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.
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.
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.