Media Portrayal of Black Women the Real ‘Scandal’

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Lady Gaga performs in Vancouver, Canada
It took 44 years for another black woman to star as the lead character on a network TV series.

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.

‘Not All Negative’

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.

Seeking Healthy Relationships

“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.

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2 thoughts on “Media Portrayal of Black Women the Real ‘Scandal’

  1. I understand your concerns; however, many of your points don’t really apply to this show. The show is called SCANDAL! It needs Scandals in order to be appealing. No one is tuning in to see a black, church going woman with two kids, a husband and a safe job living in a house with a picket fence practicing law; one where all of her friends lean on her because she has all the answers, and if she doesn’t, well G-d will chip in! I am convinced that many of the people who write these articles have never really sat and watched all of the episodes. Many of you have not really looked at the relationships, and their significance.

    This is a similar response I made to a man who accused Kerry Washington of being an Uncle Tom and a w-h-o-r-e. You are not saying it but your criticism fall in the same jurisdiction – the perspective of seeing a black female as the object of a powerful white man’s desires. I don’t know about us being portrayed as conquests, but I will tell you that you are reading way more into it than you should. When Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) said undress, I expect that when people are about to have sex, that is the lingo! Would it be different if a black man had said it??

    The Show is about SCANDAL. Clearly, the adulterous relationship is scandalous, and to a degree, an interracial one which is still “taboo” in American culture. YES, Hollywood (Film and TV) has been plagued by white ascendancy throughout history! It has taken a while to strip away at white hegemony in Film and TV, and now we are starting to see actual interrelations despite our differences ethnically, racially and sexual performativity.

    Whether you like it or not, Black women are mistresses, wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters… We are also monogamous, adulterers, lovers, fighters, criminals, champions, and every other adjective…..Just like everyone else. We have relationships with all kinds of men, even white ones that are not subjected to the master/slave perspectus. We are real! We are not uber-unattainable or dysfunctional caricatures from post blacksploitation era forged to boost our damaged self-esteems. Yes, Black is beautiful – but this blackness cannot be allowed to encase us in a box without air to breathe, and grow spontaneously, cognitively and irreverently!

    I think you (my opinion) are experiencing dissonance because you expect TV and Film to substitute what we, as black women, are truly lacking in real life; black, educated, available (mentally, socioeconomically, and physically) men! You want us to believe in a fairytale even though this show is not anyone’s Cinderella story.

    Kerry Washington and Scandal are no role models for anyone. You feel that because Shonda is black, and Kerry is black, the Edison character should have been written as Olivia’s main squeeze? After all, he is black and successful, even fictionally. What about if that is not what Olivia wanted? You mean in real life a black woman is not allowed to reject a black successful man, and opt to wait for who she truly loves? Do you know anything about real life?? Let me tell you about real life, I know tons of black successful woman of childbearing age, wasting away waiting for this dream brother to come along. Guess what? He isn’t and it is unfair that you should expect him to with every black female on TV.

    I am disturbed at your following statement:

    “the show sends the message that black women don’t deserve loving and healthy relationships.”
    Why is it anyone’s duty to make sure a show is perfectly written to boost black women’s self-esteem and self-worth?? That is your mother’s and father’s jobs. I had semantic nausea at your inference that the representations on TV will send a message to black women. Did Carrie Bradshaw (Sex & The City) make white women run out to buy Manolos and have carefree sex all over New York? Does Amanda Clarke (Revenge) send a message to young girls to lie to everyone in her life and treat them like her next target? How about Elena Gilbert (Vampire Diaries), is she teaching young girls to lust for Bad Boy Vampires and even leave one brother for the other?? Of course not! That is Tyler Perry’s job to feed you with the typical stereotypical gumbo of scenarios:

    Black man gets out of prison, trying to do the right thing. He meets black woman, they struggle and the day is saved. They get married in an elaborate ceremony. Or how about Black successful male meets down and out black mother, their lives clash, but in the end he asks her hand in marriage and voila they are in a Church with cheering family members.
    This is the greatness of SCANDAL, Shonda Rhimes geared away from what is typically representative in every black show and went with the unexpected, the things that challenge who we are as people.

    Additionally, you cultural expectations are not translating well with reality and true human desires. As a young woman, the biggest mistake my grandmother and stepmother made were telling me that I needed to find the right guy, then get married as if it was going to happen in that exact chronological order. It is that hope and fairytale that made it possible for me to have almost gotten used and abused by men. The way you want Olivia Pope is scripted, so I thank Shonda Rhimes for putting her in real scenarios where black women can decimate the fairytale by living and being active participants in their lives.

    We can agree, it is a fact that blacks and other ethnic groups have been historically stereotyped in TV and Film, however I think there is a concerted effort to rectify that. It is not easy, it will take more time, but I see the slow change and progress. SCANDAL is one of them since it has been 40 years that a BLACK female is in the lead role in a TV drama! In order for TV and Film executives to feel safe hiring black actors, people like you need to quit with some of these unfounded complaints and replace it with warranted dissent. Shonda Rhimes isn’t writing for high school kids, Scandal is at PHD level – dealing with real adult subjects that all people experience. Black women don’t love or hurt differently than other women.

    You wrote: “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?”
    NO! That is not what Scandal is advocating!! Why is it when black people are succeeding in Film and TV, their roles have to be perfectly crafted? They must always pass the COSBY or TD Jakes Litmus test? Well, guess what? I secretly hated the Cosby show for that reason. They were so damn perfect, and even my perfect friends with everything were struggling. I get the dichotomous nature of our history and the fear of being portrayed as buffoons or oversexed, in spite of this, it is not always about black and white. There is a love story between KW (Olivia) and TG (Fitz) characters. It is complex, it is painful, it is messy, and it is scandalous. At the end of the day, they are human and the audience, whether black, white or different, can connect with it. Halle Berry’s character in Monster’s Ball is no less tragic than if she were white. Denzel Washington in Training Day was no less a perfect depiction of power and greed than if he were a white character. They won academy awards not because they played messy characters that were black, but because they portrayed profoundly imperfect people in their raw element that were not ostensible.

    My final qualm about your article is the notion that Olivia Pope shouldn’t have been involved in the vote rigging scandal. “Across the South, blacks and whites were beaten and attacked for wanting to vote.” In Iran, women get beheaded for adultery and even less infractions, does that mean women here should not be shown in adulterous relationships? What does Medgar Evers and all the black people that lost their lives for the right to vote have to do with this Character and her ethical decisions? Again, your criticism is misdirected. You need to go into Prisons and communities and remind black males of our struggles so they can make better choices. It is a TV show geared toward entertainment and fantasy. But it can also be real life, just ask Al Gore!

    Quintessentially, you are saying that all NEGATIVE aspects of life should NEVER be played by black actors, especially women since historically we have been misrepresented, or even worst….raped and killed?? So Slavery, Jim Crow and all of our trials and tribulations will affect our ability to simply exist, to be a part of anything. As a black woman, I am fully aware of my history, but by no means will I let it trap me from advancing beyond the norm.

    I respect your views, notwithstanding, the world is changing. How I saw my blackness 10 years ago has evolved because I have lived and experienced life. It is okay if you don’t like the show. You tried to mask your true anger towards the show: the relationship between a black woman and white man, made even worst when she chose the white man over the “Successful Brother!” Perhaps you should focus on those “Hood-rat” shows that really show black women behaving badly and embodying those stereotypes you so passionately write against. I am not naming any names!

    Finally, unlike you, I don’t believe we will have to wait another decade for Olivia Popes of TV. The fact that people have the mental capability to balance opposing thoughts on their own moral and ethical standing shows maturity and complexity. It isn’t all black and white, rather the grey areas that are the most difficult. The relationship between Olivia and Fitz shows that we have really evolved in our thinking, perchance you can too. It is not about condoning adultery, it is about understanding that people make their own choices, and they are complicated.

    • Thank you for your comments. I read them with great interest and appreciate your sharing very much. They are well taken.

      I hope you are right—that it won’t be another decade for black women lead characters on network TV. I also hope the message in the article is not that women should wait for love. That is not what I want to convey.

      Again thank you for your comments.