Feminism and black femininity have just been “Pope-ed”: understanding Scandal’s dualism


This essay will discuss feminism and black femininities’ representations through the understanding of a television series I discovered during this course: Scandal. This American political series created, written and produced by Shonda Rhimes, recounts the life and cases that Olivia Pope, a political crisis management expert of Washington, DC, deals with while gravitating towards the White House. Scandal was such a success primarily due to the rare complexity of the main character’s psychology, played by Kerry Washington. In spite of her beauty and incommensurable elegance, we will not discuss her wardrobe but rather how this 30 year-old black woman’s role challenges gender relations of power while also performing certain black femininity stereotypes theorized by Hill Collins.

Introduction

In order to introduce my topic, I would like to begin with a thought I recently had while watching a documentary called Miss representation (Siebel J. January 21, 2011). One specific sentence really blew my mind “You can’t be what you can’t see”. So I asked myself “how often do you see a powerful woman’s character on TV that could possibly inspire you?” The response was “hardly ever”.

“You can’t be what you can’t see”.

However, Olivia Pope is one of the rare strong female characters I could name. This is why I decided, in this essay, to demonstrate how Scandal is a complex and dualistic series. In other words, to show how in “Scandal’s system” there are two opposite dynamics at work. One positive, which challenges masculine and racial domination representations (even if it is only to a certain extent) and the other one, more negative, which re-enforces old societal patterns of women’s dependence on men; in this case Olivia Pope’s dependence on her lovers.

In line with this approach, I will first explore gender-based relations of power taking place in this series through the second and third wave feminist lens, then in a second part, I will deconstruct black femininity representations taking place in Scandal.

Media Summary

The Media I will investigate is a popular American series called Scandal, which has been created by Shonda Rhimes in 2012. It is classified as a political thriller/drama and has won awards in that category such as an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series and a Golden Globe. In this essay we will not focus on a particular season or episode but study the series as a whole.

Since we will be mostly studying the main character of Scandal, it is important to begin by explaining her portrayal in the TV show. Olivia Pope is a Washington DC crisis management expert. The series focus on her cases that she deals with her associates but also recounts events that take place at the White House since she has an affair with the president of the United States of America. Throughout the series, Olivia Pope is depicted as a strong, independent, educated, upper class black woman that possesses a lot of power and therefore could be described as a strategist.

However her private life is slightly more chaotic. Even if she maintains close relations with her associates that she treats like family and calls “gladiators”, she struggles in her love relationships. As a matter of fact, being engaged in two relationships in the same time (with the president and the chief of CIA) seems to complicate her life so much that she often ends up alone. In sum, Olivia is a thirty years old black single successful and beautiful woman not specially seeking to settle down in order to build a family. As a consequence, we are now able to state that Olivia Pope is not only an unusual TV character because she is a black woman, successful, and educated, but also because her actions and desires can be judged amoral regarding to the puritanical American culture.

To conclude this media summary, we will add that as another way of being atypical, Olivia Pope is not afraid to use the “F word” and declares loud and clear that she defines herself a feminist. The following essay will study on the one hand, as previously stated, to what extent Olivia Pope is a revolutionary character in American TV landscape, and on the other hand how dualistic this character can be perceived since she still perpetuates racial and gender stereotypes.

The masculine domination: gender-based relations of power in Scandal

Many articles argue that Scandal is “the most feminist show on TV[1]”. By using the term “feminist show”, I refer to Oxford dictionary’s definition of feminism, which implies the fact that Scandal would be a series that is in accordance with the “advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social and economical equality to men”. To what extent is Scandal the most feminist show on TV? What would contradict this statement?

First and foremost, it is indisputable that in the American audio-visual landscape, only a few shows are headlined by women and that this phenomenon of leading female roles is still quite recent. In its last study entitled It’s a man’s (celluloid) world, The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Films of San Diego State University, discovered that “in 2011, females remained dramatically under-represented as characters in film when compared to their representation in the U.S population” and that “females accounted for 33% of all characters in the top 100 domestic grossing films”.[2] Therefore, we could claim that choosing a female character as the central role of Scandal can be seen as a conscious feminist decision from Shonda Rhimes, or possibly even an effort to restore gender equality — which would not come as a surprise if we examine the context of Shonda Rhimes’ background and filmography. “Grey’s Anatomy” and “How To Get Away With Murder” are both series led by women. Additionally, the famous screenwriter is well known for her commitment to offer audiences subtle portraits of gender and racial equality. Consequentially, this means that Scandal is in line with a desire of restoring gender equality by choosing lead actress; however, Scandal is definitely not the first series placing a woman on a pedestal, especially regarding to Shonda Rhimes filmography. So what distinguishes Scandal from other female-led programs?

Subjectively, categorizing Scandal as a feminist show depends only partially on the main character of the series but also on the other female characters in the show — regardless of the irrefutable importance of Olivia Pope’s role. However, her part is indisputable since she is repeatedly described by the media as “the strongest female leading character in TV history”, in this case by The New York Post, or even as someone who “tackles crises head on and calls out sexism whenever she sees it” [3]by The Guardian.

Moreover, throughout the seasons of Scandal, she fights for women-kind. For example, in one scene, she argues with her boyfriend (nothing less than the President of the United States of America) because he used sexist terminology while criticising her best friend by calling her “a bitch”. To that, she rebukes “don’t say that. The words used to describe women… If she was a man, you’d say she was formidable, or bold, or right”.

Olivia Pope can also be depicted as an empowered woman in a third wave feminism way — which refers to the feminist movement beginning in the 1990’s and continuing to the present.[4] Claire Snyder, from the University of Chicago, defines third-wavers as “entitled to interact with men as equals, claim sexual pleasure as they desire it (heterosexual or otherwise) and actively play with femininity”. She adds that “girl power, or girlie culture, is a central — yet contested — strand within the third wave”.[5] Indeed post-feminism “has reclaimed beauty practices as enjoyable, self-chosen and skilled feminine pursuits (e.g. Jervis and Zeisler, 2006).[6] As it happens, Olivia is very feminine; her outfits have been analysed in many female magazines. For example, she always wears heels and expensive couture bags. Moreover, she exercises self-determination and is fully aware of her « gender power ». In another episode she says to her father, “you may command dad, but I have weapon at my disposals. Weapons you can’t possibly possess.” Finally she freely satisfies her sexual desires. The study of Olivia’s character through a third wave feminism lens is then the most obvious.

Nevertheless, even if it less flagrant, we could also state that Scandal is a second wave feminist series — a feminist movement that “emerged in the late 1960s and fought for equal rights, better housing, was criticizing male chauvinism and calling for sex equality”[7] — because Olivia Pope, as well as her peers, are more concerned about women-kind than their own success. Consequently it respects “feminist efforts to make the personal political by repeatedly and universally reducing the political to the personal.”[8] For example, in one episode Olivia strongly declares, “I’d fight to the death to stand by any woman who said she was assaulted”. In the same way Melly Grant (another Scandal’s character) stands up for more than 16 hours in front of a Court in order to protect women’s rights on Christmas night.

“To make the personal political”

Yet, if it is true that Scandal’s synopsis is not fully heteronormative in the way that it challenges “the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders with natural roles in life”[9] by coming up against the fact that “female character are much less likely than males to be portrayed as leader of any kind”[10] by choosing a powerful lead actress. In this case, this is Olivia Pope, the strong and feminist woman we just depicted, that remains to men’s disposal. She loses control every time she is in the President’s presence; her love and sexual attraction for him are described as indisputable and blur her gut, pushing her often to make bad decisions.

Adding to this are several instances throughout the series of men fighting to date Miss Pope, and we can thus say she is being objectified. She is a prize that competitors want to win. Olivia is trying to hold these men back since she cannot make a decision. However, her life during some episodes is totally focused on those two men and how she can seduce them.

In light of this, we could declare to a certain extent that Olivia Pope is a victim of the “Male Gaze” according to Laura Mulvey’s concept[11]. This theory refers to the way “visual arts tend to depict the world and women from a masculine point of view.” Laura Mulveys states “the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form.” Nowadays TV scripts are predominantly caught in phallocentrism. Mainstream culture and its patriarchal order are therefore rarely challenging or reacting to gender assumptions and society obsessions such as man’s superiority or gender roles we are supposed to perform. From then on we can declare that cinema manipulates visual pleasure through patriarchal erotic representations. Therefore, in Scandal, it can be said that Olivia Pope, while being objectified, is controlled by those men in a process called scopophilia that consists on “taking other as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze.”

“Olivia Pope is a victim of the Male Gaze.”

The racial domination: perpetuation of negative racial stereotypes

Previously we argued that Olivia Pope was one of the few strong female characters on contemporary TV and that Scandal could, in a way, be called a “feminist show”. However it is important to notice that Kerry Washington, the woman who embodies Olivia Pope, “became the first African-American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years” according to The New York Times. How revolutionary is that fact? To what extent is this show not perpetuating old redundant black femininity stereotypes?

“Terry Richardson became the first African-American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years.”

Some media refer to Scandal as the “new era of post-racial television, in which cast members are ethnically diverse but are not defined by their race or ethnicity”. After all, the United States of America is supposed to be a color-blind society in which skin’s color has no impact on people’s life and opportunities. As a consequence, referring to an American series with a black lead actress as post-racial television show makes sense. Actually Olivia Pope’s skin color is never mention except for her father who often reminds her that she has to fight and work harder and never forget that she is black and never will be equal to whites. Even so, a lot of government’s members and Olivia Pope associates in Scandal are black or from other ethnicities and are not defined by their skin’s color but rather by their proficiency or personality.

Olivia Pope in Scandal is described as someone who trusts her “gut”, her intuition and called herself a “gladiator” — which is not common nowadays. Women in media are frequently linked to attributes such as emotionalism or even motherhood, which are not connected to notions of leadership or boldness. Indeed most of the time women and specifically black women are depicted as instable people, always too emotional; whereas in Scandal, Olivia is the one taking decisions.

Doctor Brittney Cooper from Rutgers University states that Olivia Pope “is the most complex black female lead we’ve seen in prime time. We are not getting an archetype, you’re not getting a stereotype, you’re getting a fully fledged human being.” However, if Scandal challenges some black femininity stereotypes by notably giving decisional power to Olivia Pope by portraying her as a high-educated lady, it also perpetuates others. Hill Collin’s in her book entitled “Black Feminist Thought: knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment” gives us a list of the main black femininity stereotypes. The “Jezebel” is one of them. Olivia Pope’s character suffers from it. “The Jezebel depiction is equivalent to woman with a ravenous sexual craving and promiscuity” (Ladsin-Billings, 2009). Olivia is depicted as the most sexually active female character of the series. During 4 seasons she is the president’s mistress and sometimes has sex in order to get classified information. To what extent is this a positive and progressive way to portray a black 2016’s woman? Could we still fully believe that Scandal is the “new era of post-racial television?” I tend to disagree because this show, which is viewed by so many African-Americans perpetuates that Jezebel stereotype to millions of people and downplays Olivia’s success. 3 years ago, almost 8.4 million people were viewing this ABC show and it was the highest rated scripted drama among African-Americans with an average of 1.8 million viewers. Yet all those viewers are told that Olivia’s success is due to men and all her work is then reduced by that counterproductive idea that she got it through preforming sexual favours. Finally it seems that once again a strategy of white domination is used in Scandal since power is owned by white men and that the male gaze, through the same mechanism of control, is perpetuated. Sadly Scandal re-enforces the assumption that, as would declare Michel Foucault “power is a system of domination which controls everything and which leaves no room for freedom.”

Conclusion

In conclusion my goal was to understand Scandal’s dualism through the analysis of feminism theories and black femininities representations. This study showed that Scandal’s system was challenging masculine domination but mostly re-enforcing racial domination.

First we wanted to see if Scandal could be called a feminist show since so many media believed so. We studied this series through a second and third wave feminism lens and argued that Scandal was a feminist show since Olivia Pope was depicted as a strong, successful and feminine character and also because Miss Pope and other female characters were fighting in favour of women-kind. However, the limit to that statement was that our subject sometimes lost her mind in men’s presence and was a victim of the male gaze.

Then we stated that the fact that Olivia Pope was the first black female lead character in 40 year was not a strong enough argument to call this show the “new era of post-racial television” since Scandal perpetuates black femininities stereotypes such as “the Jezebel” — stereotypes that diminished Olivia Pope’s success. However Scandal, through those racial and masculine domination representations, is only the reflection of our unequal society.

Clara Duval

[1] Lindsay Putman, « Is Scandal the most feminist show on TV ? », NY Post, 2014.

[2] Martha M. Lauzen PhD. « It’s a man’s (celluloid) world » The Center for the Study of Women in Telivision and Films, 2012

[3] Donahue A. “From House of Cards to Scandal, TV is in a new age of powerful women” The Guardian, March 13, 2014.

[4] Wikipedia definition’s

[5] R. Claire Snyder. « What is third-Wave Feminism ? A new Directions Essay » Vol.24, N1, pp175–196, Signs, The University of Chicago Press, 2008

[6] Michelle M. Lazar. “The Right to be beautiful: Postfeminist Identity and Consumer Beauty Advertising” Palgrave macmillan, 2011

[7] Nancy A. Hewitt. « A Companion to American Women’s History », Blackwell Publishing, 2002

[8] Michelle M. Lazar. “The Right to be beautiful: Postfeminist Identity and Consumer Beauty Advertising” Palgrave macmillan, 2011

[9] Wikipedia’s definition

[10] Martha M. Lauzen PhD. « It’s a man’s (celluloid) world » The Center for the Study of Women in Telivision and Films, 2012

[11] Mulvey L. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen (Oxford Journals),1975