The Scandal Behind Primetime
Modern primetime television finds itself at the epicenter of popular culture, proving to be a place where innovation and influence converge. In a time of progressive ideologies and mass movements towards equality though, primetime finds itself severely lacking in diversity. In fact it was not until 2012 that primetime provided the world with the first dramatic black female lead in four decades. Characters like Mindy Lahiri, Gloria Pritchett, and Annalise Keating find themselves some of the very representations of women of color in television. Already, the entertainment industry proves skewed against the female gender. Unfortunately, for women of color in entertainment, the statistics are even more skewed.
Scandal itself, proves to be a television show out of place in current media trends. It holds itself to the standard of a primary female lead, a female minority no less. It actively addresses gay stereotypes and politically controversial topics. From its inception in 2012, Scandal was a gladiator itself, emphasizing the normalization of interracial relationships, which in a way highlights how Pope, the main character herself can be characterized as “primetime television’s first post-racial Black heroine” (Wright 20). Scandal, moreover, statistically has proven to be a powerhouse in the entertainment industry, with more than 12 million viewers, 500,000 tweets, and number one ratings per episode (Wright 20).
Even though Scandal is a step towards more inclusive entertainment, the series as a whole proves to be more complex than that. I will argue throughout the rest of this essay that Scandal’s protagonist Olivia Pope is both a progressive example of representation for a woman of color and a hypocritical trope subliminally continuing the oppression felt by the demographic. Using rationale from critical race and gender theory, and intersectional theory, and entertainment critiques, my research will debate the fatal flaws and the crucial characteristics that make Olivia Pope such a hypocritically progressive character of primetime television. In order to do so I will first discuss the impact of Olivia Pope and Scandal as a whole. This will establish the power and empowerment derived from the series. Then I will look at what can be considered the three basic tropes within Olivia Pope, three tropes derived from history but explained continuously throughout the scholarly discussion on minority identity: the Mammy, the Jezebel, and the Sapphire. Through these three tropes, I will discuss my primary two sub-claims, one focusing on the reformist nature of Olivia Pope and the other focusing on the oppressive nature of the character. This will culminate in the establishment of Pope’s seemingly hypocritical and paradoxical nature.
By progressive, I will discuss how Olivia Pope helps to pave the way for women of color within television, to not just be the comic relief but also a greater part of the narrative, as a dramatic lead. By the simple depiction of Pope, the entertainment industry is forced to note that this concept is accepted and profitable. On the contrary, I will also highlight also how Pope’s nature is a flawed representation, one that takes prejudicial tropes and perpetuates them, forcing women of color in the same cell as media has put them in for decades.
A Stride from Non-representation to Representation
It is important to note that this argument will be grounded post-civil rights movement. This is due in part to the fact that the concept of minorities on television was ignored for the beginning of the television era. In fact, it was not until 1950 for the first black woman to get her own show, Hazel Scott, to take the stage (Wright 16). In this sense, the argument is grounded on the idea that after the civil rights movement, the possibilities and opportunities for minorities within entertainment grew.
Within entertainment post-civil rights to the modern era, there has been a movement towards an African American presence in television. In fact, the Blaxploitation movement of the 1970s proved to be a movement towards heightened African American characters in entertainment (Wright 17). It is also important to note that this same Blaxploitation movement furthered negative stereotypes of hyper-violence, hyper-sexuality, and hyper-criminality within the black community (Wright 17). Post-Blaxploitation came the era of The Cosby Show, a notable show in the sense that it like Scandal has also often been criticized for not addressing racial issues or appearing too racially forgiving given the tensions and climates of the era (Wright 22 ). In the 1990s and 2000s came the representation modern generations are more familiar with, the reality television version, one that is often critiqued to be even more hyper-sexualized and hyper-criminalized than representations of the Blaxploitation era (Wright 23).
The Normalization of the First Only Different
From this environment arrives Shonda Rhime’s Scandal, a show which premiered in 2012, one that consciously did not actively address race within its first or second season. Olivia Pope, became a household name, synonymous with power, strategy, and, well, scandal. Pope, as a character, within the first few seasons of Scandal, does not actively address her race. She proves instead to be a woman of immense power and connections, a woman who is not afraid to use such and get what she wants by any means necessary. By this categorization as previously dubbed by Wright as the post-racial heroine, Pope normalizes, in the entertainment industry, what it means to be a female minority. Normalization is a concept stemming from Scandal’s creator Shonda Rhimes. Normalization, to Rhimes and Pope, is to inundate the mainstream with diversity (diversity that exists in the realm of the living) until they come to not only accept it as the norm for the real world but also the norm for television (Rhimes 237). The hope behind Pope thus is to “make TV look the way the world looks”, a representation that is as relatable as humanly possible (Rhimes 23). In the case of Pope, normalizing can be derived from what drives the character, sheer ambition. The power, ambition and motivation behind Olivia Pope, proves to be a universally desired trait. Pope’s ambition knows no bounds as she shamelessly blackmails presidential hopeful Reston with evidence of murder, saves the innocent Lindsay Dwyer (and gives her the new identity of Quinn Perkins), and runs the most ruthless of presidential campaigns thrice (Scandal). A key indicator of the success in normalization of Scandal’s Olivia Pope is the recognition received by the actress Kerry Washington for acting the role, as one of the few African American Woman to be nominated for an Emmy as Lead Actress in a Drama (Slate 1).
Olivia Pope as a character can be easily characterized as a F.O.D., first only different, a symbolic term to impress upon others when an oppressed party, women of color included, beats as boats against the current, forcing their way through barriers to entry (Rhimes 196). Olivia Pope easily does so by becoming a young and capable press secretary for the White House (prior to the timeline of the show itself) and then giving up said profession to create her own highly successful crisis management firm (“Sweet Baby”). Barriers to entry can refer to anything that makes an individual less likely to take the risk. In the modern world, unfortunately this can also involve issues like the glass ceiling, wage inequalities, and class inequality. For Pope, she rejected any inhibitors that could have stemmed from her ethnicity or identity.
Relatability Implies Future Growth
Pope also fortifies her progressive position by relating to fan bases in a way that both empowers and educates. Olivia Pope is historically one of the few characters that has engendered mass popularity within the subset of the women of color fandom, a subset that until recently has not had mainstream visibility. Previously this was caused by the lack of visibility and lack of representations, something that Scandal actively combats (Warner 34). By this token, Olivia Pope proves relatable, a character whose place in the pope’s mass relatability can easily be seen through the TGIT tweet fests and question-and-answers with the cast on Thursday nights before and during the show, an experience the cast and the public both firmly believe accentuate the Scandal experience (Washington). For Kerry Washington, Olivia Pope does not end on the screen; Olivia Pope is a powerful part of her that she harnesses on social media for the show’s promotion and overall public awareness (Washington).
The mammy archetype, historically, has been a means of pin-holing women of color, particularly African American women, into the metaphorical corner of submission. While we live in a modern liberalized world post-civil rights movement, the persistent presence of the stereotype is paradoxically indicative of the continued oppression of minorities and minority representation. Described as “an asexual, dark-skinned Black woman of robust physical size and stature who took great pleasure in caring for White individuals and/or families at the expense of herself and her family,” the mammy is essentially a means of continued subservience (Griffin 36). Through the next couple paragraphs I shall discuss how the mammy archetype is both exemplified and properly corrupted by the presence of Olivia Pope. This stereotype has been in American existence since the end of the Civil War, a stereotype that was often used to further oppress the demographic into solely household, subservient jobs. Moreover, it was used as a means to deal with the atrocities of slavery, by creating a happy selfless face to servitude, as seen in Gone With the Wind’s Margaret Mitchell (West 289). The stereotype has continued in the public perception through representations like Aunt Jemima to comparisons regarding Oprah as the caring mother of America’s lost (West 289).
Olivia Pope: Stereotypically Modern Mammy
Olivia Pope, as a DC fixer, places her at the unfortunate crossroads of mammy and power, something that easily destroys her ability to further rise through the ranks. Like a mammy, Pope proves a selfless crisis manager, fixing the problems of the wealthy, and usually Caucasian, political heavyweights she calls clientele. In the first season, Pope proves to be the proper fixer she is by helping to defend the heir Travis Harding on rape charges by essentially proving to be a glorified babysitter for the grown man (“Hell Hath No Fury”). Her “mammification” of sorts is further highlighted by the mere fact the Pope does not actively try to stop working making “the absence of Olivia’s life beyond work… the reduction of who she is to the work she does” (Griffin 42). Pope, after her kidnapping and essential sale on the black market (something that proved akin to human trafficking and illegal slavery), chose not to stay home and recover but rush straight into her work, tackling the case of a boy shot on the streets of DC, Brandon Parker (“The Lawn Chair”). This proves that despite even the most extenuating of circumstances, Olivia Pope cannot as a character identify herself without her work. The very nature of her work, crisis management, is what makes Olivia Pope run. Despite the best of efforts, Pope was designed to be a fixer, a modern day mammy. Moreover, Pope proves to be every bit the caretaker to those who are not her clients: her gladiators. While the stories behind each could be used as prime examples of how Pope is a reinforcement of the selfless caretaker whose identity is dependent on work and self-sacrifice, the mere fact that “Olivia rescued Harrison from a prison sentence; Abby from her abusive husband; Huck from desolate homelessness; and Quinn from being framed,” is enough to reinforce such (Griffin 38). It is important to note in Huck’s case, Olivia saved him not only from homelessness but from the savage spy organization B613, an organization run by her corrupt father (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”). This clearly indicates the lengths Pope is willing to go to help others, even if it means that it is at the expense of her own familial relations.
Olivia Pope: Breaking The Mammy Chains
Olivia Pope, despite her explicit mammification as a Beltway fixer also actively destroys the limitations of the stereotype, allowing herself to not be stuck in the confines of its restrictions. In this sense, despite the presence of the mammy trope within and despite the inherent perpetuation of racially-charged prejudice, Olivia Pope proves to be a step towards more equal, less restrictive representation. Olivia Pope essentially destroys the overall image of the modern Mammy, whether it be through mutual exchange of protection or her basic personality traits.
While a mammy is self-sacrificing, she expects nothing in return, a crucial fact of the stereotype that Olivia Pope laughs at and ignores. Pope requires complete allegiance to whatever cause she is for at the moment. This could mean making Harrison destroy Abby Whelan’s relationship with David Rosen to making Abby Whelan destroy her own relationship all to save the presidency via a Cytron card (Scandal). In this sense, Olivia Pope, while she is willing to save her gladiators from sure disaster, also requires collective allegiance, something that “de-mammifies her because it averts her being perpetually isolated as a self-sacrificial caretaker, risk-taker, and/or problem solver” (Griffin 44).
Moreover, Olivia Pope finds herself to be someone who does not actively try to be subservient. The mammy stereotype as previously discussed is a character whose worth is by the quiet care-taking and management she does; it has nothing to do with active and blunt communication. Olivia Pope often uses a sharp, witty, and blunt communication style to get her way. This clear mastery of semantics is the opposite of the demure nature of mammies (Griffin 45). This places outside the clear binary of mammy and not-mammy. In a sense, Pope is thus attacking the ridiculous distinction the mammy stereotype is often given. Pope refuses to believe that caretaking should imply subservience and docility. Rather, she believes her job as a crisis manager is an active experience.
When thinking of the term Jezebel, there a bunch of modern terms that also come to mind (none of which are appropriate terms to categorize anyone as): hoochies, sluts, women of the night, etc. The Jezebel has essentially become synonymous with the hypersexual, the promiscuous, and the sexual lasciviousness that is a “deliberate characterization that excused both profit-driven and casual sexual exploitation of black women (Harris-Perry 56). The Jezebel stereotype finds its modern home in rap culture, where the modern-day Jezebels jiggle and gyrate their way through music videos in a perpetuation of the prejudiced ideal of Black female hyper-sexuality (West 294). Moreover, the Jezebel, historically, is a biblical reference to King Ahab’s wife, a woman who exemplifies lust and whose image has been twisted into an image that perpetuates a culture of sexual exploitation (Yarbrough Bennett 637). Described as the “bad-black-girl, who is depicted as alluring and seductive as she either indiscriminately mesmerizes men… or very deliberately lures into her snares those who have something of value to offer her”, the Jezebel is derogatory view on black women as women whose sexuality has demonic undertones (Yarbrough Bennet 636).
Pope Categorized as Jezebel
It is important to note that Olivia Pope’s sexuality is something that the show Scandal often plays off of, something with a much deeper significance than this essay will discuss. In the most basic of senses, the Jezebel has sex for power, a deceptively easy equation to gain success. Because of the sex for power equation, the Jezebel is considered a succubus, one that will do whatever is necessary to gain such power. In the case of Olivia Pope, her nature takes on quite a few Jezebel-esque attributes, attributes that all seem to play into her manipulation of her lovers: Edison Davis, Jake Ballard, and most importantly President Fitzgerald Grant III.
These three men, her more prominent love interests within the series, find themselves mere love-struck pawns in Olivia Pope’s greater game. In the case of Edison Davis, Olivia Pope proves capable of manipulating a man into marriage (disregarding the fact the marriage never comes to fruition) in order to achieve her own ends. Much like a mini-Machiavelli, Pope proves willing to use romance and sex as a means to get a man of high power to bow to her will. In Edison’s case, his place on the Senate Intel committee proved at one point valuable to Pope when she needs capital to go against her father’s reimprisonment of Huck (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”). Jake Ballard also finds himself used at the whims of Olivia Pope. While it seems to be a more pure love than Pope and Davis, Pope still actively uses her sexuality to get what she needs from Jake Ballard. In Ballard’s brief stint as command of the spy organization B6-13, Olivia Pope willingly slept with him in order to gain the access codes and algorithms necessary to shut B6-13 down (“The Fluffer”).
In the case of Fitzgerald Grant, Olivia Pope’s nature as a Jezebel is present in full force. Pope and Grant’s relationship in the beginning seasons of the series is more sexual than anything else. However, the audience quickly comes to learn the lengths Pope is willing to go to ensure that her significant other, Grant, maintains power. Within the second season alone, we learn of the election fraud used to keep Fitz in power, essentially illustrating how the fact that Pope was willing to go along with such implies her desires for her relationship to hold large amounts of power (“All Roads Lead to Fitz”). Moreover, as their relationship becomes more complicated we start to see how Pope is willing to manipulate the situation in her favor. In the most current season, the show reveals how Pope (despite everything she is feeling) is willing to maintain her relationship with Fitz because of the power it gives her. In this sense, Pope was, at least for a bit, willing to put up with Grant’s domineering nature so long as it meant she could hold the power of the presidency in her hands (“Rasputin”).
It is also important to mention that within the show’s realm alone, the backlash on Olivia Pope’s rise to power is often attributed to her sexual encounters and romantic relationships. This proves highly sexist because it is taking away from the significance of her accomplishments, something that Pope worked hard to achieve, and giving the significance to the men in her life. A clear display of this is when the media discusses Pope as a political manipulator, describing how “Pope’s profile increased along with the power of the subsequent suitor. Knowing this, is it any wonder that Pope would set her sights on the most powerful man on the planet” (“Dog-Whistle Politics”).
Not a Jezebel But a Pope
The depiction of Olivia Pope as a Jezebel can easily be corrupted if we look at the syntax and typical context/connotation for the concept of a Jezebel. The Jezebel is often characterized an indiscriminate seductress, a woman whose greater purpose in life is to ensnare men (Harris-Perry 53). Pope easily disproves this due to the fact that her career has always proven to be more important than her romantic interests. In fact, she gave up working near the President because it proves to be far too distracting and detrimentally slowing for her career (“Enemy of the State”). Moreover, Ballard, while her romantic interest, is often gone for entire episodes during the term of their relationship, once again proving that career trumps sexuality at times for Pope (Scandal). Moreover, indiscriminate proves to be a crucial point. Pope is not characterized solely by her sexuality. It is not a defining factor, thus, it is not something she overtly flaunts (in fact, she tends to flaunt her personal power more). This can be seen by the multiple times her nature as the mistress of Grant is kept a secret until it absolutely cannot be anymore (“Paris is Burning). Indiscriminate implies that Pope is willing to sex anyone willing that fits her criteria. This is also false because despite the extensive timeline within Scandal, Pope has only had four lovers, three of which proved to not be sociopaths. (Scandal).
The Sapphire trope is for all extensive purposes, is a concept that has evolved into the unfortunate bossy black bitch stereotype (Harris-Perry 49). Historically, Sapphire derives from the during-slavery concept that Black women were not feminine, but instead “strong, masculinized workhorses… or aggressive women who drove their children and partners away with their overbearing natures” (West 295). The first instance of the term however occurred in the 1940-50s with the radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy, a radio show that depreciated the name of gem to be a prejudiced term that perpetuates the notion that black women are angry and hyper-violent (West 296). In this sense, the term Sapphire creates the disturbing preconception that black women are destructive, angry, bossy creatures who hold less civility than say the white Christian heterosexual female.
The Pope-Sapphire Complex
Olivia Pope, despite the level of cool displayed throughout the series, is often described as an aggressive woman with an agenda. Through this aggression, she finds herself slowly being further and further enveloped by the Sapphire trope, establishing that a significant part of Pope’s Identity is part of the Sapphire complex. In fact, on a base level Pope’s Sapphire nature is exemplified through how she runs Pope & Associates, through “iron-fist maneuvering coupled with a commandeering personality” (Pixley 29). Pope is willing to go to any lengths to ensure that her clientele is protected.
In season four, Pope proves to be extremely strong willed (also highly convoluted) with regards to Suzanne Thomas, the author of a widespread account of political heavyweight’s sex-capades (“It’s Good To Be Kink”). In this episode alone, Pope starts of her commandeering first with threats and slut-shaming, moves onto buying Thomas off, and finally ends with finding the underlying cause of Suzanne Thomas’s grief that made her write the book in the first place (“It’s Good To Be Kink”). Moreover, when Pope’s associate Huck ends slitting her throat, Olivia Pope’s emotional sympathy over the death is quickly replaced when she realizes her end goal was achieved: that her clients and Abby were in the clear (“It’s Good To Be Kink”). This is a clear illustration of Pope’s ability to easily step into the Sapphire position. She proves overbearing to Suzanne Thomas, essentially exhausting all options until Thomas relents. She proves aggressive in the sense that she was able to manipulate the varying senators into listening, via blackmail of course. Further, she proves cold because the death of a mostly innocent woman was eclipsed by the professional gains.
Olivia Pope also falls into the Sapphire category of hyper-violence on many occasions. Pope frequently allows Huck to torture criminals and spies for intelligence. She does try to limit him, criticizing his actions when they go against those Pope either has on her side or has no ill will towards. However, this does not prove that Pope herself is capable of hyper-violence. The fact that Pope was driven to the point where she bashed the man-responsible-for-her-kidnapping’s, Andrew Nichols’, head to the point of fatality proves such though (“Thwack”).
The Pope Diamond Outshines All Sapphires
Despite the insistent and domineering nature of Pope within the show, she is also a highly nuanced tactician who is capable of being so much more than a hyper-violent, bossy, tunnel-visioned individual. Pope proves throughout the show to be a complex character who only relies on strong-arming when absolutely necessary. When campaign manager for the Democratic Presidential hopeful Josephine Marcus, Olivia Pope proves to be someone who is able to handle situations carefully while still maintaining her power. Moreover, she proves to be ideological and not an overbearing person who tries too hard all in the name of power. By leading the campaign for Josie Marcus, Pope is essentially giving up extreme power (the offer to spearhead the re-election of President Grant) in order to attempt to back a revolutionary and less bureaucratic candidate (“Icarus”). She does so by making sure that Marcus feels like she herself is making all the choices, all the while Pope and Associates are making videos and ploys to slowly force sound campaign decisions through (“Icarus”). Moreover, Pope understands that the only way to get Marcus to bite and be aggressive is if she herself remains calm and makes it seem like the other campaigns find Marcus to be weak, a clear illustration of less violent and blunt measures achieving the same basic political outcome (“Icarus”).
It is because of actions like this as well as the amalgamation of the three tropes and for lack of a better term anti-tropes that make Olivia Pope less of a Sapphire and more of well a Pope. Pope’s spirit shines brighter than the tropes, proving to be both nuanced and strong-willed. In this sense, Pope is not a Sapphire by any means. Her command and power is not nagging but well warranted thanks to her sound intelligence, her power, and her ability to properly assess situations.
Why the Pope Paradox is a Necessary Antihero
Olivia Pope, throughout her reign in the show Scandal and its fictional version of DC, proves time and time again to both be a stereotype that perpetuates oppressive characteristics and character that forcibly break boundaries so as to further minority women’s representation in primetime. While it can be argued that her character is oppressive and continuous derogatory tropes and prejudice; Pope as a character has proven to be a correct step in the right direction. Societal biases are not things that are easily overcome. In fact, societal biases take time and slow steps in the correct direction. Pope is merely a vehicle, a boat with which to cross the narrow sea of primetime prejudice until the true war for the reign of normalization on television.
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