To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Sex, Power and Female Subjectivity in Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal

by: & Yelizaveta (Liza) Shapiro , September 12, 2018

© Screenshot from Scandal (TV series 2012-2018)

‘I really hate the word diversity,’ said Shonda Rhimes in her 2015 Human Rights Campaign Speech. ‘It suggests something…other. As if it is something…special. Or rare. Diversity! …I have another word: NORMALIZING. I’m normalising TV. I’m am making TV look like the world looks.’ (Rhimes 2015: 235) Rhimes, critically acclaimed and award-winning creator, writer, and showrunner of several hit television shows and founder of Shondaland, ‘owns’ Thursday nights on ABC. The network refers to its Thursday night programming as TGIT, ‘Thank God it’s Thursday’, in honour of the resounding success of Shondaland’s Grey’s Anatomy (2005- ), Scandal (2012-2018), and How To Get Away With Murder (2014-). The massive success of Rhimes’ TV empire is in no small part due to Grey’s Anatomy proving that colour-blind casting brings much-needed diversity to television without alienating audiences. Her shows Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder changed the landscape of television by featuring powerful black female leads. For Scandal, Rhimes specifically cast a black woman for the character of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), who is based on real-life black White House fixer, Judy Smith. [1]

In an industry where multiple characters of colour on a single show can result in its being pigeonholed as niche, Scandal breaks ground as a show with a black woman protagonist that is not specifically about black experience. Scandal’s success constitutes a bona fide revolution in television. Kerry Washington is the first black female actor to lead a major network drama since Get Christie Love!, the 1974 Blaxploitation crime-series starring Teresa Graves. As Olivia Pope, Washington is iconic; sophisticated, talented, and high-powered. However, she is also highly flawed, frequently unethical, and most importantly for the purposes of a soap opera, highly susceptible to romantic and erotic passions. A White House fixer whose crisis management firm, Olivia Pope and Associates (OPA), is composed of lawyers, investigators, and highly trained assassins, Olivia keeps Washington D.C.’s political scandals out of the public eye. Like Monica Lewinsky (who is heavily referenced throughout the show) Olivia also has an affair with President Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III (Tony Goldwyn), whose presidential win is attributed to her work on his campaign.

© Screenshot from Scandal (TV series 2012-2018)

In this heyday of quality television and increasing minority representation, how the first major contemporary female black protagonist is rendered ‘normal’ for mainstream audiences warrants examination, particularly given that the protagonist’s illicit sexual affair with the white president of the United States is the show’s central conflict.What choices or sacrifices are made to render inclusivity on network television not only acceptable, but wildly successful in a show that probes a long-standing American taboo? This paper considers the cultural neutralisation of black subjectivity across gender to examine how Scandal navigates racial tensions, often problematically, to advance a complex intersectional feminist agenda and challenge the pathologisation of black female sexuality.

Co-founder of Crunk Feminist Collective Dr Brittney Cooper points out, ‘The few black women we’ve seen in prime-time roles in scripted shows, they have to be morally above scrutiny, and she’s not. She’s the most complex black female lead we’ve ever seen in prime time. You’re not getting an archetype, you’re not getting a stereotype, you’re getting a fully fledged human being.’ (Vega 2013) The frequency with which Pope’s humanity is cited as the primary reason for her attractiveness to viewers is significant. On television, full subjectivity is enjoyed almost exclusively by white male characters, while reductive representations of blackness render black women doubly not-human by virtue of being female and black. In one interview, Washington describes Olivia Pope as ‘any human being who happens to be female and Black and those elements add to who she is as a human being.’ (Springer 2012) However, while Olivia’s character is significantly complex, who she is as a human being can hardly be paralleled to ‘any’ other human being, regardless of gender or race, largely due to her class privilege. Kristen J. Warner critiques the ways Scandal avoids acknowledging the racial structures that make interracial relationships complicated by building characters ‘that occupy a …universally normative appeal …’ (Warner 2015: 42) In order for Olivia to compel ‘universally’, Rhimes circumvents hegemonic stereotypes of mammies, sapphires, jezebels, matriarchs, and tragic mulattas, and creates a figure characterised largely by a kind of super-humanity and well above-average talent. Unsurprisingly, several times through the first season, Olivia reminds us, ‘I’m not normal.’

Obviously, the complications of interracial relationships have higher historical stakes in the context of the White House, which makes this representation of interracial love particularly, well, scandalous. Even if we take into account the suspension of disbelief generally required by soap operas, historical inequalities and violences and make an equitable, long-standing, sexually and emotionally passionate relationship between a white male president and a black female political fixer particularly difficult to make believable. This is especially true if viewers are to accept that race is not the fundamental issue at stake in the relationship. In fact, the issue of race rarely comes up in dialogue between the lovers, and marks a major shift in the relationship (followed by heated Twitter debates) when it does. The show insists that their relationship should not be viewed through the lens of race and the burden of history, but through the possibilities of love. This insistence is only made possible due to the erasures of cultural specificity around which Olivia’s character is built.

Olivia’s normative appeal and viewer acceptance of her relationship with Fitz are directly tied to a representation of refinement: Olivia Pope went to an elite Swiss boarding school for world leaders; was an equestrian; attended Princeton as an undergraduate; and graduated from Georgetown Law. She speaks a range of languages from Russian to Zulu. Her style is both impeccable and expensive. Sexually, she is assertive, almost gluttonous. It is important to observe what makes this characterisation fly, or, what sacrifices Rhimes makes to retain Olivia Pope’s universal appeal while challenging the braided assumptions of economic disenfranchisement and hypersexuality that accompany classic racial stereotypes of black women.



© Screenshot from Scandal (TV series 2012-2018)

The erasures required to achieve Olivia’s aforementioned super-humanity are not lost on black female viewers. Warner’s 2015 study of black female fandom looks at Twitter responses to Scandal and finds frequent reference to how Olivia’s hair defies nature. Black women fans carefully excavate the details of their daily experience to parse and connect with Olivia’s character. In doing so, they perform the labour of ‘transforming the central Black lead, canonically drawn as normative and racially neutral, into a culturally specific Black character.’ (2015: 34) Warner references several tweets calling out Olivia’s hair as perfectly in place after she spends two days in bed without a headscarf, and equally perfect after sex in the shower. (2015: 33-34) The rare occasions during which we see Olivia with an afro are when she escapes her life to a remote island under the alias Julia Baker [2] (and is therefore not Olivia Pope); and when she is in captivity, stripped of every comfort and of her dignity. In both instances, her hair is indicative of her world gone awry, and in the former, of her having her guard down. These are also moments viewed and debated in terms of Olivia’s blackness —catnip for Twitter fans who see a reflection of themselves in her, and further fodder for the debate between insufficient and excessive blackness on television. Fundamentally, the black female protagonist adored for her full-fledged humanity elides the very human, material realities of black experience, such as the management of her hair, particularly in bed.

While the material reality of Olivia’s hair is smoothed over, Scandal’s soundtrack offers a counter-narrative to the show’s race-neutral elements. Scandal’s definitive sound is rooted in the greatest hits of American soul and funk, dominated by the voices of iconic black artists like Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and Stevie Wonder. Brandeise Monk-Payton sees Scandal’s musical landscape generating racial commentary through its references to the sociopolitical conditions that shaped the experience of African American artists. Their voices on the show are ‘frequently expressing sonically what Pope cannot through her own voice to Pope’s black female subjectivity.’ (Monk-Payton 2015: 22) Notably, the soundtrack’s use of identifiable black voices contrasts sharply with ‘The Light,’ an instrumental that accompanies tender scenes between Olivia and Fitz and is referred to as the ‘The Olitz’ [3] theme. ‘The Light’ is race-neutral and lacks a distinctive voice (unlike the work of Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin, whose racial identities are central to their recorded voices). If music may be read as an expression of Olivia’s subjectivity, then ‘The Light’’s dedicatedly saccharine register encourages viewers to see Olivia’s relationship with Fitz as somehow colourblind, insulated from the weight of America’s racial history.

In a similar dual function, Scandal’s linguistic register negotiates the tension between universal appeal and Olivia’s insulation from stereotypes of ratchet black sexuality. One of the most noticeable ways in which Olivia is ‘not normal’ is in her speech patterns. Other black characters on Scandal briefly code-switch between standard English and African American Vernacular (AAV). White characters also speak in multiple registers. Olivia, however, only shifts from her use of near-literary, rapid-fire standard English when speaking other languages entirely. Whereas other black characters strategically choose registers, notably when performing blackness to mock white characters, Olivia remains code-consistent, relying on other black characters to say what she ‘cannot say’, lest her universal appeal erode. Mark Harris of Grantland describes Olivia’s speech as a deft strategy that allows her to avoid the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype that would shift focus to the way she speaks, and away from the content of her speech. He writes,

‘As long as Olivia’s Olympian sentences …remain parsable, nobody can diminish them as the ‘hysterical’ ventings of, you know, angry black women. Moreover, hyper stylised language is a way of forcing people to listen when you suspect they otherwise won’t; it’s a time-honoured tool of the marginalised. …Rhimes loves ripping a scene out of conversational mode and going into the urgent overdrive of Haute Monologue, but there’s a reason beyond writerly predilection… Her characters need to speak the way they speak because in their world, it’s the only way they can get heard.’ (Harris 2014)

Ironically, for Olivia to be a ‘full-fledged human being’ as a black female protagonist, she may have to be both flawed and superhuman, but speak only in stylised ways that perform exaggerated sophistication. For the sake of the same full-fledged humanity, Olivia’s anger must be rationed and mediated. Though she is often angry, her giving into feelings of anger marks moments of crisis in the plot. In these moments, a few references to her race slip through but are left largely unaddressed.

Anger that has anything to do with race must be refracted through other characters, and usually black male characters. Olivia’s friend and employee Marcus Walker (Cornelius Smith Jr.), and her father, Eli Pope (Joe Morton) by day and Rowan of spy organisation B613 by night, are black men who differently represent and challenge the trope of ‘the angry black man’. The suggestion seems to be that being black, accomplished, elite and angry is more tolerable in black male supporting characters than in a black female lead. Herman Gray (1995) writes about visual culture’s tropes of black masculinity spanning from the jazzman, the original gangsta, heroic rappers, noble justice warriors, and appropriate middle-class professionals. Marcus and Eli address each of these figures in their monologues against racial injustice while embodying the latter. Their representation as highly educated political influencers undoes tropes of hypersexual criminality that figures black men as threats to middle-class white womanhood, family, and the nation.

Marcus deploys his anger in the spirit of collaboration against injustice and is not afraid to be confrontational. A neighbourhood activist turned OPA employee turned Director of Communications for the White House, he is the moral compass when most characters fail to have one. Marcus, who had previously refused to work for OPA due to Olivia’s questionable methods, comes on board specifically to ‘help out a sister’ after Olivia exposes herself as Fitz’s mistress. The media reduces her to a Jezebel who climbs the echelons of political power through a string of romances with powerful men, ending with Fitz. Through the media storm, Olivia remains silent and suggests her team follow suit. However, Marcus refuses to remain quiet and models racial solidarity for Olivia. In the episode ‘Dogwhistle Politics’ (S5; E4), Marcus attacks talking heads with blunt, satisfying accusations of racism and sexism. Marcus explains to media personalities and the OPA team (and by extension, viewers) how ‘dogwhistle politics’ function. He expounds:

‘Olivia Pope doesn’t stick with the slutty mistress stereotype so instead of representing her as she is, her former passionate advocate, you take the easy route, shaming her using all manner of coded language. There’s a name for that …It’s dog-whistle politics. …Racism, sexism, anti-semitism, misogyny. It’s bigotry in a language so coded ….that the only person its targeting is assaulted by it like a dog whistle.’ (S5; E4)

Marcus points out that the words used to describe Olivia by the media are: ‘lucky’, ‘sassy’, ‘well-spoken’, ‘well-mannered’, ‘shrill’, ‘calculating’, ‘over-confident’, ‘secretive’, ‘urban’, ‘hot-blooded’, ‘known to use thug politics’, ‘arrogant’, and ‘siren’. ‘When women of colour like Ms Pope hear that kind of coded language,’ he says, ‘they know exactly what you’re getting at.’ (S4; E4) Olivia Pope does know what they are getting at, but the show relies on Marcus to expose the racially coded language used to sexualise and demean her so that Olivia never condescends to respond, maintaining her dignity. Extra-diegetically, Olivia also maintains her universal appeal to mainstream viewers, sidestepping the trope of ‘the angry black woman’ once more. This appeal allows Olivia to admit she is the president’s mistress and test the possibility that America might accept the first ‘second’ First Lady.

That Marcus is the one to lodge these accusations when Olivia herself never does, is notable. When black women on screen cannot speak of their plight because they risk being read as shrill, or needy, it falls on the strident black man whose masculinity, itself working with and through stereotypical tropes, affords him the leverage to do so. Eli Pope exercises the same leverage, and explicitly represents the trope of ‘the angry black man’. Unlike Marcus, he has no investment in goodness or honesty and sees himself as the essence of hegemonic power: invisible and inscrutable. He represents the angry black man who will not allow for racial history to be buried. The assaults on Eli’s dignity and the denigration of his work inspire a rage that is personal and communal at once. His rage is both hyper-stylised and, simultaneously, just ridiculous enough to soften the impact of his speeches on a mainstream audience, though the speeches themselves draw attention to this kind of erasure.

Olivia and her father are each other’s rivals, enemies, protectors, and informants. Eli states that his goal in raising Olivia is to produce a black woman who felt entitled to the same opportunities as any white man, though this does not seem to extend to sexual object choice. (S4; E3) For Olivia and Eli, Olivia’s sex life is the chessboard that determines D.C.’s fate. Olivia’s sexual relationships with B613 secret agents Jake Ballard (Scott Foley) and Franklin Russell (Brian White) are both by Eli’s design. Both are groomed to surveille his daughter. When Olivia becomes aware of this, she faces her ultimate heartbreak —the theft of her sexual power and agency as a subject. Jake’s explanation of Eli’s plot to Franklin lays the foundation for this father-daughter power struggle:

Olivia is supposed to catch you. That’s part of it. For Rowan that’s the best part of it.
How he exerts control. Where’s the power in it for him if she never knows that you
belong to him? He needs her to know that she is never safe from him, never out of his
grasp. …That’s how he lets her know that Papa Pope is in charge. That’s how he lets her
know that ‘You Can’t Take Command…’ (S4: E21)

© Screenshot from Scandal (TV series 2012-2018)

Eli’s catchphrase, ‘You Can’t Take Command’ emphasises his bulletproof power. However, Olivia does take command through the very sexuality Eli manipulates. Olivia’s love for Fitz is not only the ultimate insult because Fitz is a white man in power and a descendent of slave holders, but because he is her choice, and worse, her sexual choice. Despite the political influence she wields, Olivia’s power over the men in her life, her father and her lovers, is ultimately sexual.

This is perhaps revealed most explicitly when other characters invoke Olivia’s sexuality in her absence. In the episode ‘A Door Marked Exit’ (S3; E10), a handcuffed Eli is held by Fitz for questioning. Fitz provokes Eli, taunting him with his sexual relationship with Olivia. ‘I’m screwing her you know,’ he says, ‘Every chance I get.’ Eli responds to Fitz’s taunts with one of his blazing speeches:

‘For you it’s always summertime and the livin’ is easy. Daddy’s rich, your mama’s good-looking. You’re a Grant. You got money in your blood. You….are….a….boy. I’m a man. I have worked for every single thing I have ever received. I have fought and scraped and bled for every inch of ground I walk on. I was the first in my family to go to college. My daughter went to boarding school with children of kings! … You spoiled, entitled, ungrateful little brat! You have everything handed to you on a silver platter, and you squander it’. (S3; E10)

Eli overpowers Fitz even from a position of captivity. Referencing the many white generations that produced Fitz’s entitlement to power— the same entitlement that allows him to uncritically strap his lover’s black father to a chair in a disquieting historical repetition of the Grants’ undoubted ownership of slaves— reduces Fitz’s power to mere inheritance in contrast to the ‘scraping’ and ‘bleeding’ that produced the love of Fitz’s life. ‘Summertime and the livin’ is easy’, Eli mocks. ‘Daddy’s rich, your mama’s good-lookin’.

Eli’s reference to George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’, is deeply cutting. One of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music, its popularity often obscures the aria’s context: A black woman slave sings this Southern folk lullaby to a white child whom she breastfeeds, implying that she is recently separated from her own child for whom her body is still producing milk. The world Fitz receives is not only the White House but Olivia, at the expense of her black parents’ labour. Eli employs a range of linguistic register to express his contempt for Fitz. Like Marcus at the zenith of his monologues, Eli intentionally infantilises Fitz while speaking in AAV, calling him a ‘good ol’ boy’, and physically mimicking the behaviours of minstrel performances to humiliate Fitz. Rhimes’ enormous compassion for Eli’s plight makes him a particularly rich patriarchal villain. What makes him roar with rage on several occasions is the fact that Olivia gives herself away, and gives ‘it’ away, to exactly the kind of white man she was groomed to overpower.

Eli clearly sees Olivia’s desirability as part of the exceptionalism and entitlement that would deploy her against white power. This is unconventional for any father-daughter relationship but crucially unconventional for the representation of black women. On-screen stereotypes of the Jezebel and the sapphire frame black women as lascivious, while characters who fit the nurturing mammy stereotype are inoculated against sexual expression. Black women’s desirability is often limited to their presumed availability as sex objects, and their beauty is read as always below or Other within mainstream —or white — conventions of beauty (hence Olivia’s impossible hair). One might assume that in order for Olivia’s superhuman perfection to ‘work’ against these stereotypes, she would be elevated beyond the basic human desire for sex, asexual in the name of being ‘morally above scrutiny’. In fact, the first half of Scandal’s pilot would have us believe that Olivia does not date. (S2; E1)

This illusion is not sustained for long. We discover quickly, to our delight, that Olivia does not date as much as she flits furtively through the White House for amorous trysts with the president in direct sight of surveillance cameras. Her persona is both razor sharp and resplendent in her sexual agency. Olivia’s reluctance to expose the latter gestures to a fear of sexualisation familiar to all professional women, particularly women of color. Nina Cartier describes Olivia as a ‘future text’ : ‘her body is her own to embody or transcend, unfettered from the binaries of too black or not black enough (among many others) where she can be however she is —sexual not sexualised, desirous and desired —and free.’ (Cartier 2014: 53) Stereotypes of black women inevitably revolve around sex and sexuality—too much, too little, but always object —a continuum that exposes the degree to which the crux of subjectivity for black women, as Cartier observes, is sexuality.

Where sexuality is deployed to subjugate, it can also be used to empower. Sex is a centrifugal force in Scandal, disentangling historical baggage from sexual agency and power. Scandal contains countless scenes of Olivia engaged in passionate sex with multiple partners, white and black, who desire her with a hunger so blind that they are willing to go to war to attain her. She is so attractive that she is, literally, an enduring threat to U.S. national security. Olivia’s power to choose between her partners and to be desired but not objectified constitutes a significant reversal for gender representation on television. Soap operas conventionally frame women’s sexual subjectivity as passive, and male sexual subjectivity as active or more assertive, often placing the onus to initiate sex on male characters. Scandal responds directly to this trope, and portrays a young black woman who desires, demands, enjoys sex for sex’s sake, and is not afraid to make the first move. While D.C media pathologises Olivia’s sexuality, the show never does. In a game-changing episode for the representation of female desire, ‘An Innocent Man’ (S2; E6) Olivia dreams of having sex, in turns, with both Fitz and Jake. Both men perform oral sex, disappearing under the sheets off-screen (though this is not the only instance in which shots like this appear, these scenes participate in newer visual traditions of feminist portrayals that privilege female pleasure). Olivia maneuvers the men around her, switching positions, always in control. The scene cuts so quickly between the faces of the two men that they become, briefly, almost interchangeable, objects for her —and our — pleasure and consumption. In Scandal, men perform their desirability and willingness to appeal to women, who may or may not remain as impassive as some of the most popular leading men on television. Mad Men’s (2007-2015) Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is a prime example of a leading man whose sexual power sends women to his bed in droves, but always with the intent of giving pleasure rather than receiving it, in exchange for the validation constituted by his attention.

By contrast, in most of Scandal’s erotic scenes, Olivia’s lovers pleasure her, and expect nothing in return. An early instance of the reversal of sexual roles occurs in ‘Vermont Is For Lovers, Too’ (S3; E8) during a sex scene with Fitz. The scene opens with a series of increasingly sensual vignettes that feature Fitz as a vulnerable body that Olivia ‘handles’ at will. The camera slowly moves down Fitz’s naked torso and reveals Olivia’s hands unbuckling his belt. She undresses him without prompt. Meanwhile, Olivia’s eyes, nowhere near Fitz’s buckle (which may have implied fellatio) remain open. With a suggestively phallic finger, Olivia pries open Fitz’s mouth to pin him down. This same action resurfaces in a later scene with Franklin Russell, revealing itself as a recurring strategy of sexual domination. This sustained visual pun drives home the reversal of gender roles in Olivia’s sexual dynamic with each of her lovers.

This reversal also extends to the camera’s framing of male bodies. Laura Mulvey theorises the camera as depicting the world through ‘the male gaze’ where women’s bodies, in their framing by the camera, are coded for male pleasure. (Mulvey 1975: 6-18) On Scandal, the coding is purposefully reversed. The camera regularly lingers and pans over the pecs, abs, and happy trails of Olivia’s lovers. These gratuitous scenes point to the normalisation of the prurient heteromasculine gaze on women’s bodies on television, by objectifying male bodies. Most of Olivia’s sexual encounters begin with her pulling off her lovers’ shirts and looking at their chests and abs, to the delight of Scandal’s viewership.

In the episode ‘It’s Good to be Kink’ (S4; E16), Jake and Fitz sit down in a formal meeting and engage in grave, paternalistic, discussions of Olivia’s well-being when she struggles with the trauma of her kidnapping. With delicious irony, the scene cuts between their meeting, and Olivia’s date with our newest shirtless hero, Franklin. Aretha Franklin’s ‘Dr. Feelgood’ plays while Olivia slams Franklin into a wall and holds him by the face and neck in a show of dominance. While Fitz and Jake fret, Olivia finds herself a Doctor Feelgood with which to soothe herself. ‘Take off your clothes,’ she demands. ‘Get in there, and get naked.’ (S4; E16) The camera follows Franklin from Olivia’s point of view as he walks backwards, stripping off his shirt with gusto. Once his washboard abs are exposed, the camera cuts to a reverse shot of his muscular back, which grows larger in the frame as he backs toward the camera. Throughout, Olivia remains clothed, in control, smiling. Jake and Fitz’s assumption of her vulnerability and helplessness is rendered completely ridiculous.

© Screenshot from Scandal (TV series 2012-2018)

The camera sees men as Olivia does. Her point of view shots reinforce what Murray Smith calls spectator alignment, or the processes by which viewers relate to characters by following spatiotemporal paths that give viewers access to characters’ inner states. (Smith 1995: 83) Both the narrative and camera work to represent women of color as assertive sexual subjects. Contrasting with the abundant nudity of male lovers during sex, focus on Olivia’s body is scant. Though her beauty and style are foregrounded throughout the show, her erotic scenes overwhelmingly feature close-ups of her face in the moment of intense pleasure. We do not consume her bare body as an image, but a face for the viewers’ gaze to recognise and identify with, sharing in her ecstasy.

Scandal is deeply aware of the ways it reverses power, both sexual and political, and warns of its pitfalls. Olivia assumption of stereotypically masculine sexual roles leads to her developing a hunger for power not unlike her male equivalents on television (Don Draper, once more, comes to mind). As the portrayal of Eli’s masculinity shows, within the context of Scandal and in line with bell hooks’ formulations, patriarchy manifests in enactments of masculine assertion that leave men isolated, emotionally stunted, aggressive, and devoid of love. (hooks 2003) As Olivia grows more politically powerful, this also becomes true of her and alters her erotic relationships. Olivia’s gradual acquisition of power foregrounds one of the central tensions of Rhimes’ oeuvre: women’s difficulty negotiating professional power and romantic love. Rhimes is invested in writing female characters for whom professional life is deeply important to identity and self-actualisation. Popular culture in general and soap operas in particular often define female success through romantic success resulting in marriage and the promise of children, prioritizing domesticity rather than success in the public sphere. Rhimes dramatises the struggle between the two poles. Her female characters test the boundaries between private and public life by testing extremes, sometimes embodying the trope of the man who brushes off his female sexual object in lieu of professional obligation.

‘Randy, Red, Superfreak, and Julia’ (S4; E1) opens with Olivia lounging on a beach chair 100 miles off Zanzibar’s coast, where she has escaped the chaos of her life in Washington D.C. Jake, escaping his infractions against B613, comes along. They have chosen to ‘stand in the sun’—live a life of pleasure and simplicity. A reverse shot shows Olivia basking in a beach chair, hair natural, facing pristine water in a tasteful bathing suit in her signature white. Another reverse shot shows Jake approaching, shirtless. He pulls apart Olivia’s legs to sit between them while they wait for a boat carrying food and cases of wine. Jake chooses to make good use of the fifteen minutes they have before the boat’s arrival: in the corner of a close up shot of their faces heatedly kissing, his hand travels between Olivia’s legs. The camera cuts to her enraptured face. Before their departure Olivia makes clear to Jake that she is in love with Fitz yet Jakes joins her anyway, seemingly happy to play second fiddle. While she is on the island and away from work, from being Olivia Pope, she happily accepts his sexual attention without offering much back.

The sudden death of Olivia’s friend Harrison Wright (Columbus Short) brings the pair back to D.C., and Olivia takes a page right out of Don Draper’s book. In a dark, enclosed bedroom in Washington D.C., a rude contrast from the postcard landscape of their island life, Jake kisses down her body, presumably about to perform cunnilingus. Whereas on the beach chair she beams, in D.C. Olivia reacts by staring at the ceiling, distracted. She ruins the moment, talking about a case. Jake, gentle but exasperated, insists that she simply enjoy, that it is his turn. When he slides back down, she interrupts him again. At her characteristically accelerated clip, Olivia talks at Jake (here a mere receptacle for her thoughts) about the case, with no apparent interest in his input. When seemingly sated, she slides back down into the bed. ‘Okay I’m done,’ she declares, business-like. ‘Your turn again.’ All erotic energy is sucked out of the exchange, but Olivia feels entitled to continued attention.

The blatant mockery of the trope of the neglected wife is rendered doubly comical through Kerry Washington’s choppy delivery, and Scott Foley’s exaggerated pout. ‘The beach,’ he claims, their site of private escapade ‘is getting very far away’. He asks, ‘Should we talk about this?’ (S4; E1), assuming the role of the female partner who wants to process her concerns. Olivia is silent, indignant, unable to admit fault, while Jake storms away. Olivia’s behaviour shows that her thirst for political power and her love for her work are greater than the feelings, sexual or emotional, she has for any of her lovers. This gender reversal challenges stereotypes of ratchet hypersexuality and nurturing asexuality typical of portrayals of black women.

Outside of the bedroom, however, the centrifuge shatters. Sexuality can no longer be pried apart from enduring violences of racist representation. America’s penchant for the sexual debasement of black women catches up to Olivia when she comes under attack from both her parents and D.C.’s political establishment.

In the episode ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ (S3; E15), Olivia’s mother, Maya Lewis (Khandi Alexander) likens Olivia’s position to that of a slave or post-Reconstruction domestic worker. ‘Cleaning up those people’s messes, fixing up their lives. …you’re nothing but the help. And you don’t even know it.’ (S3; E15) Maya throws into relief that Olivia and Fitz’s forbidden love has clear historical antecedents in relationships between white masters and female slaves, and particularly that between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. Rhimes, knowing that Scandal’s viewers may be inclined to draw the comparison, has Olivia address it directly in the episode ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ (S2; E8). After Mellie almost catches them, Olivia complains to Fitz that she feels ‘a little Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson about all this… I smile at her and I take off my clothes for you…My whole life is you…You own me. You control me. I belong to you.’ (S2; E8) Nina Cartier discusses the contradictions between the politics of respectability and the Jezebel trope:

‘My problem with Pope is her wholesale utilisation of the politics of respectability despite her being a whore, a mistress. As black female audiences, we sublimate this fact because we are so desperate for black female images to do so much ideological work for us: each image has to be everything to every black woman, when that always leads to frustration and disappointment. We elide the Jezebel trope in which she is enmeshed and focus on her positive traits of power, both sexual and economic’. (Cartier 2014: 154)

Olivia Pope indeed circumvents stereotypes while embodying them, and succumbs to the weight and power of those stereotypes many times within the show. Though audiences may want Olivia to be a wholly positive figure, and therefore sublimate the ugly, Rhimes never stops giving us the ugly.

Olivia is constantly enmeshed in multiple stereotypes, and we would argue that this is, in fact, the point. Contradiction allows for complexity that gestures toward a fuller humanity than a wholly positive representation would ever allow. Part of the ideological work that Olivia Pope is doing, in a rather heavy-handed fashion, is showing that the history of minority representation clings to all future minority representation as representational ancestry, and must be contended with (by viewers and critics). It also represents the ‘everything’ that women are expected to be in contemporary liberal feminist discourses of ‘having it all’ and ‘leaning in.’ The brazenness with which Scandal tests these ideas is indebted to the affordances of soap opera. The suspension of disbelief required to ‘buy into’ the show also dares us to imagine, despite the obvious absurdity, the possibility: Fitz and Olivia throw caution to the wind, clamouring breathlessly for one another in the Oval Office, disregarding the inevitable consequences as the show pivots from one flagrantly preposterous premise after the other. The scandal, they insist, is that of adultery, not race. When they are left to their own devices, the ideological, we are asked to believe, falls away. (This is not to suggest that the show’s appeal isn’t in part due to enduring fascination with ‘jungle fever.’) To this end, the episode in which Olivia addresses the Sally Hemings question asks us believe in a love so colourblind that race is reduced to rhetorical ammunition, a petty move: Fitz accuses Olivia of playing ‘the race card’ in order to push him away. ‘You own me.’, he counters. I belong to you…There’s no Sally or Thomas here. You are not a victim here. I belong to you.’ (S2; E8)

Regardless of whether the viewer finds this exchange romantic or preposterous, there is some truth to Fitz’s trembling statements. Olivia has unwavering sexual and romantic power over the president —one of the ways in which she ‘has’ the oval. Unlike women in Sally Hemings’ position, Olivia can and often does say the crucial words: ‘I don’t work for you anymore.’ She comes and goes as she pleases. Their possession of one another, as Scandal would have it, is one of passion rather than power. Though Rhimes repeatedly claims to be uninterested in talking about race on the show, the intersectional complexity of Olitz has doubtlessly expands and complicates cultural discourse around the representation of black female sexuality on network television and in contemporary popular culture.

© Screenshot from Scandal (TV series 2012-2018)

To Scandal’s credit, the premise of Fitz and Olivia’s racially insulated love is pushed to its absolute limit in its fifth season, giving Olivia an opportunity to show a degree of anger never before seen on the show. Vice President Andrew Nichols (Jon Tenney) abducts Olivia and holds her in wretched circumstances. He uses her as an international bargaining chip, prompting Fitz to go to war against the fictional nation of West Angola, where Andrew claims to be holding her. The Vice President takes one of the most accomplished, elite black women of Washington D.C. and reduces her to a slave on auction, on very sexual terms. She escapes, and much later, is bargaining with him in a fortified basement under the White House, alone. Andrew’s sexual taunting of Olivia is shocking:

‘Are you this chatty on your hands and knees? That big mouth of your work as hard as it does now? … Underneath those expensive clothes, you’re just another cheap slut who thinks she’s something better than that. Always surprised me how much you went for. $2 billion was it? I wonder what I would get now, if I auctioned you again, put you back on the open market’. (S5; E17)

By reducing her to nothing but her supposedly depreciating sexual value once she has been ‘used’ by the President, Andrew hits the deepest nerve and presents the most violent challenge to the universal appeal of Olivia’s character, and the avoidance of ‘angry black woman’ trope. Whereas Eli and Russell respond directly to accusations of being angry black men and get angry, Olivia never responds, never code-switches, never references the stereotypes that her character is carefully designed to counteract. In this scene, she is set up to react to the white man who enslaved her. Uncharacteristically, here she does not do so verbally. In a graphic (and deeply gratifying) scene, Olivia picks up a chair and repeatedly smashes it down on Andrew until his face is reduced to a thick red pulp. (S5; E17) Olivia takes back her subjectivity as a black woman whose sexual agency and professional life cannot be taken by a racist, sexist white man.

However, the contemporary U.S. political landscape suggests we cannot simply eliminate white supremacist misogynists in power. The writers of Scandal continuously push against the news of the day with growing feminist wins on the show: Mellie Grant becomes the first female president, with Olivia Pope as her first black female chief of staff while outside Shondaland, Hillary Clinton suffered a crushing defeat against President Donald J. Trump. Not all representations of the female rise to power, however, are positive. When Olivia usurps her father and becomes Command, the leader of B613, she has for all intents and purposes taken over the world. By then she has long concluded her relationship with Fitz and halts her sexual relationship with Jake to maintain professional boundaries as his superior. Mellie too focuses her attention on her role as president and must choose between the possibility of romance and strength as a stateswoman. Powerful men can afford the distraction of sex and romance, but for Mellie and Olivia, relationships with men are not a distraction, but a form of sleeping with the enemy and weakening one’s position. Together, they wreak havoc no different from their male counterparts (if perhaps more thoughtfully). As the show teaches us continually, power corrupts regardless of race and gender. Olivia grows monstrous and suffers a crushing downfall as Command. Scandal’s last season sees Olivia humbling herself to gain lost friendships, restore her reputation, and most importantly, ‘wear the white hat’ once more.

The success of Scandal in its first two years opened the door for How to Get Away With Murder airing first in 2014. Black female protagonist Viola Davis plays renowned law professor Annalise Keating who embodies other, differently transgressive representations of black female sexuality. Comparisons and celebration of both shows inspired a crossover episode in which Olivia and Annalise collaborate to challenge the justice system in its failures to provide black men with fair trials. This is the first time Olivia Pope is presented with another, equally strong black female figure. Having Annalise as Olivia’s foil explicitly explodes the work that class and exceptionalism does for Olivia’s character from the perspective of another strong black female character who was born with none of Olivia’s privileges. In an epic showdown inside, significantly, a hair salon (the female equivalent to the barbershop, an important space for brotherhood and friendly negotiation in representations of black male culture), Annalise and Olivia share family stories and bond through shared experiences of being powerful black women in white-dominated spheres of power. Tables soon turn, and the two attack one another with rounds of race-inflected classism. Annalise says:

‘You judged me immediately. Just like a white man in a boardroom looking down on me because my hips are too wide and my hue too dark. …Oh, we soul sisters just ’cause you in and out a hair salon for a few hours on the black side of town? Please. I dealt with plenty of bougie-ass black woman just like you who spend most of your life in boarding schools, Ivy League universities, with a horse between your legs and a silver spoon in your mouth’. (S7; E12)

Olivia responds to this devastating read by hanging tight to her privilege. She claims she does not have to answer to anyone, especially Annalise, who came in on the ‘Boltbus’, and whose hair she’s happy to go ahead and pay for with her ‘siddity-ass platinum card’. For fans of both shows, the scene where Olivia and Annalise overcome their differences while sassing each other beyond what any other character on either show would attempt offers another portrait of the range of black female representation that Shondaland alone makes possible.

Ethical responsibility toward the truth and female collaboration within and across race reveals itself as Scandal’s ideological core. Olivia teams up with Annalise to help poor black men across the country. She exposes B613’s corruptions to salvage Mellie’s presidency, preserving the first female president’s legacy. The swelling emotions around girl power are tremendous, and this time, they don’t come at the expense of true friendship and love with male paramours. The question of the masculinist hermeneutics of power remains murky, unanswered, but hope, therefore, is the point. ‘I’m making TV look the way the world looks,’ Rhimes claims. By the end of the show, this may be a future we desperately hope to see in a political period when the civil liberties of women and people of colour are under drastic threat. It is perhaps for this reason that the show’s impact is so important: life tends to reflect art as art provides images that reflect audacious possibilities for being in the world.

The season finale drives this home. Hope is figured through the image of two black girls who visit the White House and experience a moment of awe as their eyes fixate on an enormous portrait of Olivia in a flowing white blouse and a voluminous light blue skirt, her hair natural. A portrait of a black woman in the White House, a clear reference to the discourse around the Obama portraits, changes the landscape of representation. Representations of women of colour inspire women of colour, call on the broader public to expand our understanding of the complexities of full humanity, and assert the right to see that humanity’s acknowledgement and celebration. The two girls exchange a look that communicates a shared understanding of seeing something important: a portrait of a beautiful black woman in the White House framed by the words of the Constitution. The girls, and viewers, clearly see the words ‘We the people’ superimposed on Olivia’s portrait, staking a claim that that the girls and Olivia are integrated into the American political fabric as citizens to whom the Constitution’s protections, today rendered precarious, are extended in the true image of what it means to be American. This is a portrait of possibility.


[1]  Smith represented Monica Lewinsky, was a member of the George H. W. Bush White House and is a co-executive producer of the show.

[2]  Significantly, Julia Baker is the name of the protagonist of the 1968-1971 American sitcom Julia, notable for being the first weekly series to feature a non-stereotypical African American character, played by Diahann Caroll.

[3] ‘Olitz’ is the term Scandal fans use to describe Olivia and Fitz as a romantic entity.


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TV Series Episodes

‘A Door Marked ‘Exit’, Scandal 3.10, Netflix, directed by Tom Verica. USA: Disney ABC, 2013.

‘A Few Good Women’,  Scandal 4.21, Netflix, directed by Oliver Bokelberg. USA: Disney ABC, 2015.

‘Allow Me to Re-Introduce Myself’, Scandal 7.12, Netflix, directed by Tony Goldwyn. USA: Disney ABC, 2018.

‘An Innocent Man’,  Scandal 4.6, Netflix, directed by Jeannot Szwarc. USA: Disney ABC, 2014.

‘Day 101’, Scandal 7.3 Netflix, directed by Scott Foley. USA: Disney ABC, 2017.

‘Dogwhistle Politics’,  Scandal 5.4, Netflix, directed by Zetna Fuentes. USA: Disney ABC, 2015.

‘Happy Birthday Mr. President’,  Scandal 2.8, Netflix, directed by Oliver Bokelberg. USA: Disney ABC, 2012.

‘Inside The Bubble’, Scandal 4.3, Netflix, directed by Randy Zisk. USA: Disney ABC, 2015.

‘It’s Good To Be Kink’,  Scandal 4.16, Netflix, directed by Paul McCrane. USA: Disney ABC, 2015.

‘Mama Said Knock You Out’,  Scandal 3.15, Netflix, directed by Tony Goldwyn. USA: Disney ABC, 2014.

‘Randy, Red, Superfreak, and Julia’, Scandal 4.1, Netflix, directed by Tom Verica. USA: Disney ABC, 2014.

‘Sweet Baby’,  Scandal 1.1, Netflix, directed by Paul McGuigan. USA: Disney ABC, 2013.

‘Thwack’,  Scandal 5.17, Netflix, directed by Tony Goldwyn. USA: Disney ABC, 2013.

‘Vermont Is For Lovers, Too’,  Scandal 3.8, Netflix, directed by Ava DuVernay. USA: Disney ABC, 2013.

‘Where The Sun Don’t Shine’, Scandal 4.9, Netflix, directed by Tony Goldwyn. USA: Disney ABC, 2014.

‘White Hat’s Back On’,  Scandal 2.22, Netflix, directed by Tom Verica. USA: Disney ABC, 2013.

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