Olivia Pope from Scandal
Photo Credit: Disney/ABC

Scandal is a guilty pleasure with its bodice-ripping, twisty-turny Shonda Rhimes storyline.

Lauded in many circles as a positive image, Olivia Pope is a familiar tragic trope clad in a power suit. All the blogs say that audiences, particularly women of color, have a love/hate relationship with Olivia Pope, the main character of Scandal, because she’s a two-steps-forward, two-steps-back kinda girl.

Olivia Pope is a “fixer” with a heart of gold. She worked on the President’s campaign, helping him earn office. The two fall in epic-level love, and have an ongoing interracial, extramarital affair, enacted physically and sustained emotionally, even when the physical component ceases.

Olivia Pope is a Hawt Mess

The critique of Washington’s character is mundane.  It has reached the pages of fashion mags. Take the Clutch headline, calling Olivia an emotional mess that means progress. Clutch is an edgy online fashion mag for young women of color. On the one hand, Olivia Pope is a strong black woman lead in a prime-time drama. Prior to this, we see black women lead characters only in comedies. Additionally, her character is emotionally and professionally complex, showing a range and depth that contrasts with the typical one-dimensional renderings of women of color. On the other hand, Pope’s emotionalism is highly problematic. She breaks down regularly in the face of her star-crossed relationship. Her character is a roller-coaster of “come-here-go-away” with the men in her life. Washington also depicts an emotional carousel in Pope’s professional life; Olivia Pope shows intense sympathy for her clients and then puts on her big girl pants to take control of the situation. This gives us Clutch‘s amusing headline, Olivia Pope’s Emotional Mess is Progress for Black Women.

In her Ebony interview that Clutch cites, Washington claims that she appreciates the role because of its emotional complexity. The Clutch article says,

Olivia Pope’s character conveys that black women aren’t the one-note untouchable pillar of strength that we’re often made out to be. Perhaps her emotional vulnerability and nakedness shows that we’re not a monolith and that we’re just as complex and layered as anyone else.

Historically, black feminist literary criticism has made this precise challenge to the “myth of the strong black woman.” It’s great to see this challenge entering the everyday conversations of fashion magazines. But feminist analysis was supposed to end somewhat differently. For example, it’s unclear if the use of naked here means emotional nakedness, or just plain nakedness. The ambiguity is telling.

An Intersectional Scandal

In another Clutch article that refers to the same Ebony interview, we learn that Washington would not have taken the role if the president were black. She felt it would disrespect Obama’s presidency. This sentiment raises the issue of roles that are race-specific, roles that are race neutral,  and the problem of race-bending (a different but related topic). Could the president in this show be black? Could Olivia Pope be white? Is race relevant?

Think about the example of Sister Act, a film originally intended for Bette Midler, but which ended with Whoopi Goldberg in the lead. That decision resulted in some relentless script doctoring by Carrie Fisher, particularly over the scene in which Whoopi had to steal a tomato. Whoopi said on the Arsenio Hall Show that she had an issue stealing because of the way it represented black people. The “neutral” role became racialized, and the conflict made for an intensely angry Whoopi.

It’s ridiculous to separate a black woman’s blackness from her womanhood. Women of color cannot be just women on Tuesday and just “of color” on Saturday. They cannot “leave race out of it.” That issue is a constant discussion in feminism and addressed under the topic of intersectionality.

But let’s pretend for a minute you actually can make that separation, because it opens an interesting conversation about sex and power. In this country, we still haven’t elected a woman, much less an ugly one, to the presidency. We would never elect Margaret Thatcher. Women’s power is still rooted in sexual beauty, and men’s power is still based on accomplishment and credentials. The power of sexual beauty is not genuine social power; this power diminishes with age, it is highly restricted in what it can achieve, and generally its achievements are accomplished as accessories to someone else in a position of power (usually someone male). In our country, it is difficult for a woman to ascend to a position of social power without also having sexual beauty. Still. To.This.Day.

So, Olivia. She is powerful in her career. Now, let’s not make the trite, predictable point that her career is simply a professional supporter and rescuer, because it only shows that feminists are never satisfied, and Hollywood can’t win for losing. The legitimate point, though, is that Pope, in the end, is the President’s mistress. Her true political power comes from access to power through sexual and emotional intimacy with leadership, not through her accomplishments. It’s who you know.  It’s unfortunate that the show is racialized, because the bodice ripping is fun, admittedly, and Pope’s ethnicity only complicates the problems for women wrought by beauty culture. Without emotional, forbidden lust, the show would be like any other procedural, but far less titillating. I certainly wouldn’t be hooked.

She’s having an affair with the President? *gasp* She did what? *GASP* The President’s wife is a frigid b*tch; just look at her! (but of course!).

Olivia Pope is Tragic

The racialized dimension makes it all the more hard to admit how much I like it. Can you have a romantic relationship in which a white male is in a position of supreme power and privilege and a black woman is his mistress without reading that interracial relationship through the lens of American history? I just don’t see how. What about when the woman is light-skinned?

Olivia Pope is the new tragic mulatto (mulatta). The story of the tragic mulatto tells of the emotional turmoil faced by biracial or light-skinned people of color who live in liminally-raced categories.Whether they are closeted or not as people of color in the narrative, the trope of the tragic mulatto rests on intense emotionality associated with living in the middle, never a full member of either.

The tragedy of star-crossed lover to a powerful white male is a quintessential part of the stereotype. Olivia dramatizes the mulatto’s inside-outside tragic position in nearly every episode. Shut out of a legitimate partnership as wife to the President, Olivia literally wanders through each episode watching her clients through various windows as they enact their broken relationships. In camera shots of her looking on through windows, we see her emotional messiness, because in these scenes she identifies with her clients’ emotional suffering. Sometimes these scenes overlay her own storyline directly onto her clients’ stories, note for note. By identifying with stricken women through glass windows, Olivia is always a tragic outsider looking in. Yes, she waltzes in and takes command, but we know that inside she’s suffering deeply.

Wikipedia provides an excellent description of the dynamic this tragedy represents. The tragic mulatto trope cultivates the emotionality of victimage – sexual exploitation, the loss of family and children, the loss of class standing when racial passing is revealed – which allowed white audiences to identify with the humanity of non-whites while avoiding the ideology of racism itself. Olivia’s tragedy is magnified by her success, and her success is magnified by her tragedy. The show’s intensity is developed by the swing between these two poles.

The typical storyline of the tragic mulatto trope relies on passing. Olivia Pope might not be passing in a literal sense, but the implication that her role is “race neutral” when it isn’t certainly suggests a form of passing. The fact that we don’t want to talk about race as central to Olivia’s narrative, and that we instead choose to see it as incidental to her relationship with the President, keeps the trope firmly in place. To assume a color-blind position as we watch the constant emotional shuttle back and forth implicates us in the same post-race narrative that traps Obama in a very small box. Just as Obama cannot be an angry black man, Olivia can only be a tragic black woman.

She’s not that atypical after all.


(Photo credit: CC Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/disneyabc/14175746182)

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