Confession: I love Scandal; I go through withdrawal the moment my Thursday clock hits 10:01PM. I love Scandal and I love Olivia Pope. Reality Check: Not everyone agrees with me.Second Reality Check: As with most things, life would be better (for them and me) if they just did. Final Reality Check: I have slight issues but that is another post. Mo Ivory over at CBS Atlanta published “Olivia Pope is No Different Than Any Other Reality Chick (She Just Costs More),” and in it she proceeds to analyze Oliva Pope and Scandal and comes to the conclusion that Miss Pope is a lot more of the same, and that she, and those of us who also complain about reality shows and their depictions of women of color, is a hypocrite because she likes Scandal. Ivory makes a considerable effort to break down the show and expose its flaws, and in a committed determined effort show us that:
Olivia Pope is no different than Joseline from “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta” or Kim from “Real Housewives of Atlanta” – she just has more expensive clothes, a higher paying job and tighter security. She is no breath of fresh air, nuanced or complicated, and definitely not a rarity in black female representation. She is merely presented on a shiny platter in a sparkly house instead of at the bar in a strip club.
Excuse me, just a queer black boi here, but um, yeah, no. Olivia Pope is not at all like the women Ivory listed, and moreover Ivory’s entire piece is just problematic. Her argument pretty much hinges on the embracement of a politics of respectability. Can we just agree that while the status quo is not desirable, the politics of respectability is not much better either?
Much of Ivory’s gripe seems to circle around Miss Pope’s sexual life. Sigh. This to me is the only thing about this whole argument that is familiar Black Women are often damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Let’s put this in context: Scandal is a Shonda Rhimes show; I don’t even currently watch other Shonda Rhimes shows but I used to watch Grey’s Anatomy so I know that on each of her shows, her main female characters (who have all been characterized as strong but flawed) have engaged in extramarital affairs. So in that sense, Scandal is following a Rhimes formula. In another context, Olivia Pope is the latest in a long line of women post Ally McBeal who have their professional lives tight (at least at the beginning of the series) and their personal lives are a mess. Think of this as the female equivalent of the very male antihero ( Olivia Pope: Don Draper). What is refreshing about Scandal is that it refuses to victimize Olivia Pope, and much like the (problematic) character Carrie Bradshaw from Sex & the City dares and demands that you love her and root for her despite her being a mistress and doing things you don’t agree with. There is not much room in pop culture for Black and Latina women to be flawed in any way (and if you disagree just wait for the respectability police to speak) and still respected, admired, and strong. Scandal demands this from its audience.
Now let’s talk about the rest of the article. Ivory just gets facts wrong.
1) “She’s having an affair with a married man who made sure he secured a really good job for her that she has been able to turn into a profitable business.” ~ Ivory. Ummmm No. Cyrus brought Olivia Pope in to help Fitz. You can bet Cyrus was not wanting an affair as that would just be a problem for him to clean up. Fitz was attracted to Olivia because she was beautiful and smart, and the show has implied she is opposite from his wife. Indeed, while we can see what draws him to Olivia and Olivia to him, what we have not seen is what drew him to Millie in the first place. Olivia left the White House because she did not want to just continue the affair. She started her own business So at no point during any of this did Fitz help her. She helped him.
2) “She sneaks over in the middle of the night for booty calls and has her “yes” men and women to cover her tracks.” Ummmmm yes and no; middle of the night illicit sexual sessions are somewhat par for the course in affairs, but this has also happened, more often, during the day and in the daylight. Her ” ‘yes’ men and women” do not really know about her personal life; the only exception is Huck.
3) “She keeps a thug around (Huck) for protection and to do her dirty work.” Huck is not just a “thug.” He is a smart, internet savvy, Latino with a certain set of skills; he used to work for the government and he is damaged. It is no wonder they have such a bond because after Olivia, Huck is arguably the most interesting character on the show.
4) “She keeps a good guy on the side who she should “really be with” in order for her to claim to herself and others that she is finished being a whore.” She doesn’t keep Edison on the side (she finally broke up with him); he popped BACK into her life and she decided to end things with Fitz and date Edison. What is important here, at least what I find interesting, is that Edison shows that Olivia doesn’t date weak or unambitious men. She is a woman who demands an equal (black or white); this is different from the script Black women are often fed. A white woman may have sung it, but Black (and Latina) women have been living the damn “Stand by Your Man” life way too long.
And can we please address the language Ivory uses: “whore,” “stripper,” “escort,” “hooker.” I am skeptical about a piece that seems to judge a person (but especially women and queer people) based upon their sexuality and its expression. At no point is Olivia Pope paid for her sexual services, and at no point can she be boiled down to just what is between her legs.
My biggest gripe with Ivory is that there are things to criticize about Scandal but this whole respectability angle really isn’t one of them, or at the very least it is the weakest aspect. We could talk about the Olivia’s obsession with the color white; the seemingly asexual nature of the very attractive Harrison (I am holding out hope that he is gay); the way Olivia had Harrison use Abby’s history with domestic violence against her; Quinn’s presence on the show; the way Shonda Rhimes is address same-sex adoption with Cyrus always manipulating James, and James always ready to drop anything and everything when he hears the word baby (an odd subversion of the typical man-woman paring, and a possible commentary on homonormative Americans [granted I doubt it]); the characterization of Millie; a SCOTUS justice not being aware that Huck would be tortured; Olivia Pope continuing a looooooong tired tradition of Black women taking care of everything and everyone around them and leaving little to nothing for themselves. You see, tons of stuff. And yet, Ivory chose to write what? Incorrect, weak stuff.