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 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.

The Front Porch
Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Receive the latest updates from The Front Porch

Invalid email address
Stay up to date with us.

23 Comments

  • Avatar Pastor Rodrick Sweet says:

    Brother thank you for this, I have never watched the show but members of my church as well as pastors friends and their wives are hooked on it. I will share this with all of them!

  • Avatar Macaluso99 says:

    Sorry, but you lost all credible when you say Olivia Pope has a lot of sex scenes. In 39 episodes, there have been less than 10 sex scenes on the show. Olivia is actually shown as living a rather lonely life by not being with the man she loves not as a sexually promiscuous woman.

    Olivia is not being raped or forced to have sex by anyone on the show so your comparison is completely off base.

    Also, Olivia is a grown woman who does not need her father permissions to live as she chooses. Her relationships are based on her good or bad decisions.

    Your patriarchal view of women is out dated and distressing to read.

  • Avatar Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    Bro Rodrick,

    Thanks for joining us on the porch, man! Thanks for the encouragement. I pray the post encourages your friends and their wives.

    T-

  • Avatar Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    Dear Macaluso99,

    Welcome to The Front Porch! I’m glad you joined the conversation. And I want you to know you’re welcome here. It’s good to have some friendly disagreement from time-to-time. That’s how we all grow.

    Actually, there are far more than 10 sex scenes in the first three seasons. She has that many with the president alone. Then there’s Jake and the Senator suitor. And, sadly, she is involved sexually with some of these men at the same time.

    I don’t think my comparisons are off base. For example, Millie was forcibly raped by her father-in-law, and that heart-breaking scene isn’t much different from the many times the president pushes himself onto Olivia. I was raised to believe “No” means “no.” In his lust, this president doesn’t seem to get that. That Pope finally acquiesces in a lot of these scenes really perpetuates a sinful and problematic mentality (“she really wants it”) that too many men have toward women. If for no other reason than the defense of women, I think the writers would be more responsible to eliminate this aspect of Pope’s moral confusion.

    I don’t think I ever said she needed her father’s permission to live as she chooses. I’m simply lamenting the sad life that’s portrayed. Having said that, I’m happy to be called “patriarchal” if that means I believe fathers are more than paychecks and should be there for their little girls and their grown daughters. Part of “being there” means guiding them in matters of the heart and protecting them from predators. If that’s “patriarchy” rather than “parenting,” then I’m guilty of suggesting patriarchy in this post. But that kind of “patriarchy” is far better than the immorality portrayed on the show.

    You’re welcome on the porch any time. Grace and peace to you,
    Thabiti

  • Avatar Macaluso99 says:

    “Actually, there are far more than 10 sex scenes in the first three
    seasons. She has that many with the president alone. Then there’s Jake
    and the Senator suitor. And, sadly, she is involved sexually with some
    of these men at the same time.”

    That is completely FALSE. A pastor should not tell lies. We have not seen that many sex scenes – I an recall only scenes in 106, 208, 211, 218, 220, 221, 222 and 308. That is 8 out of 39 episodes unless you are counting sex scenes for other characters like Abby and Quinn. In general Scandal has fewer sex scenes than most adult drama or comedy shows on television.

    Also, there is never a reason to compare rape with consensual sex. NEVER EVER The President has never raped or forced Olivia to have sex. She has consented to their relations.

    No grown woman wants her father interfering in her life or making decisions for her. Your views are antiquated and condescending towards women.

    BTW, Kerry Washington is not Olivia. She was honored by the NAACP for her acting performance as she was also nominated for other awards like EMMY, Golden Globes, SAG, etc. Please do not confuse the real life person with a fictional character.

  • Avatar Louis Love says:

    No father patriarchal or not wants his daughter grown or not having sex ONE time with someone other than her husband and certainly not another woman’s husband.
    If this is antiquated, call me Fred Flintstone.

    Gimme me a break!

    Okay T, I just had to say that.

  • Avatar Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    Hi Macaluso99,

    Thanks for continuing to engage this topic. Let me say a couple things to clarify, re-state my basic premise, and then leave you the last word should you wish to take it.

    First, unless you’re actually reviewing all the episodes or keeping some kind of count of sex scenes, I’m guessing we’re both working from recall. Either one of us is correct and the other wrong, or we’re both wrong. But in any case, I’m not lying or trying to give anyone a false impression. I don’t know about “most adult drama or comedy shows” since I actually watch very little television apart from “Chopped.” So, why don’t we assume the best of one another and I’ll take your word for it, though my impression is there are many more scenes than the ones you recall.

    Second, there are many scenes where Pope is consensual. But, there are many other scenes where she repeatedly tries to rebuff his advances and starts by saying, “No.” I would not call these scenes rape scenes, but I would certainly consider them inappropriate advances however we view them. When she says “no,” he should stop. Period. End of encounter. I’m contending that the failure to do so blurs the lines between consensual and non-consensual intercourse and that the stronger moral position must certainly be the one many of us have learned over the years. Specifically, if a woman says “no”–however confused or weak–the man must stop. Let us not forget that many actual rapes have occurred precisely because a man refused to stop when given either a clear “no” or a mixed message. So when the president grabs her arms, as he sometimes does, or takes her face in his hands when she’s trying to pull away, or physically maneuvers her into parts of the oval office where they cannot be taped or closets off the hallway, I think he’s crossed the line. And I don’t think that can be gainsayed.

    Third, I’m in no way confusing Kerry Washington with Olivia Pope. I’m sure Ms. Washington is a wonderful woman. But if the image award is given to her for her depictions of black women, it’s worth asking what the award means when a character like Olivia Pope is part of her body of work. But I’m not confusing the very real Kerry Washington with the fictional Pope.

    As for the main point: Once again, this post isn’t about a father’s “interference” in his daughter’s life. It’s about the image of African-American women in this show. I maintain that the portrayal of Olivia Pope gets some things right and presents some other problems. For me, the problems outweigh the virtues, and even what it gets right is simply another way of pointing to significant problems in the lives of some Black women. Let’s stay focused on the main point of the post, please.

    Again, I appreciate your perspective and your willingness to share it. You’re welcome here. And in respect, I offer you the last word in this exchange if you’d like to have it.

    The Lord bless you greatly,
    Thabiti

  • Avatar Larry Miles says:

    I wrote a post on my Facebook page back in December, which I’ll share for “chopping.”

    Scandal the TV show

    The Romans 1:18-32 truth has become so vivid, believers are, arguably
    being hoodwinked to disregard it. We want all this revival, a “move of
    God” our latter to be greater, salvation to our families and communities,
    church “unusual,” and the rest. The question is, “What price are you
    willing to pay?”

    Here are some of the arguments, “It’s just a TV show” “For cryin out loud, ease up and enjoy life,” “Don’t be so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good,” (That’s a good one), “Stop hatin,” “Evrathang aint about the Bible.” “You need a reality check,” “You take things too seriously,” “That girl is a gifted writer,”
    “Do yo thang girl, and git paid while you doin it,” “I’m grown; I watch what I wanna watch.”

    Is Satan real? Is he identifiable only when we are having problems, when we are sick, when Ray-Ray is sentenced to 20 yrs? When somebody is lying on us? When our “money is funny?”

    How about when he is intriguing? Has us captive in a certain place, for a certain time? Has us devoted so much so, we become heralders and witnesses to others? Has us “speaking in tongues” the wondrous works of a TV show?

    Can you passionately discuss the “Scandal,” of the cross for an hour? Do you or have you picked up on the nuances of Calvary? Can you talk non-stop about the efficacy of the Cross?

    “Scandal,” (the show) is a further desensitizing of that which began as suggestive, in Three’s Company, the “Odd” Couple, Wonder Woman, Queer as Folk, Will and Grace, Oz and others. Shonda Rhimes has taken it to and over the line beginning with Grey’s Anatomy introducing a LGBT agenda. (Remember when Isaiah Washington was fired?) “Scandal” further perpetuates an LGBT agenda, (and others) bringing a pornographic, homosexual, sadistic, evil scheming, debauched, licentious lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh and the pride of life actualization before our eyes. (But, the church has a problem because Obama endorsed same-sex marriage?) And you worship at the altar of “Scandal?” and…and you want revival?

  • Avatar Larry Miles says:

    Macaluso99, Pope is clearly depicted as a public success and a private failure. She is portrayed as an outwardly powerful woman, but inwardly weak, relative to having no boundaries pursuant to an adulterous, extra-marital affair as the “other woman.” She is portrayed as conflicted by it because it really is empty, but you can (excuse me please, everybody) “git tha draws.” A successful woman, without a healthy, stable loving, monogamous, relationship. In the streets, she’d be known as a “jump off.”

    What is subtle, yet screams, is she is an alcoholic. All you see her do at home is drink wine. Red wine is sexy, but its alcohol nonetheless. Counting the glasses she drinks is not the issue. It is the imagery. You dont see her cooking, or maintaining her home, etc. At home she is a tightly wound, on the verge of “losing it” wine drinker. She has no healthy friendships, no depth to her personal character. Just a rather shallow, “doing well at the job” woman conflicted on all ends. My point, since it is a black woman, is, a portrayal of the black woman that needs to be resisted and rejected. Television is powerful. The image is, a successful, powerful, “baller” black woman may be an “easy lay,” coupled with having “jungle fever.” (who somebody is attracted to is fine, however, on a personal note).

  • Avatar Georgetta Carvin says:

    Love the article Thabiti. Since I’ve never seen an episode of the show, I know that the show breeds the wrong portrayal of African American women and women in general. For some reason shows like that just do not capture my attention because for me, I don’t agree with the message that it sends. Furthermore, on another note, the same can be said of the new show that Gabrielle Union portrays….Being Mary Jane.

  • Avatar Tony Carter says:

    Brothers watching past episodes of Scandal? Even if I did, I wouldn’t tell nobody :).

  • Avatar Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    Bro. Miles,

    You raised some money questions for us all: “Can you passionately discuss the “Scandal,” of the cross for an hour? Do you or have you picked up on the nuances of Calvary? Can you talk non-stop about the efficacy of the Cross?”

    Amen.
    T-

  • Avatar Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    Ha! I wasn’t gone tell nobody but I just couldn’t keep it to myself! 🙂
    T-

  • Avatar Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    I haven’t seen or heard about the Gabrielle Union show. Truthfully, I’m usually a lot like you. A show titled “Scandal” pretty much put me off from the start. If it wasn’t for friends and family members going on like this woman was real (usually an indication of some strong themes and writing), I would still be playing CivV on my laptop. But they drew me in and then I had to reflect on what I was seeing–or sometimes fast forwarding past. Personally, I’d rather see more Claire Huxtables or even Florida Evans.
    T-

  • Avatar Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    Bro. Miles,

    I completely missed the point about the alcohol. You’re right. At home she is a total wreck, and that glass of wine does seem to be her comfort. Great observation.

    T-

  • Avatar Tony Carter says:

    Sho nuff!

  • Avatar Larry Miles says:

    Doc T,

    I appreciate you and the rest of the brothas. Glad to be welcomed by the Porch. BTW…Starting a Bible class in my community Feb 9th at the local middle school, (Middle River, Md) Keep me in your prayers. Am Reformed and Nehemiah 8:8 will be my construct. River Bible Study Group.”Explaining What The Bible Means, By What It Says.”

  • Avatar Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    Praise God! Praying for you this morning, brother. Keeps planting and watering, then look to God for the increase!
    T-

  • Avatar Anikay says:

    Scandal is a TV show. Ms Pope is not cast as a Christian or member of any religious body.

    My question; Why don’t saved women try and become their own best examples? Why don’t they try and live moral lifestyles?
    Instead, too many are co habituating and having multiple babies by multiple men all while hollering to everyone in sight; “my pastor, my church, the bible”
    Of course the accompanying refrain is “Don’t judge me, only God can judge me!”

    Also with respect to being fatherless, the show is fiction and Ms. Pope is an adult (Her on scree father is also very much in her life)
    But the reality is many of the 70% of Black children born to unwed parents are also born to those who are church going Christians
    Everyone knows most Black churches are filled with never wed mothers and children born out of wedlock. Black women have accepted the lie that they can raise men. (Oh yes I know there are exceptions) But why have Black Christians decided that not being married or raising children within a marriage should be a normal status? It is not, it’s an aberration.

    Two generations ago saved women could be identified by their clothes as well as their behavior.
    Today you have the singer from the Mary Mary group wearing a skin tight white dress on a photo shoot with a weave down to her waist. Her reaction to the criticism was to state that “Christian women should be able to get their sexy cues from other Christian women in the church and not just those outside”.
    Yet another gossip singer and single mother of three became impregnated by one of her band members

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8RsaGseChA&noredirect=1
    (warning; lots of profanity)

    The Christian folk in your tweeter feed enjoy the show. Many have a similar lifestyle; multiple sexual partners and pursuit of bling.

    Want moral character on screen? Don’t look to Hollywood. I suggest you not even look toward the church. Too many just talking the non stop, (in others face) religious talk.

  • Avatar Brenda Jones says:

    Greetings, Pastor T….from the Chattanooga, Tennessee gang. I started on the Scandal boat but quickly jumped overboard, it was just too much for me. Tried HTGAWM, again, too much. Finally thought I had a winner with CATCH, but to no avail. Finally, a friend told me….”TV shows with one word titles are usually not worth watching”. Well she was right, that has proven to be more truer than false lately. Thanks for the articles, many blessings to you, your wife and the FRONT PORCH GANG!! CANT WAIT TO SEE YOU ALL IN 2017.

Leave a Reply

The Front Porch

Conversations about biblical
faithfulness in African-American
churches and beyond