Thursday, October 24, 2013

How ‘Scandal’lous! Breaking Down Racial and Gender Roles with the character of Olivia Pope

 Buzz is swirling around Shonda Rhimes’ latest TV show, Scandal. It is not hard to realize the artistic qualities Shonda Rhimes illustrates in her latest show Scandal, are ones very similar to her most popular show, Grey’s Anatomy. A show that is placed in an idealistic setting where the gender and racial identities have absolutely no influence in life and women, specifically Olivia Pope, are removed from the domestic sphere and take on a powerful role. A space where it is okay to imagine a world free of discrimination and power imbalances.
Everyone is talking about Scandal, and they should be. Kerry Washington as ‘Olivia Pope’ is the first African American female to be casted as lead role in a network drama in almost 40 years (Vega). Racial representations have always been evident and relevant on television. But with Scandal ratings on the rise along with her personal high ratings, it leads me to question how both racial and gender roles are conveyed within the show.
Are we entering into a world of post-racial television where anyone can be casted for a role regardless of his or her race? Or is Scandal showing us that it is seemingly impossible to separate representations from race? Is Olivia Pope mirroring The Bill Cosby’s “white family in black face” critique as “white woman in black woman’s body”? Olivia Pope embodies everything a successful, powerful ‘white’ woman would. The way she dresses, walks, and talks all lead me to believe that Shonda Rhimes is purposefully presenting Olivia in way that conveys race as irrelevant to the show. Olivia is usually better dressed than the first lady, always put together in expensive blouses, blazers, or dresses.

Olivia never speaks of her racial roots or background and never alludes to the face that she is a successful, powerful, Republican, female African American. I believe that if this were the 1980’s, African American viewers of Scandal might think that it is insulting that she is not more outspoken in her representation of her culture.
That being said, there are instances in the show where race does become an issue. But in what instances they are brought up in is interesting. It is never a main focus or drama of an episode. It is rarely talked about even in the political aspects of the show. Fitz first plays the “race card” when talking about leaving Millie for Olivia. This is a clear contradiction between living in a “fantasy” world where Olivia’s race has never once affected anything (especially politically) in the show. He uses Olivia’s race to threaten his wife Millie into staying quiet about their affair, saying that he will pin her to the public as a racist if she says anything. Using race a threat to someone else is a pretty far cry from formerly making up race to be almost unnoticeable.
Olivia herself pulls the “race card” when Olivia tells Fitz she’s starting to feel a little “Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings” about their relationship (Maxwell). Alluding to a scandal when Thomas Jefferson, the president at the time, allegedly had sex with one of his mixed raced slaves. Olivia is boldly comparing herself to a slave. It seems that race representation is only brought up in the context of a threat or bait in a martial disagreement. A clear double standard is shown when Shonda Rhimes presents to us a world that is “free of discrimination” unless of course Fitz is fighting with his wife or mistress, then it’s okay to bring up inappropriate racial references.

A clear parallel to race representation contradictions in Scandal is this Defiance of Patriarchal Ideology by Olivia Pope, with which of course she reverts back to every other episode. Olivia defiance of Fitz and his power is almost too overdone that it becomes unbelievable. And then when we watch her “give into him” and revert back to the patriarchal ideology, it makes the dramatized defense of him seem fake.

We watch in Scandal as President Fitz continues to fail to express in incalculable love for Olivia Pope. The only way we see him expressing this is through his constant sexual advances, in which Olivia continues to deny until of course, she gives in. There is the constant reaffirmation of this patriarchal struggle between Fitz and Olivia. Fitz constantly restating his power as “The President of the United States” and then there is Olivia who is constantly restating her firm ground against Fitz, in which Fitz “smirks in awe” at his mistress’s conviction that he “swears he would leave his wife for”.

We have seen no real action from Fitz that supports his claim that he loves her. All we have seen is a multitude of sexual encounters that ultimately lead to nothing but the affirmed notion that she is but only an object of his sexual desire. If Fitz really, truly wanted to be with Olivia and claims he would leave the presidency for her….why doesn’t he? Because the patriarchal ideology is real and very present in the show Scandal.  This constant back and fourth struggle between Fitz and Olivia is tiresome for the viewers. Fitz has made it clear his stance of patriarchal power to Olivia through his forced sexual advances, the way he speaks to her, the way he talks about his presidency, and they way he handles himself in the political sphere. 

If Olivia Pope stands for everything that is feminism and the power of women, why does she constantly go back to this man who has yet to prove to her that he does indeed believe they are equals. At this point, if Olivia does have a grounded sense of anti-patriarchalism then it is her job to prove that by once and for all not allowing Fitz to continually treat her as his mistress. Fitz is clearly all talk and Olivia continues to allow him to be. But then this brings up the post feminism issue of women being the cause of their own problems. A post feminism critique of Scandal would be “if you don’t want to take his bull-shit anymore, just leave him- don’t complain and feel sorry for yourself- just take action." Scandal definitely incorporates many ideological issues in the show.  Are we witnessing a patriarchal power struggle between white man and black woman, and if so, is it Olivia’s job as a powerful women to take control of her own life as the post-feminism era might think? Which then circles back to Olivia Pope’s skin color and if it is possible through all of this debate for that to be completely ignored and irrelevant? One thing I know for sure, the dynamic character of Olivia Pope is causing people to talk everywhere.

Works Cited

Maxwell, Brandon. "Olivia Pope and the Scandal of Representation." N.p., 7 Feb. 2013. Web. 15 Oct. 2013.

Vega, Tanzina. "'Scandal' of ABC Is Breaking Barriers." The New York Times. N.p., 16 Jan. 2013. Web. 15 Oct. 2013.

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