01.29.14

Fatherless Daughters and Wayward Desires: Black Women As Portrayed by the Alluring and Maddening Olivia Pope

I know when Scandal is on television. I knew when it was on long before I had any interest in watching it. Receiving so many tweets about Scandal was peculiar to me since most of the folks in my twitter feed are Christians. What was this show? Who was Olivia and Millie and Huck? Why did folks care so much? What was going on to elicit such emotion and all out devotion among Christian women?

My wife and I began to watch the show after seeing a gripping scene from the first episode of season 3. Joe Morgan, who plays Olivia’s father and head of a highly secretive, powerful and violent black ops intelligence agency, drags his 30-something daughter into an airplane hanger and reads her the riot act for her sexual transgressions with the president of the United States. As far as I was concerned, it was vintage Morgan as an actor and a realistic portrayal of a lot of black parenting. That in-your-face, don’t-make-me-tell-you-again-or-I’ll-knock-you-out style of parenting. I thought to myself, I need to check out this show. Not being the kind of guy who can parachute into the middle of a story, I decided to watch from season one so I could further understand the fury of this dad.

Who Is Olivia Pope?

That’s when I got to know Olivia Pope. My wife and I tuned in to consider the life of this young African-American woman. She’s powerful, fashionable, commanding, connected and loyalty-inspiring. Based on a real-life “cleaner,” Olivia Pope specializes in making scandals go away. She considers her clients, trusts her gut, and throws herself into their defense and often their personal lives. She adeptly plays the angles and does so for the most powerful people in the world—presidents, South American dictators, the ultra-wealthy, war heroes and the like. When they’re in trouble, they come to Olivia—who literally wears white on the show. She and her crew are the good guys. And her crew is made up of several tragic characters, deeply broken people, rescued by Olivia at some very low point in their lives. There’s the former black ops asset whose mind is twisted by the things he’s done, the brilliant attorney who barely survived brutal beatings at the hands of her political-elite husband, the smooth talking car salesman who had some dealings with a still-unrevealed terrorist barred from the country, and another young attorney once framed for a domestic act of terrorism. Did I mention this was a night-time soap opera?

“She’s powerful, fashionable, commanding, connected and loyalty-inspiring.”

Olivia lives by her gut. It tells her what to do in her world of gray, complex and often competing moral realities. But what do you do when your “gut” is broken, when that informal compass of right-and-wrong goes spinning in all directions because there’s magnetic interference. In Pope’s case, she loses her moral center when she helps the president’s advisors steal his presidential election and becomes involved with him sexually. She becomes a roiling ball of emotion unable to make decisions for herself, pacing in circles and straight lines. She loses all sense of self-control and empowerment, easily conquered sexually by every suitor. There’s the president, who she helped elect, and who “takes her” nearly every time she’s in the same room—any room: the Oval Office, the campaign headquarters, the broom closet, and so on. There’s also Jake, a Navy friend of the president and former agent for her father, who “fell in love with her” when assigned to spy on her for the president.

Some Realities Reflected in Scandal’s Olivia Pope

What does Olivia Pope teach us about the femininity and beauty of young African-American women? First, the accurate bits. Nearly every reputable social science study I know reveals that girls that grow up without their fathers or with an unengaged father (as Pope did) are more likely to be sexually active younger and with more partners over their lifetimes, I wonder if this correlates over to actresses that make films for sites like nu-bay.com. I don’t think this is the intent of the show’s producers, but the in-and-out-of-bed Pope tells us something tragic about the current state of fatherless families and some of the daughters who grow up in them. Here’s a woman who doesn’t like to be touched in ordinary displays of genuine affection (i.e., hugs) but can’t seem to avoid the more predatory handling of men. It’s a heart-wrenching portrait of the strange confluence of emotional detachment and physical promiscuity that can develop with father absence. When such detachment happens the body often does things it wouldn’t ordinarily do.

Moreover, the show allows us to glimpse another frustration faced by some professional African-American women. Pope has pedigree. She’s gone to the finest boarding schools and universities in the country. In a painful art-imitating-life production, she finds herself with only two similarly accomplished African-American men in her life. One is a young man that works for her, the other a senator with whom she has an on-again off-again romance that included two proposals of marriage which she turned down for an illicit adulterous relationship with the president. But, in short, the nighttime fiction of Scandal resembles the nighttime realities African-American women face when they consider marriage. And though Pope is upscale, it’s not just an upscale issue. African-American face difficulty finding marriage-ready African-American men up and down the economic ladder—a problem made more acute when we consider African-American women have the lowest rate of marriage outside their ethnic group than any other group. Again, I suspect the writers did not intend to capture this painful reality so clearly, but they did.

Three Problems in Olivia Pope’s Portrayal of Black Women

But now there are some problematic aspects of Pope’s portrayal. Frankly, the writers of Scandal simply revive the depiction of Black women as objects of illicit desire to be fulfilled lustily and hidden publicly. Think Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, or even anti-integrationist Strom Thurmond who “integrated” long and often enough with a Black woman to father a child by her. There’s very little difference between the president’s often demanding and forceful actions toward Pope and the young white farm owner in The Butler who forcibly takes a Black woman with pistol in holster while her husband and the entire sharecropping community watches in fearful silence. We’re not presented a view of Black feminine beauty that is to be admired as much as pitied by some and taken by others.

This portrayal sabotages something else the writers could have given us: a genuinely strong moral woman in a world of raging immorality. Indeed, that’s where the story starts. Pope is admired and is to be admired for her courage, intelligence, self-control and altruism. We’re meant to see her white hat and we’re meant, like the folks around her, to love her for it. It’s a deeper form of beauty on display. It’s an attractiveness that transcends ethnic categories and situations. I suppose the writers were trying to give us a character with moral flaws and contradictions, which is a hallmark of good literature. But they end up (like most television shows actually) reducing the character to a one-dimensional caricature. She does not face her moral problems but tries to sedate them with sex. Her sense of worth and identity are bound up with being “the other woman.” She turns out to have no strength at all, only a body. I’m no prophet, but when the writers reach for sex scenes so often and so graphically as the writers of Scandal do, it’s usually a season or two before the show runs out of material and rightfully gets canceled. And I think that would be a blessing given the portrayal of Black women in this show.

“This portrayal sabotages something else…”

Finally, Pope is the only Black woman in this show. Why’s that a problem? It means she stands as the universal Black woman. She’s either what all Black women are like or what all Black women should aspire to be. Not only is there no real depth and complexity to her character, there’s no depth and complexity to Black women when viewed through this show. Scandal manages to scandalize the entire group with its immoral, unintelligent display.

Should We Watch Scandal?

The short answer is “no.” If we’d rather not see centuries old stereotypes reinstated and if we care about the moral dignity of women then we should take a pass on Scandal. We should do so for the sake of our mothers, sisters and daughters who constantly face the prospect of being reduced to their bodies, made into sexual objects and exploited by men. It’s not a better situation simply because the protagonist is an African-American woman. The depiction certainly calls into question what is meant by “image” when the NAACP awards Washington its “Image Award.”

Kerry Washington is, of course, free to play a role like this. Her freedom was purchased by many women who did not have it and who faced such exploitation in more virulent forms. So while she’s free to play the role, it’s doubtful that she should. Saying, “White women have the freedom to play these kinds of roles” overlooks the fact that the dominant cultural narrative about white women has been quite different. When white women play such roles it’s attributed to either creative freedom or understood as a departure from what’s true. When black sisters do the same it reinforces a false stereotype about the sexual, moral and intellectual wantonness of Black women.

It seems a wiser course would be to use your freedom to advance righteousness. As Christian parents and pastors, that’s what we should teach our daughters. Freedom is only virtuous when it’s used to display true beauty and holiness. But such portrayals are the stuff for preaching and a genuine church community where the biblical ideals of beauty are cultivated and celebrated. We’d rather our daughters and sisters look to the stately and dignified “church mothers” than to the fashionably dressed and morally wrecked images of pop culture.

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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