A Reply to “Olivia Pope and the Scandal of Representation” by Brandon Maxwell

A good friend of mine brought to my attention an interesting piece by Brandon Maxwell published by  the Feminist Wire last week considering the cultural politics of Kerry Washington’s portrayal of Olivia Pope on the hit drama Scandal.   I thought I might offer a short response to Maxwell, because while it was a Black feminist reading, there seems to be something more at stake than his particular application can offer.  I want to focus my attention on a point that Maxwell’s critique hinges upon and then offer some questions that might be more interesting.

Maxwell constructs an argument around the idea that Olivia Pope is portrayed as “the great white hope,” but is unable to adequately fill those shoes specifically because of her Black female body. This is exactly the kind of argument which causes old-school, 20th century black feminist critique of controlling images to stall.

First of all (and I say this with index finger up and neck rolling), Olivia Pope does not fit the “great white hope” narrative, nor does she fit into (presumably) his clothing because the character is loosely based off an actual African American woman, Judy Smith, doing “crisis management” work in D.C.  Smith is not the “great white hope,” because she’s not a white guy and she’s not “fixing” crises, she’s “managing” crises.  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.  Pope’s Associates/Gladiators do whatever illegal things they need to do in order to protect her because they wish to pay back the debt that they incurred from her on account of her saving each of their “broken”  lives.

I really thought Maxwell had something there when he named the true protagonist of Scandal, the American Political System.  This is perhaps the most compelling argument he makes, however, he doesn’t stick with it.  Perhaps because placing the American Political System at the heart of the argument somewhat undoes his framework of Olivia as failed “great white hope.” Not only because the character David Rosen, the Assistant U.S. Attorney, is the show’s actual (failing) “great white hope,” but because in the face of the American Political System a Black female body is always suspected of being: “a criminal, a whore, an idiot, and a liar” (see Season 2, Episode 11) and sometimes all of them.

I was excited to see Kerry Washington, a fellow GW alum, a sister, staring in a Primetime television show, but I wasn’t convinced it was going to be anything other than what Maxwell has pointed out and I was certain it was going to be anything different for our decade what Julia did in the late 1960s.  Let’s be clear here: the world didn’t change when Julia (1968-71) staring Diahann Carroll as a single mother aired. And it didn’t get any better when Get Christy Love! aired either.  The American Political System, the real one and the fictitious one in Scandal, is much more resilient than that.  Pop cultural representations are not the places where our ideas about life and the systems we live in are disrupted.  Maxwell quotes a great piece by Baldwin who reflects on this very idea.

“These movies are designed not to trouble, but to reassure; they do not reflect reality, they merely rearrange its elements into something we can bear. They also weaken our ability to deal with the world as it is, ourselves as we are” (Baldwin, Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Personal Notes, pg. 4).

Maxwell’s black feminist reading is absolutely on point, but at the end of it, you’re left with the question: “So what? I already knew that.”    But it was this scene… This one right here!!?!!?  That made me want to ask other questions about what was going on.

After seeing Olivia turn into putty in the hands of Fitz, I thought to myself, “Oh snap! That was kinda hot.”  Now, Maxwell reads Fitz and Olivia’s relationship as one where Fitz gets to do with her what he pleases, physically dominating her, and she just lays back and lets him take it, because he’s a man and that’s what men do and that’s how women, especially one’s of her “hue,” do in the face of men with that much power.  What kind of question would it be to ask “What kinds of imbalances of power are erotic? And for whom?”  While it is well worth noting that Scandal‘s “progressive” element: an interracial, tumultuous love affair between a lawyer and the “Leader of the Free World,” positions the black woman as “a criminal, a whore, an idiot, and a liar,” what  would it mean to ask “Why does Olivia Pope like being in that position… lying on her back, taking it from Fitz” (see Season 2, Episode 13 where she tells Edison that she wants a hard, complicated, painful love)?  [In my non-academic voice: Is that some S&M -ish!?!?]  What makes us all like seeing her in that position?  [Is this some Fifty Shades of Grey -ish??!]  Is it because we are blinded by our desire to want Kerry Washington’s character to change the world so we turn our televisions every Thursday night because we just want to see a sister make it?  Or, is it because there are some unresolved subtleties of race, power, abjection, and sexuality embedded in interracial intimacies that are right there, waiting to be explored by some insightful feminist blogger?

I’m willing to ask these questions because while it is easy to write off Scandal, and a dozen other shows, as mass mediated popular culture melodramas which ultimately do nothing for Black women in the culture industry or in real life, it is much more interesting to ask questions that are more in line with contemporary feminist of color and black queer theoretical projects about the issues of race, sexuality, and culture.

If there is a nerdy, academic inside of you, then check out this super short reading list and add some to the list if you feel so inclined.

A Ridiculously Short Reading List

Jagose, Annamarie
2012 Orgasmology

Nash, Jennifer
2008 “Strange Bedfellows: Black Feminism and Anti-Pornography Feminism.” Social Text 97 (2008): 51-76.

Scott, Darieck
2010 Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination

Shimizu, Celine Parreñas
2007 The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene.

P.S. Every instance of a sexual Black female body on television can’t be a call to arms….

2 replies
  1. Tchalla says:

    It seems that the writer is trying to tell us that the relationship between Fitz and Olivia is dysfunctional and maybe even abusive. Edison did not call her a thief a liar a whore and an idiot but everything he DID accuse her of she had actually done! The contempt for Edison by Black women I see all over the internet and the support I see for Fitz is distrubing. She warns her client that stolen moments in hotels and closets is not a relatonship. Fitz is cruel to Olivia and like you stated it seems BW love to see her treated this way. To me like Maxwell said she is a well dressed well spoken mix of a Jezebel Mammy and Sapphire.

  2. The Doctor says:

    @Tchalla – Thanks for your comment. Love the name. One of my favorite comic book characters.

    I don’t disagree that Olivia could be read as a “well dressed” mix of images of controlling images of Black women. However, I am interested in what we can talk about and ask beyond that critique which tends to flatten the conversation and close it off to perhaps things that are equally interesting, like the Black female bodies in the American Political System and Black women’s pleasure.

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