By Angeli Rasbury
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Lawyer Angeli Rasbury pleads her case for why viewers should question the love choices of the TV show's lead character, Olivia Pope, and the negative messages they reinforce about relationships and sexuality when it comes to race.
Credit: Craig Sjodin/Courtesy of ABC
(WOMENSENEWS)--By the time another black woman is a hit on a network television show, I am almost 50. My friends introduce me to Olivia Pope from the ABC drama "Scandal."
The well-dressed fixer in Washington, D.C., has a lot of fans. Friends had been telling me about the show, but I hadn't tuned in. I was probably watching a game.
Before Pope, I watched Diahann Carroll play a single mother in the 1968 TV series "Julia." Several years later in 1974, Teresa Graves starred as an undercover detective in the TV movie "Get Christie Love." Yet it would take another 20 years to see not one, but four, black women as the stars of a TV show--the '90s hit comedy "Living Single." The group of friends included a lawyer, a magazine editor and publisher, a buyer and an actress.
After that there were only glimpses of black women on network television and none of them were the leads.
After watching several episodes of "Scandal," I wanted to like the popular show created and written by a black woman, Shonda Rhimes. When I finally get to know Pope, played by Kerry Washington, I became conflicted about how she is portrayed.
Here's what I'm learning: Pope has been hired to fix the campaign of Fitzgerald Grant. He becomes president and they begin an affair. He's also a married father.
It's frustrating enough to know that there aren't a lot of black women on network television, but Pope's love-lust (even with Grant's wife's approval) reinforces centuries of images that have raped too many black women of their self-esteem and self-worth. The misperception that haunts some of us is that we're over sexed and we're angry.
But it's not all negative. Pope is intelligent, capable and employs people who may not otherwise get a meaningful and well-paying job. She and her team are "rewarded" with anything they need, including a memory card from a United States attorney's home safe.
Pope is so good I wish I'd had her on my side when I was practicing law with the Legal Aid Society in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y. I represented people accused of crimes that included rape, robbery, attempted murder and drug possession. Some weren't guilty, so Pope and her team might have helped me figure out how to lighten the convictions and sentences imposed on my clients, and my own stress in the process. But my clients weren't the sort of people Pope helps.
Yet, despite Pope's best traits, the show sends the message that black women don't deserve loving and healthy relationships.
In one episode, she returns an engagement ring given to her by a senator who seems like a good man. Afterward, she tells the president -- whose favorite words are "undress"-- she would wait for him and he could take all the time he needs to get a divorce from his wife. Really? Why? So other black women who want love in their life will think it's OK to put our love and lives on hold while a man is at home with his wife and children?
If Pope had a friend or sister to call to discuss her "love," desire and dreams for Grant, I hope that friend would remind her of all the married men who never divorced their wives.
If Grant gets a divorce, I thought, then maybe he'll take her to a park. He'd hold her hand, embrace her and plant a tender kiss on her lips. He might even place a blanket on the White House lawn for the two of them so they can sit and look up at the stars. Maybe then there will be tender love scenes that show a black woman in love, respected and happy. I want this for Pope, but maybe she does not want this for herself.
"Scandal" is scripted but I want true love for my sisters--young and old. I want black women who have a love interest in their lives, even if on TV, to be in a healthy relationship.
I want Pope to have it now because I may have to wait another decade or so before I see another black woman as the main love interest on a network television show.
The centuries-old reinforcement--which by now seems to be a mandate--of black woman as unworthy of healthy love is not the only issue I have with "Scandal." In the show, Pope also agrees to election rigging to help get Grant elected as president.
In light of the recent Supreme Court case over whether the federal government can continue to require some states to request approval from the Justice Department for alterations to their voting laws, the story line seems to disregard the importance of respecting history.
Across the South, blacks and whites were beaten and attacked for wanting to vote. I cannot forget the images of Congressman John Lewis being beat to the ground on Bloody Sunday or young people pressed into walls by water sprayed on them by the police.
I cannot forget Medgar Evers being shot down in his driveway. I cannot forget Fannie Lou Hamer being forced off the plantation she sharecropped because she had attempted to register to vote and was shot at 17 times upon being discovered in hiding.
I dream of someday turning on the TV and knowing I matter to the writers, directors and producers.
As someone who works with girls and young women who are vulnerable to media's portrayal of black women, Pope is not who I am, who I want to be or who I want our girls to be. She has no friends and no family. She does not volunteer at a soup kitchen or mentor a young woman who needs a big sister in a city like Washington, D.C.-- known for wealth disparity, violence, poverty and crime.
"Scandal" says to me that Pope is how the media wants me, our girls and other women to be.
I love escaping and watching good TV. Yet after years of not seeing enough depictions of positive, multi-dimensional black female characters and black families, this scripted TV feels too real.
Angeli R. Rasbury is an educator, artist, lawyer and writer specializing in women, girls and culture. Rasbury works with youth and has worked with girls in a juvenile detention center, women living in shelters and elders.
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