ABC’s “Scandal” is a political drama about a woman named Olivia Pope who, having graduated from Princeton and Georgetown Law before serving as the White House Communications Director, now makes a living running a firm that protects the public images of the American political elite. Pope had gotten that position in the White House as a result of her work on the presidential campaign of Fitzgerald Grant (later President Grant), who she had started sleeping with. The show largely centers on the maintenance of this affair and the “deep love” that exists between these two characters (in addition to all of the scandals Olivia continues to deal with).
“Scandal” has generally been received favorably by critics and is a ratings success for ABC, but what is unusual is the source of this acclaim: the show’s most extensive and vocal support comes from within the black American community, specifically the black female community. So addicted are these females to the show that their devotion to it has become something of a meme in black America.
Black men are not nearly as enthusiastic about the show as their female counterparts. Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t think that this aversion to Scandal on the part of black men really comes down to race. I’d go as far as to posit that the show’s interracial relationship is irrelevant (I certainly could care less), as there are other issues here. What truly perplexes me about this black female devotion to Scandal is the fact that the show seems not to be in line with the stated objectives and concerns black women are most vocal about. In fact, it seems diametrically opposed to them in some cases. Take the following issues, for example:
1. “Black Men Won’t Commit”
Black women are vocal critics of black male failure to man up and marry them. They lament the black man’s supposed unwillingness to commit and make a woman a wife, and state that he is often too willing to treat her like a mistress and fail to offer her the respect she deserves. There is a reason Beyonce’s “Put a Ring On It” became such an anthem among black American women—it reflected these longstanding critiques, which commonly find their way into mainstream discourse in American media. Long story short, black men are often accused of taking black women for granted, and black women resent this.
Meanwhile, in Scandal, Olivia Pope is a side piece that Fitzgerald Grant is never actually going to marry, a reality that places her in precisely the same position that black women continuously scold black men for putting them in. Scandal is depicting precisely the kind of relationship dynamic that black women claim to hate and, somehow, this doesn’t seem to bother the women who adore the show and aspire to be Olivia Pope.
2. “The Media Too Often Portrays Black Women As Jezebels, Not Wives”
Black American women have been vocal about their portrayal in the media for a long time, claiming that their characters are all too often portrayed as overly lewd, promiscuous, immoral whores with sexual attitudes that run completely counter to the “proper” conduct of a lady. They have also claimed that white women received the opposite treatment, with their stereotypes labeling them the “proper” wives and ladies. Black women do not hide their resentment of this alleged double standard.
Scandal does them no favors, as the show appears to do nothing to contradict (and, I contend, actively reinforces) these stereotypes. The show’s lead character is a black female, and her involvement in an affair with a married politician is central to the story. In fact, Pope’s character history seems to add even more fuel to the stereotypical fire black women have been trying to extinguish with regard to their sexuality. Olivia Pope is an extremely well educated woman: she went to prep schools for almost the entirety of her early life before undergrad at Princeton and three years at Georgetown Law. She did not grow up in a money-scarce environment and is far from the stereotypical hoodrat you’d expect to be associated with the “Jezebel” caricature black women have been fighting. Olivia Pope is supposed to have “class”.
And yet, despite all of that, Pope is still a sidepiece. She did not need to be: unmarried, eligible suitors were present in her life, but she did not want them. In fact, she turned them down specifically because of her desire to remain a married man’s mistress. She voluntarily maintains her status as a side-piece despite his continued marriage and the presence of his family. All the while, Grant’s wife Melody hasn’t even had an affair, remaining loyal to him despite his infidelity.
Pope appears to be the much maligned black “jezebel” of old, whose allegedly uncontrollable lust and sexual appetite resulted in her engaging in actions that directly countered the ideal of the “proper” lady and could be considered immoral (ex: willingly maintaining very active sexual relationships with married men), while Grant’s wife looks like the “proper”, moral white lady standing by her husband. It would be difficult to draw up a situation more in line with old racialized American gender stereotypes.
Again, it would be another thing entirely if Pope was an uneducated chick from the hood. In that scenario, you’d be able to put her behavior down to her lack of schooling or class. This is not the case, however: Pope has always been well-off and is incredibly well educated. By showing that even the most affluent, well educated and professionally accomplished black women will, when given the choice, elect to remain the sidepiece instead of becoming the lady, Scandal does a great deal to affirm and promote a powerfully negative old stereotype of the black female.
3. “Black Men Are Irresponsible”
Black women are vocal critics of black male failure in the household. Too often, black women say, black men step out on their children and their families. They cheat all the time. They are either never there at all or they’re there but getting some on the side and not committing to fatherhood the way they ought to. This type of “dog” behavior is not ok and is undermining the stability of the black family, they contend. Black men “need to do better”.
In Scandal, however, Fitzgerald Grant is a cheater who spends much of his time stepping out on his family for Olivia, his sidepiece. This obviously compromises his ability to fully commit to his responsibilities as a husband and father, and negatively impacts the stability of his family. Legions of black women love the relationship anyway. Odd, considering the fact that it involves a man engaging in precisely the kind of behavior that they have long voiced their distaste for.
4. “Black Men Overlook Black Women”
Black women are vocal critics of black male mate choice. They lament the notion that educated black men with options all too often select women of other races, shunning women who look like them. These men, they say, seem not to place enough value on black women, or simply don’t consider them good enough to stand by their side. By not making black women (and especially educated black women) a priority, these men devalue black females. Some go as far as to label this “abandonment” an act of disloyalty on the part of black men.
Olivia had a man who is (at least in the show’s universe) the most powerful black male on the planet. Edison Davis is Pres. Pro Tempore of the Senate (3rd in line of Presidential succession) and likely one of the two or three most powerful legislators in the United States (he would need to be to receive and hold that kind of title, especially as a black male—note the dearth of black senators in the US today). The guy is the definition of the kind of “good black man” that black women spend so much time complaining about, the kind of man they say all too often doesn’t make educated black women enough of a priority.
But Edison doesn’t seem to fit that mold. He wants a black woman, and he wants her to be his wife. He knows all about her intellect and all of her degrees, and still doesn’t shy away from the prospect of marrying her. And, again, he wants her to be his wife, not his sidepiece. What happens to him?
Pope blows him off (not once, but twice) in order to remain the primary sidepiece of a married man who won’t wife her up and who is stepping out on his family (including his pregnant wife). Her explanation? A strong desire for “painful, difficult, devastating” love which Edison is just too decent to provide.
Legions of the show’s black female fans cheer this on: they hate Edison with an almost unreal passion (he really doesn’t appear to earn quite the level of disgust they have for him) and are happy to see him blown off in the way he was. Scandal’s depiction of this relationship and the fanbase’s reaction to it just doesn’t seem in line with the complaints black women so often have about the educated black male’s lack of respect for his educated female counterpart as a romantic partner. The explanation Pope gave is odd as well give the tendency of black females to complain about the pain and devastation their lovers frequently leave them with (via infidelity, lack of emotional support, failure to support children, etc, etc).
None of this makes sense. Why are black women so devoted to a show that depicts one of their own in a relationship with a man that involves all of the dynamics they’ve been vocally campaigning against for generations? Tulani Elisa at the Huffington Post has her own ideas as to why Scandal is so revered by her demographic:
Shonda Rhimes has written a character that depicts black women as they see themselves and more importantly how they’d like society to view them.
…Scandal shows us a woman that we can in some ways relate to and even more so aspire (loosely as it may be) to be like.
…once a week for 60 minutes we’re able to engross ourselves in ideals and excitement of the ever so complex, charming and clever life of a strong black woman.
Sounds about right.
Perhaps the most salient romantic advice I’ve ever read in the manosphere comes in the form of this simple saying: “Watch what they do, not what they say”. Though apparently very simple and straightforward, this statement is remarkably profound in its ability to actually illustrate the legendary female inability to articulate their actual wants and desires. Scandal’s popularity among black women merely provides further evidence of this within the context of the black American community.
Black women say they are bothered by men who take them for granted, cheat on their spouses and fail to fully commit to them romantically, but their action (adoration of Olivia Pope’s character and pedestalizaton of her lifestyle) shows us that such things bother them much less than they care to admit. The same goes for their relationship with modern hip-hop: black women say they are disappointed by the rampant “misogyny” in certain crude hip-hop lyrics, but are among the most vocal supporters of those artists at the end of the day. Once again, action proves superior to the spoken word in its ability to illustrate the true wants and desires of a female.
Scandal shows black American women being what they want to be and living the kind of life they want to live. That life is one filled with the very things they noisily complain about: disloyal men stepping out on their families, a lack of wedding rings and the continuous justification of the very old, pervasive negative racial stereotypes about their sexuality they claim to oppose. In Olivia Pope, the modern educated black woman of today has found a visual representation of what she really aspires to be: a well-dressed, career-focused, permanent sidechick with a whole bunch of degrees.
More power to ‘em, I guess.
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