Black women have had a complicated history and relationship with America’s television screens since the first representation of black women on the small screen took place in 1939 when NBC aired a one-night special, The Ethel Waters Show. While the amount of black women on our screens has increased since then, the roles allocated to black characters still reinforce ideas and stereotypes about black women’s place in society, from Hattie McDaniel as maid to the Henderson family in The Beulah Show in 1950 to Kerry Washington’s role as Olivia Pope in Scandal today, often precluding black female characters from emerging as full, well-rounded individuals particularly when positioned against their white counterparts. Take Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, for example, two shows created by Shonda Rhimes, a black woman who self-identifies as a post-civil rights and post-feminism baby. A woman who has worked to bring more diversity to the small screen, yet perpetuated tropes about her own demographic group in the process. Through the actions, portrayals, and consequences dished out to Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal’s leading women, Meredith Grey and Olivia Pope respectively, we see how ‘lady-hood’ is not extended to black female TV characters in the same ways as white female TV characters, carrying real-world stereotypes over to the land of the small screen.
In the pilot of Grey’s Anatomy, viewers see Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd meet at Joe’s, the local bar. Meredith then takes Derek back to her place for a seemingly harmless one-night stand. In the morning, Meredith promptly kicks him out demonstrating her ability to have a carefree sexual encounter. Unfortunately for her, however, Derek turns out to be her boss and is taken with her. Over the course of season 1, Meredith and Derek become romantically involved until his wife Addison shows up and moves to Seattle in an attempt to save her marriage that ultimately fails. Meredith had no clue that Derek was married the whole time they were involved making her, like Olivia Pope, a mistress even though according to Derek what he and Addison have was over.
Throughout season 2, the viewer sees how Meredith, Derek, and Addison deal with the love triangle they are stuck in. Meredith spends most of the season miserable because she loves Derek and wants him to choose her. Derek spends the season conflicted because he loves Meredith but also feels an obligation to Addison, given their history. Addison spends the season angry – remorseful for her part in her failed marriage and hoping Derek will give her another chance. Eventually, Derek and Addison get a divorce and the series progresses forward with Meredith and Derek in a committed, exclusive relationship that results in homes, marriages, and kids. Meredith, for the most part, escapes unscathed from her affair. Everyone at Seattle Grace feels sorry for her, with the exception of her resident Miranda Bailey who chastises Meredith not only for sleeping with a married man but for sleeping with her boss and opening herself up to receiving preferential treatment. Meredith gets to have the happily ever after and family with the man she loves and blossoms into an excellent surgeon over the course of the series. Despite being a mistress, something most people deem morally reprehensible, Meredith is still able to access traditional womanhood and the joys it brings. Her status as a mother, wife, and career woman is never questioned – but always protected. Meredith is allowed to be a lady and get off scot-free for the same sexual acts Olivia Pope is chastised for.
In Scandal, Olivia Pope is a Washington D.C. fixer who is powerful in her career and a mess in her personal life. Able to turn the dirtiest of political scandals into something that no longer damages her client and get whomever she wants to be elected to political office, Olive has “been twice as good as them to get half of what they have” in the words of her father, Rowan Pope. He disparages her for not only sleeping with President Fitzgerald ‘Fitz’ Grant III but believing that she would ever get to be his First Lady or have a happy ending with him one day. Yet, despite her supposed success, Olivia is a failure in her father’s eyes due to her complicated relationship with the White House and Grant administration. He disparages her for forgetting that while she runs in their circles, she is still a Black woman with all the disprivilege that brings.
Though powerful, Olivia operates as a political Mammy with hints of Sapphire and Jezebel thrown in for good measure. She exemplifies Mammy through her unwavering devotion to, belief in, and aesthetically pleasing willingness to serve Fitz and the administration. Sapphire because she never takes no for an answer and is not afraid to act like an ‘angry black woman’ to get the job done. Jezebel because of her romantic and sexual involvement with Fitz despite other more normative options like Senator Edison Davis whose marriage proposal she turns down because she wants “painful, devastating, life-changing, extraordinary love,” preferably with Fitz. Fitz claims to reciprocate her feelings but often hems her up in ways that demonstrate an exertion of power and sexual intrigue, not love. She attempts to resist his advances and fails, subsequently being shamed for her sexual interactions with Fitz by members of her firm, Mellie, and her father. In the process demonstrating that even with success and acclaim, Olivia Pope and black women cannot escape the stereotypes that have plagued them for centuries and worked to control black women’s agency and sexuality, if they have allowed her to exist or speak at all.
Scandal, despite its flaws in the personhood of Olivia Pope, is still important because Kerry Washington was the first black woman to be featured in a drama on the small screen during primetime television since 1974. And representation, even if it needs more nuance, matters. While Olivia is at times Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire, her depth as a character also extends beyond those tropes in a way that is refreshing to viewers, especially black women. She is flawed, complex, and confused but operates in the world on her own terms. Despite the attempts of her father, Fitz, Mellie, Cyrus or other characters on the show to render her silent and take away her agency, Olivia always own who she is, what she wants and what she does to achieve her goals. She reclaims her time and uses the very stereotypes that act against her to gain access to a ‘lady-hood’ that works for her. Her womanhood is not that of Meredith Grey’s or white women. It is fashioned by her and created to suit the needs she has decided she wants to be met, allowing her to model the complexities of black womanhood for America every Thursday night. Flaws and all, Scandal allows Olivia Pope to emerge as a complex, engaging black female character who takes control of her sexuality, career choices, and ultimately triumphs despite attempts to control or silence her. Scandal and Olivia Pope demonstrate that black women, while different, can be “ladies” too.
Source: The Hairpin