The Scandal of 'Scandal'
“She’s the most complex black female lead we’ve ever seen in prime time,” Dr. Cooper said. “You’re not getting an archetype, you’re not getting a stereotype, you’re getting a fully fledged human being,” she said.
Is she really? Given the scant number of "black" female characters that populate prime time Network TV that's not saying very much. Because there have been so few the reaction seems to be, "Well we finally got one." But do we really?
Kerry Washington, who plays Olivia Pope, the DC "fixer" based they say on Judy Smith, a real-life Washington insider, became the first African-American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years. (The first was Teresa Graves as an undercover cop in “Get Christie Love!”, which had its debut in 1974.) Scandal is not a show I watch. In fact I watch very little Network TV drama anymore, except for The Good Wife, preferring to get my dramatic TV fix from cable.
In comparing the two characters Alicia Florek, played by Julianna Margulies and Pope, Florek, lawyer, wife of now Governor Florek of IL, seems like a fully formed person. Being "white" I don't really expect her to have "race" in the fore-front of her consciousness in her daily activities in her TV world, which is very much rooted in what is supposed to be modern Chicago (of course I don't see how that can be given the nature of Big City urban politics that "race" can not be dealt with in some form or fashion), but that's "white" TV for you.
And that is were both Olivia and Alicia are soul mates, both exist in white TV-Land, in shows directed at a "universal" (nee "white") audience. How would Scandal be a different show, a more nuanced, a more realistic, a less "white" show if Claire Huxtable were the title character (Phylicia Rashad's character) from the Cosby Show. Claire seemed like an actual "black" women, with dreams, desires, had a history which informed her actions. Olivia Pope seems to have been dropped into Scandal, and she has been "sanitized," bleached of her soul. She seems as "white" as any other character on TV. Why?
We know that in America, to have gotten to the place that she has somewhere along the way she has encountered, if not outright racism, then certainly more insidious, unconscious and pernicious forms, that must inform her behavior. Even if she doesn't deal with it on a daily basis at some point she is going to be reminded in a setting that is all white that she is a black women, even if she's the HNIC. And if she doesn't deal with it so be it, but it can't help but be a part of her story. Otherwise even the fantasy is disingenuous. The fact that she's "black" should make a difference, at least in how the story is told.
I don't know Shonda Rhimes personal story, but she is doing a disservice to members of the audience black and white to gloss over the white privilege and institutional racism that pervades this society. White folks can pretend it doesn't exist, black folks can't. And when an artist of color gets in a position to do something about that, they have an obligation to change the dynamic. Otherwise it's just the same ol' same ol'. Drama, media is at its best when it exposes the audience to ways of being that are different, diverse. We are not all the same. And to pretend otherwise is just another way of promoting "white" supremacy, "white" privilege, and "white racism." As the French say, "Viva la difference!"