What Scandal’s Civil Rights-Era Critique Says About Contemporary Black Women and Girls

“…Do the impossible, raise an African American girl who felt as fully entitled to own the world as much as any white man,” I recalled that line, uttered in a recent episode of Scandal, when I saw the viral video of a white South Carolina school police officer violently ripping a Black teenage girl from a desk, then dragging her and slamming her to the floor.

The line resonated with me, and many other Black women I know, because it cast the protagonist Olivia Pope’s entire persona as a “what if” scenario within and beyond the program’s confines: What if a Black girl-turned-woman actually felt that entitled? What would it mean for how we interpret a powerful Black female character like Pope, who is involved in an affair with the president of the United States? And what might it mean for real Black girls who get in trouble with police, such as the Spring Valley High School student?

Last week’s Scandal teaser put regular viewers on edge by suggesting an impending wedding between Pope and the president. Thursday’s episode will reveal if the show’s bold move to expose Fitzgerald Grant and Olivia Pope’s affair will result in a seismic shift to its narrative thrust—one premised on the impropriety of a Black woman who dares to imagine life as the president’s partner.

Part of Scandal’s appeal rests in how it depicts a dark sense of nostalgia for an era in which the only hope a Black woman had of being the president’s partner would be as his mistress—a plot belied by the legitimacy of Michelle Obama’s historic role, yet bolstered by the unfulfilled promise of a post-racial America. This immensely popular show’s longue durée relates the impossibility of Black women and girls—especially those who do not meet the standards of respectability—being able to enjoy the privileges and the power that have historically been the exclusive domain of their white counterparts. For Pope’s character, that privilege amounts to the temerity of admitting she is in love with the president, but for regular Black women and girls like the South Carolina teenager, it amounts to expecting that you will be treated with the same level of dignity afforded to white teens.

For the past five seasons, Scandal has derived its dramatic tension from the notion that Olivia Pope, former White House communications director, political fixer and President Grant’s true love, will never become a legitimate member of the First Family. Debuting three years into the Obama presidency, Scandal was at once avant-garde and a throwback—it featured the first female African American protagonist on a network drama in almost 40 years, but it eschewed the reality of Michelle Obama’s historic post for a blast-from-the-past plotline that smacked of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (a connection Olivia acknowledged in Season 2). While it routinely features ripped-from-the-headlines subplots, Scandal’s narrative thread portrays and transgresses Civil Rights era racial-gender norms in which Black women did not get to be “ladies,” let alone, The First Lady. At a time when hip-hop dominates popular music (and TV, on shows like Empire), Scandal’s Motown-era soundtrack underscores the nostalgia on which it is predicated. Executive producer and creator Shonda Rhimes has said her intentional use of classic soul artists, such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Sly and the Family Stone, is due to the “strong sense of nostalgia [of] these songs.” So although Kerry Washington (who plays Pope) was born in the Bronx at the dawn of hip-hop’s materialization, Olivia and Fitz’s love affair unfolds to tracks by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Booker T. and the M.G.s.

Like its soundtrack, Scandal’s central premise transports us to a pre-Obama White House. It offers Americans a nostalgic fantasy world in which we can attempt to reconcile our disbelief at Michelle Obama’s presence as “Mom-in-Chief.” In many ways, Pope is Michelle Obama’s alter ego, embodying all that she is not. On Scandal, the Black woman sharing the president’s bed is not the respectable-but-approachable “Southside girl,” and moral compass to the president that is Michelle Obama. Olivia is a childless, career-minded home-wrecker who fell in love with, and helped rig an election for, a Republican president. Of course, these are facile dichotomies that situate Obama as little more than a “dutiful lady” and Washington’s character as a “woman of ill repute.” In actuality, early depictions ridiculed Obama as “militant,” while more recent commentators undermined her influence on school lunch programs and racialized her body in one fell swoop. Critiques that the Obama daughters’ skirts were too short provided further “evidence” of the First Family’s unsuitability.

The tropes that Obama, and Pope, would have to successfully marshal to be considered worthy of inhabiting the White House—respectability, marital status, adherence to a patriarchal family structure—have traditionally marginalized African American women from the status of “lady.” Black feminist scholars such as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham have noted that in the Jim Crow South, little Black girls were socialized to understand that the bathroom labeled “Black Women” was for them and the one labeled “White Ladies” was off limits, a stark example of entrenched racial/gender norms. Thus Mrs. Obama’s status is dependent on her embodying gendered conventions that have historically been the exclusive endowment of white women. By situating its improper romance within a nostalgic past, Scandal nods to those Civil Rights-era intersections of race and gender, while simultaneously contesting them. In so doing, it hopes to present Black women as complex heroines, fettered by the interconnections of race and gender, but determined to surpass the accompanying barriers.

ShondaLand is a world in which Black women are both powerful and flawed—for all of her lip quivering and melting into the arms of the president, the unladylike Olivia is a mighty Washington player who accomplishes the impossible every week. The fallout Liv faces after she publicly admits to being Grant’s mistress (with Aretha Franklin’s 1967 single “Do Right Woman—Do Right Man” providing non-diegetic sound), is centered around her “hav[ing] the audacity to be born female and Black.” And, as a New York Times article situating Rhimes as “an angry Black woman” revealed, even she is not immune to such blowback. Herein lies the contemporary sting of Scandal’s nostalgic universe: With every narrative choice she makes, Rhimes holds the weight of a history of stereotypical representations of Black femininity on her shoulders. Indeed, in her celebrated Emmy Award-acceptance speech, Viola Davis counted Rhimes and Washington among the Black women who have precipitated more barrier-breaking roles for Black women actors.

When Scandal acknowledges the racism Black women and girls face, even in “post-racial” America, it reveals that we can neither be recognized as “ladies,” nor “feel fully entitled,” like white men. Images such as that of the Spring Valley High School student being ripped from her desk, or that of a white police officer in McKinney, Texas forcing a Black teenage girl in a bikini to the ground at a pool party, collapse the divide between Civil Rights-era historical footage and contemporary race/gender politics. In this way, Scandal’s universe is exposed, not as a nostalgic one, but as very much of the here and now.

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Oneka LaBennett is associate professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University. She’s the author of She’s Mad Real: Popular Culture and West Indian Girls in Brooklyn and editor of Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century. Twitter: @OnekaLaBennett