Is Scandal Responsible for the Shift in How Black Women are Portrayed on Television?
No this post isn’t presenting a novel idea as clearly Scandal has been around since 2012. But this is a prequel of sorts for subsequent posts.
ABC’s Scandal or rather Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal is a highly popular television drama. Everyone loves a good scandal, so this show appealed to the masses. While its cast is not largely black, the show’s lead character and several supporting characters are. Scandal depicted, (among other things) a common workplace experience for black professionals, at least in my almost 20 years of work experience. This groundbreaking show essentially highlighted the greatness that is a black woman (Olivia Pope) at the top of her field. Scandal’s narrative is one we had yet to witness in depth on the small screen. Pope was the one that white folks turned to, to fix their problems. She is powerful and effective, and how could she not be if she is the U.S. President’s trusted advisor.
Except for my summer stint as a paralegal assistant in a small Haitian law ﬁrm in Philadelphia and working for the city of Philadelphia, most of my life I’ve been a strong performer in a mostly sea of white workers and managers. I’ve risen through the ranks relatively quickly in 6 of the last 7 positions I’ve held to include lower and middle management. There were many days I felt very much like Olivia Pope. While I frequently found myself in a position of power, my counterparts and superiors did not look like me, but yet they would come to me for work advice, to handle a crisis, mentor, train, and make big decisions that affected the organization at large. This was my everyday life, yet there was no image on television that mirrored my story. Olivia Pope in Scandal was the closest image to which I could relate.
But let’s be real, I am NOT Olivia Pope, nor do I know anyone personally (of any race) who is as powerful and as connect as she is (where it matters). I consider my social network of black folks who are “doing the damn thing” somewhere between Olivia Pope and well…here’s the thing. The scale goes from Olivia Pope to the Joseline Hernandez’ of VH1’s ratchet reality television. There is no happy medium. But we (the network of prosperous black folks) are much closer to the Pope spectrum of things than we are to the Hernandez spectrum.
So yes, Scandal did change the way black woman are portrayed on television, because it gave us an alternative to the images we’ve been accustomed to seeing. The images of women who were personified by their roles as the “wife of” or the “mother of” instead of her standing on her own accord.
There are so many young black minds that are rising to the top of their fields’. Sure there have been a few positive images of black lives on television (The Cosby Show, Family Matters), but most never portrayed a black woman as the power player. Scandal may have been the inauguration of television that combats the racial stereotypes of yesteryear. We have never seen this reality on television where the white characters are supporting the lead black character; at least not in anything I can remember seeing. This was a new dichotomy to what we have seen of black women and men plastered on our television screens.
Guess what, black women are not all angry, or mothers of multiple children with different fathers, or any of the number of negative racial stereotypes commonly depicted in unscripted television. Sure there are critics that will argue that the new wave of black female led television is just an over sexualized and inaccurate depiction of black women. But the truth is that sex sells. And it really does not matter what you turn on television, chances are sex will be a lead character. It is not a trait that is inherent of lead black characters on television.
We as black women are a myriad of things and while the lead character, Olivia Pope, certainly has her character flaws, she gave us an alternative to the sitcom roles without depth of merely a mother or a wife and the opposite extreme of low class or the “ratchetness” that is black reality television. Olivia Pope in Scandal is a successful, powerful, beautiful representation of the black woman working and living in America. And that is a narrative I gladly welcome. We must control which images represent us in media, or we’ll never fully see the images and narratives that truly define our vast dynamics. But for now we’ll appreciate what Scandal and Olivia Pope have done for the black American image on television and the reflection of ourselves in more positive light.