I recently started watching a prime time network television show anchored by a smart, ambitious and beautiful Black woman. Her beauty, talent and mainstream appeal make it a landmark program. Almost any woman can relate to and be proud of her, and she’s nowhere near boring. The show is “Julia,” from the 1970s eponymous series, and I’ve been pulling up and viewing old episodes from Netflix and on the Web.
You probably thought I was going to say Olivia Pope, the charismatic, influential, and smartly dressed crisis manager of ABC’s “Scandal,” which wrapped its second season last month.
Alas, no. I’m not a gladiator, nor do I care to be one after witnessing some of the rather cheap and degrading turns of events in Olivia Pope’s life. Not only is she portraying a mistress, but the supposed love of her life is a controlling, self-pitying drunk who downs scotch in his morning showers before pursuing his daily agenda of brooding, stalking her, isolating his close allies and wife, while finding time to murder a Supreme Court justice. Is this the best that a woman like Olivia Pope can do?
Making matters worse is the treatment she receives at the hands of that soulless Cyrus Bean, who is supposed to be a longtime friend and her bodyguard-boyfriend Jake (again, she had no choice in this matter. Fitz called the shots). In one episode Olivia found herself representing a client who had a past extramarital affair with Fitz’s Supreme Court justice nominee to replace the one he killed. (That guy deserves to know how that seat on the court was vacated.) Anyway, they find themselves on opposite teams, professionally, and when Cyrus tries to get Olivia to back down, she says she’s non-partisan. To which he replies ‘Is your vagina non-partisan?’ Excuse me?! Why is it OK for him t be so foul and vulgar to her? A mere two weeks or so after Olivia had no answer to the utterly degrading comment that Fitz made to her in the hallway after an angry closet tryst.
And then at some other point, Jake and Olivia get into some kind of misunderstanding, and he sends her flying across his kitchen floor, knocking her head and landing her in the hospital, unconscious. This is nothing less than abuse, a beat down of a professional Black woman who is taking an unusual share of licks from a string of white men. I know this is for a late evening TV drama, but it’s a bit much! When Fitz tried to make a play to get Olivia back in a recent episode, the last one I watched, and she howled at him to “earn me!” I almost laughed in her face. Why should Fitz go to the trouble of earning her when she’s been slowly giving away her integrity on many occasions, in compromising and belittling situations–for the past two years?? I doubt viewers are going to see it that way, though, especially after a long day’s work in this economy where they would rather not process any of the glaring and obvious symbolism embedded in that show beyond the next Tweet.
I dislike ‘Scandal’ because it centers around a very sick relationship. Extramarital affairs are rarely romantic, epic love stories. ‘Scandal’ tries to justify the affair by making the injured spouse a cold, mercenary ambitious woman, but how will Ms. Rimes deal with Fitz being a mean drunk, his creepy stalking, and the fact that he murdered a Supreme Court justice? Kerry Washington is doing little more than donning designer clothes to rehash the Jezebel stereotype while Ms. Rimes infuses the whole situation with soft porn.
So what is the lead actress to do? Give back her 2012 NAACP Image Award? Oh, n o. That would foil Ms. Rimes’ decision to wait until after the trophies had been handed out to oversee Olivia Pope’s ever more degrading experiences. She’s not Ivy League for nothing! At the risk of sounding trite, I think that if people are going to be offended by the show, then they should just turn it off.
Television shows have a long history of portraying women as mistresses and Jezebels of some kind, and if Black actresses want to make their mark, they’re going to have to take on roles that are complex, and not squeaky clean. I get it. The reality is that Blacks still flinch at story lines around fictional people like Olivia Pope–or in any other super villainous role. Maybe we prefer to see ourselves portrayed like noble characters to a large degree. Not saints, not saviors of the world, but with a recognizable streak of goodness. A character who is complex, but makes sense in some way. Also, older Black professional women still carry memories of being mistaken for service workers and prostitutes as they passed through upscale hotels and department stores, despite wearing their designer suits.
This Olivia Pope makes no sense to me at all. She’s a smart woman, brilliant even, but the relationship cycle is getting old. If people really believe that Olivia Pope is a trailblazing television character, with any landmark importance to racial history in the U.S., then they need to read more. I don’t feel like it’s a landmark program or that Olivia Pope is an important character or that Kerry Washington–in this specific role–has done anything important for anyone. This is entertainment on the cusp of late night TV that takes advantage of its time slot to pedal trash in the name of internal and external conflict. (And yes, I am aware that Ms. Carroll herself praised Ms. Washington in a recent TV interview. We are all allowed our opinions, and I respectfully disagree on that point.)
It’s easy to find noteworthy Black female leads on sitcoms and dramas, if that is important to you as a viewer. Diahann Carol gave us the beautiful and smart single mother Julia and there are others, if you look. When the third “Scandal” season premiers in the fall, I probably won’t replace it with another TV program. I’ll probably spend time doing something productive, or reading and trying to become my own version of noteworthy woman in my tiny sphere.