saying that it’s clear to the audience that Olivia means “yes” even when she says “no.” It’s really disturbing to see that this show can place viewers in a situation of sympathizing with a common excuse that sexual offenders use to justify their deeds. I’m sorry, no means NO. People keep talking about Olivia’s agency in her career and in her relationship with Fitz. Those people, however, underestimate the power that Fitz (the white male president) has in the relationship. It is not as simple as Olivia choosing to end the relationship and expose Fitz if she wants to. To expose him, would also mean exposing herself. His destruction (both professionally and personally) also means her destruction, and if we are in agreement that Olivia’s choices are mostly in her own self-interests, then it becomes clear that her power as it relates to Fitz is very limited. We could then make the argument that both characters are bound by the knowledge of their mutually assured destruction which serves, at least in part, to perpetuate their aggressive sexual passion for each other. But let’s not delude ourselves that this is love we are witnessing.

    I could spend a while talking about the development (or lack thereof) of each character, but when it comes down to it, the most problematic issue with “Scandal” lies in its central character. Olivia’s job as the “fixer” basically makes her yet another image of the black woman as the maid-servant. Because she is the protagonist, we as the audience are manipulated into a sympathetic relationship with her. Hers is the side we take, hers is the journey we go along with. That being said, I would argue (alluding to the quote from James Baldwin used in Maxwell’s article) that Olivia (a.k.a. Shonda Rhimes) serves to give reassurance to the beneficiaries of the status quo by offering a regressive vision of a black female servant who values the DESIRE of whiteness (Fitz) over the LOVE of blackness (Edison). She also reinforces the promise to black people (and all POC) that if they just go along with the plan they will be rewarded with their share of the spoils, and be allowed to hang out with the good ‘ol boys.

    • cornellwestonzombies

      Same! I could never really get into Scandal for all those reasons: “She also reinforces the promise to black people (and all POC) that if they just go along with the plan they will be rewarded with their share of the spoils, and be allowed to hang out with the good ‘ol boys.” True.

      I love y’all at racialicious and I love your coverage of just about everything else… but I can’t get behind the reviews of Scandal and Walking Dead. The Walking Dead has proven itself to be an irredeemably white supremacist fantasy, whose black characters are driven by servility, deference, and undue loyalty to the white characters. I didn’t watch enough of Scandal to know for sure, but those were the same vibes I was getting. The analysis by Maxwell pretty much confirmed my suspicions.

      Any way, not trying to be a hater! Like I said, I love y’all. I just wholeheartedly disagree with the reviews and subsequent comments about these two tv shows.

  • kim

    I just wanted to say I agreed with a lot of the points made in this article. The only issue I have is that we have seen fitz’s policies. In the first season, some senator died and then they ended up passing some version of the dream act, then in 2.08 they talk about that program for kids going to college if the do service work. It seems as if Fitz is supposed to be a moderate Republican, a John huntsman type.

  • Foxessa

    By and large this viewer falls in agreement with the views herein (on?) expressed. These are among the first to come to mind:

    Jordan: To say they are fighting to preserve the American Political System feels simplistic. They are fighting to preserve the illusion of the American Political System as justification for their own power. The show is very clear that no one–not Liv, Fitz, Mellie, or Cyrus are true believers in the purity of the American Political Process. If they were, they would have never fixed the election, and Fitz, when he heard about the fixed election, would have stepped down.

    Jordan: To call Olivia Pope a Magical Negro is an extreme trivialization of the cunning and intelligence attributed to the character. As mentioned, Olivia is not selflessly helping people: she is helping people (of all shades, we should note, as long as they have the money/prominence to garner her services) for business, and she is not doing it magically but with a deep insight into the way power and perception work. Olivia isn’t doing anything with magic potions and mama’s family herbs; she’s getting it done though her political brilliance and calculated manipulation. Let’s not dismiss her capability as mysticism.

    This also from thedoctorlane blog:

    The show constantly makes reference to Pope and Associates “fixing” things that are “broken,” but the truth of the matter, and what is in the subtext at all times, is that everything is broken beyond repair. They are simply managing the fallout of a rigged Presidential election.

    As others of you here also bring up, and this is very important in long arc television dramas: we are not going to know everything about everybody right away. It takes time — and these reveals over lengthy viewing periods are the pleasures that keep us there over lengthy viewing periods. And sometimes come back to re-watch several times to see in retrospect how it was done — i.e. good writing.

    At this point we don’t know how the show will ultimately fall out. I may quit after this season. But so far my curiosity is still strong. Among the smaller constant queries is why don’t we know the name of Mellie and Fitz’s kids? not even America’s Baby?

    One more thing. It’s difficult not to notice that the lengthy critique of Olivia and who she is, as a black woman, comes from a man. Yet many men of color felt it was justified and very cool that Jamie Foxx and the QT came up with a bloody travesty of how history was (not!) in 1858 deep south U.S. — right down to bounty hunters, which really, at that time, before the Civil War were hunters of escaped slaves. Whereas, as here Jordon and others, and doctorlane point out the show is about how irretrieveably broken our whole system is — and if we don’t know those characters like Cyrus and Mellie and Fitz himself know they’re blowharding about what a great system it is, and how great this nation is, and how great a president Fitz is — who we have seen do NOTHING but order a failed SEAL raid — well then, we’re not old enough to be watching this series! :)

    This is on the feminist wire and what we see mostly — with some cogent and interesting thoughts mixed in — is a strong description of how this actress, and this character, and this creator of both show and character have failed women of color in the entertainment business. But I just can’t see it that way. Certainly not at this point, at least. And I for one, am a damned tough audience to get coming back.

    • kim

      The new baby’s name is Teddy and they’re other kids are jerry and karen, they are referenced in the pilot.

  • Keisha

    Basically hit all the points that I thought about after reading that article. The most troubling for me was his characterization of Pope as the “mammy/sapphire/Jezebel” trope. For me, Olivia Pope has the agency, as you all well stated, to do what she wants. In terms of the mammy trope, Maxwell states: “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;”. To refute this, there has definitely been times when we see Olivia’s vulnerable side, albeit she still looks fabulous but she has unraveled quite a bit. This is apparent in the last couple of episodes. She also doesn’t “role her neck with her hands on her hips” unless its warranted. To say that black women can never do that on prime time is ridiculous. Finally, with the Jezebel trope, we see from the very beginning that this was a decision by both parties (and later includes Mellie and Cyrus) to be in this “relationship”. Once again, Olivia has the agency to “want” this “relationship”. Maxwell states, “Black female flesh = object to be desired sexually; white female flesh = desirable/acceptable in every other way.” I never thought of Olivia in that trope ( maybe its just me). As much of a jerk that Fitz is, I always felt that he truly loved Olivia and many of the his inner circle knew about it because he didn’t hide it from them (Cyrus, Mellie, his body guards). We end up guiltily rooting for the two of them even though he is actually cheating on his wife. It’s not until the last three or four episodes where I, personally, started to rethink Olitz.
    Anyway thanks for articulating what I was thinking when I read that article.