Is It Fair To Compare Olivia Pope To Reality Television Stars?

January 15, 2013  |  

Source: ABC

Writing for CBS News, Mo Ivory has a pretty tough critique of the television show “Scandal”:

And I am going to just say it: Olivia Pope is no different than Joseline from “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta” or Kim from “Real Housewives of Atlanta” – she just has more expensive clothes, a higher paying job and tighter security. She is no breath of fresh air, nuanced or complicated, and definitely not a rarity in black female representation. She is merely presented on a shiny platter in a sparkly house instead of at the bar in a strip club.

A street worker provides the same service as an escort…they just cost more and are found in different locations.

Ivory continues her assessment of the show by critiquing some of the fans of the show, who she said might be “presentation hypocrites” – a person who classifies the exact behavior differently based on the presentation of the acts – for viewing Olivia Pope as deep and thought-provoking while chastising the women of reality television for the same sort of immoral behavior, such as an affair. Ivory writes:

Here’s the truth: She’s having an affair with a married man who made sure he secured a really good job for her that she has been able to turn into a profitable business. But not before she engaged in criminal activity to make sure he would get his job and formed a partnership with another woman he sleeps with. She sneaks over in the middle of the night for booty calls and has her “yes” men and women to cover her tracks. She keeps a thug around (Huck) for protection and to do her dirty work. She keeps a good guy on the side who she should “really be with” in order for her to claim to herself and others that she is finished being a Slore. If this plot was being cast as a reality show it would be called, “Housewives of America,” “Love & Hip Hop USA” or “Politicians’ Wives.”

…and that is how you draw the ire of a good portion of the black blogosphere. Seriously, there are lots of pissed off fans of “Scandal” in the comment section beneath her post. She might want to call in Judy Smith, the real Olivia Pope, to come handle that. Anyway, I think that Ivory is both right and wrong in her assessment of the television show. Let’s start with what I think she gets right:

I have written about presentation hypocrisy before, most recently the flap over the reportedly canceled reality show All My Babies Mammas, I just didn’t know that this television double standard actually had its own terminology. The only time we are concerned about challenging potentially harmful images of ourselves is when those images come from a less affluent part of our community. I also think that what people get caught up in is that this major network television series was produced and written by a black woman (Shonda Rhimes) and features an educated, independent and powerful black woman as lead. Those historic markers alone gives “Scandal” a pedigree above your typical reality television series starring black characters. However, contrary to what the show’s accomplishments suggest, the Olivia Pope character is not Claire Huxtable. And she does appear to embody the same sort of messiness, which befalls many of the characters on television. Straight up drama. Olivia Pope may not hop on tables with veins bulging out of her forehead, threatening to be “about that life,” ala Evelyn Lozada but best believe Huck will give you the business – after she discreetly leaves the room. Now that’s classy.

Therefore, I don’t quite understand the push back Ivory has received for stating the obvious: “Scandal,” on the whole, is pretty damn ratchet. I mean, isn’t that what we expect from a night time soap, particular one called “Scandal”? Or does the pedigree prevent us from admitting that yes, between our Toni Morrison, pearl necklaces and Alice Walker, is space for the tawdriness too? Growing up on a steady diet of daytime soap operas like “All My Children” and “Young and Restless” as well as the various night time romantic dramas, such as “Dynasty,” “Dallas,” “Falcon Crest,” “90210,” “Buffy,” the male version of Buffy (I can’t remember the name of the show), “Roswell,” etc…, I often wondered when black folks would have their own scripted version of a soap-type drama. Of course, the answer is our overall representational problem behind the television cameras, which creates an imbalance of quality characters on screen. However, even in spaces where black folks had some sort of say creatively, it has truly been difficult finding nuance characters – and I am not quite sure if that is all due to racism in Hollywood or this shroud of anxiety black folks live under, which requires us to present ourselves “right.” I always said that a true sign of progress would be our ability to create and have see complex and dysfunctional black characters without concern or anxiety about how others might use said image to define our entire cultural experience. In some respects, “Scandal,” with its expensive tailored suit, master’s degree and more affluent contacts, is a sign of not only how far we come but also how much more progress is needed to make real representational equality (trademark pending) a reality.

The latter is where I believe that Ivory gets wrong in her critique. Although she hits the nail on the head in her summation of the hypocrisies in passing moral judgment over a basketball wife but not a Pope, Ivory ultimately misses the point that we should not be making any moral judgments about these women’s sexual relationships – be it real or fictional. I don’t see Olivia as an immoral specifically because of her relationship; nor do I make the same sort of sexual moral judgments about the women of reality television. There have been tons of shows with male-centered characters, who engage in relationships with not only married women but outside of their own marriages, and still get to be regarded as the hero and good guy of the story. Male characters are allocated more freedom in the moral value system whereas women are regulated with more stringent standards. In in some cases, a female character’s entire value to the a story will be determine exclusively by whom they’re sleeping with.

In the article, Three White H0es and Betty White: The Unspoken Double Standard, Kirsten West Savali writes about another form of presentation hypocrisy in which white female sexuality is normalized and encouraged while black women and sexuality is still regarded in negative and fearful terms. Writes Savali, “White women can refer to themselves as “h0es” tongue-in-cheek, because they do not accept ownership of the word — it is not disrespectful, because, in our twisted society, it is a word that does not belong to them — it belongs to us. They are free to sexually express themselves, without fear of judgment and repercussions, because their sexuality has been ruled safe for mass consumption; conversely, the power that is sheathed in the sexuality of black women cannot, and will not, be harnessed, and that will continue to affect our presence in the media until our economic conditions reflect our true value.”

I have to say that as a fan of “Scandal,” the relationship she has with the president is probably the least interesting part of both the Olivia Pope character and the subplot of the show. But I do appreciate the irony of a story about a professional fixer, whose job is to help the connected out of a scuttlebutt, finds herself dead-smack in the midst of one of her own making. And I also appreciate Rhimes courage to “go there” with the Olivia Pope character. Racial mythologies, which have historically painted black women as pathological Sapphires and Jezebels, means that the terms, “Slore” or “Slore” or some other sexual epithet gets thrown around way too loosely and too frequently. And while white women can feel free to embrace some levels of sexual complexity on television, black female television characters are not generally written or accepted in such expressive roles. I’m not saying that women characters need to engage in more televised extra marital relationships in order to provide some sort of representational equality on the screen. But I feel that we shouldn’t necessarily feel compelled to completely divorce ourselves from those television images of black women and complex sexuality based around the desire to keep up appearances.

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  • the hypocrisy is delicious. i mean, where are all the black feminist critiques of pope as the ‘black super woman’? or the way that whiteness is celebrated in the show the way other ethnicities are not? and it is written to have the view come to the conclusion that pope belongs with fitz and not his white wife.

    i’m pretty sure that if the scandal president was black, black women’d not be as interested in the show. the feminists would talk about how it is offensive because olivia’s being
    used ‘as his mule’ or ‘jump-off’.

    make it a white man and this revamped ‘super woman’ is suddenly a ‘complex character’. it is just that black women perform one of their historical roles, as suggested in django unchained: actively protecting whiteness and organizing so that their interests ‘naturally’ ally with white power; and of course covering that little ‘scandal’ up.

    further, the show’s success among black women speaks to the anxieties that some black
    women feel about having to find – or make – their own ‘obama’ like michelle did (some figure the best way to do this was swirl and make a bi-racial baby) rather than compete with michelle, or obama’s white single mother; it is easier and more profitable – and more destructive to fantasize en masse about the white man they wish they had. rimes knows black women’s psyche and insecurities and is presenting their secret longings to them in a way that can ‘guiltlessly’ enjoy. oh and the antagonism validation. the proof that the show is good is because black men are mad about it.

    given the black feminism of the past and its critiques of white capitalist patriarchy, scandal’s – and awkward black girl’s – post-racial black woman-midwifed white supremacy should be deemed as offensive to most. but, the fact that so many black women are willing to shut down, ‘superficialize’ and divert so as to not engage that, reality really makes quite the statement about ‘black women’s racialized sexual politics’; and some important evidence as to why black-black relationships are often so unnecessarily fraught.

    we’ve seen it in black men. black men do all sort of mental and ideological gymnastics to preserve their access or right to white women. and now, we are seeing white-loving black women come out the ‘race- pride’ closet.

    it is funny that with all this talk about black marriage and relationships, the simple fact is, and has been, many black people would really rather be with white people and so mistreat, degrade or disappear other black people to do so; or so as to not have a reality compete with that white fantasy. and, now – like white folks do – fall back on a meritocratic, colour blindness to explain away behaviour that is indisputably white supremist.

    it goes beyond relationships. those attitudes undermine black anti-racism in that they
    show that blacks believe white supremacy to be fine once it benefits them – or people that they identify with. this double underlines the fact that black people are ‘oppressed’ not by racism so much but by black’s worship of whiteness. they sabotage themselves to pay tribute
    it, for it alone can takes them where they want to go.

    the ways that otherwise intelligent black women so jealously guard ‘scandal’ and ignore its ‘complex’ white supremacy, is another example of that.

    the writer from clutch said that the piece was to get black men thinking about marrying black women. i do think ‘the brothers’ for generations have spoken on this.

    why marry a white supremist just because she happens to be black?

  • Royaltee

    Black people love tearing each other down. Scandal is a great show period!!! It appears the author just recently took notice of the show this season and is not familiar with the entire story line. It’s a hit on television about a powerful African American Woman who is human not every depiction of an AA woman has to be that of a matronly saint! Can satisfy some negroes…smh

    • chanela

      so it’s either she sleep with married men or be matronly? DANG! lol

      • LaLaLaMeansILoveYou

        So it’s ok for her have flaws like EVERY HUMAN BEING ON THIS EARTH just as long as they aren’t “really big ones”? DANG! lol

        Some black folk are too much for me. Have to dissect everything down to the white meat. Let this very FICTIONAL woman, and this show, live. smh

  • I think that the key term here is “reality”. Even though we all know that reality shows have some scripting to them, for the most part, what you see is how people actually act, in all their infamy. Olivia Pope is a fictional character, in a fictional setting. The fact that she’s having an affair, while morally questionable, nonetheless does not downplay any of her accomplishments, which are nothing to sneeze at. At least she’s not making a career out of this behavior. There’s a racialized aspect to this critique as well which passes harsher judgments on Black leads. I don’t hear the same amount of criticism directed toward white female leads (real or fictional), who exhibit worse examples of the aforementioned behavior.

    • Guest360

      THANK YOU!! Clare Danes just won a Golden Globe for doing the same exact thing that Olivia is doing only she’s doing it with a freakin’ terrorist! You don’t see too many white people claiming she’s nothing more than a well-dressed Kim Zolciak. So I find it awfully funny that Olivia can do things that many of her white peers have or are doing yet she’s the one that gets the negativity. And it comes from black people! Here we’ve been clamoring for blacks (women in particular) to lead their own shows and get the roles that other races are allowed to have and the second we get it, all of a sudden you don’t like that she’s flawed? Hate to tell you but flawed characters get the awards. Not the Pollyannas. You can’t be mad that blacks arent getting diverse roles then when they do get something out of the norm, pitch a fit because they aren’t the Mother Theresa.

    • Guest360

      THANK YOU!! Clare Danes just won a Golden Globe for doing the same exact thing that Olivia is doing only she’s doing it with a freakin’ terrorist! You don’t see too many white people claiming she’s nothing more than a well-dressed Kim Zolciak. So I find it awfully funny that Olivia can do things that many of her white peers have or are doing yet she’s the one that gets the negativity. And it comes from black people! Here we’ve been clamoring for blacks (women in particular) to lead their own shows and get the roles that other races are allowed to have and the second we get it, all of a sudden you don’t like that she’s flawed? Hate to tell you but flawed characters get the awards. Not the Pollyannas. You can’t be mad that blacks arent getting diverse roles then when they do get something out of the norm, pitch a fit because they aren’t the Mother Theresa.

  • tmw

    I wish ya’ll negroes woudl stop complaining.

  • Some people can find bullsh** in ice cream…It’s NOT “reality”, it is a SHOW, just like American Horror Asylum on FX.. A SHOW.. Just admit it’s good, ( or bad, whatever your feelings are..) and watch what happens next..

  • Dichu eba realy lub mehSteebie

    Samething happened on Glee. Teacher had an affair with the school counselor but everyone rooted for them. Double standard.

  • Dichu eba realy lub mehSteebie

    Did they make a big deal with the adulturey they had on Glee? The teacher cheated on his wife with the school counselor but people rooted for them.

  • The people who wrote this obviously DO NOT watch the show. Olivia was already great before the President hired her, hell, he didn’t even hire her, Cyrus did and that’s because she owed him a favor. She was a fixer before the Pres and didn’t even need him to get back up on her feet after she left the white house. Real House wifes? Please, her character is no where near trashy.

    Now, yes, I agree that her sleeping with a married man is not a good thing. I understand that, however, it’s not like she home wrecked a marriage, Fitz and Mellie were having problems long before Olivia even showed up, and by the time Olivia and Fitz starting doing anything, their marriage was DEAD. Does that make it right? No. But she’s not some seductress, in fact, I’d say he seduced her with all his advances.Also, I think Rhimes might have thrown that one in to give Olivia a few flaws .I mean, she is human after all.

    Her current boyfriend (whose name escapes me) is her attempt at a normal life again, she understands that her relationship is wrong, and has tried to leave before and is going back to a man who she actually really has a connection with, obviously, not as much as she does with the president however.

    And huck is not a thug. Lol, sorry for my rant…I guess I just really like this show and for someone to so ignorantly do it such an injustice makes me a little annoyed.

  • LIfecouldn’tbebetter

    What the heck is wrong with you. Its just a show, a very good show at that. You don’t see the plot, the conspiracy, the chemistry of the actors. Pleeeze . Kerry Washington is an acclaimed actress who takes her job seriously. Pleeeze maybe your article should be in a reality show because its not real just well scripted. If its walks like a duck and looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, then its a duck

  • IllyPhilly

    It’s a drama fictional show that’s not parading around as reality.

  • Guest360

    You can’t compare real life to a life that’s being written by a team of writers where drama is manufactured and done to keep the story going and the audience invested in the show but no one in real life should be behaving this way. I thought we all learned the line between the real world and make-believe long ago lol. I would love to say that no one should ever be judged but when you’re airing your dirty laundry for the whole world to see, what else are we supposed to do? Keep your business as your business. At the end of the day, we should be seeing love triangles on fictional shows and movies. No one should be privy to the ins and outs of your personal life. Least of all your problems being faithful and your girlfriend and sidechick fighting over you like dogs in heat. Its ridiculous.

  • Stephanie

    Who cares. It’s just a show and I think that people need to look at the fact that she like a lot of women fall in love with the wrong men. Is is right no, but there are so many other plots going on that just to focus on that is plain one-sided. Stop being so sensitive and lighten up.

    • niki

      THANK YOU!!!

    • IllyPhilly


    • Dichu eba realy lub mehSteebie

      Thank you! I mean did you see how they were whooping up on poor Huck? That’s more interesting than the love affair. Hurt my feelings…..

      • iT3ach

        Honey…your name…I’m SO weak! Bwahahahaha!

  • afroveda

    Demetria L. Lucas already covered this on Essence yesterday (1/14/13).

    • IllyPhilly

      LOL. Plus one!

  • Treacle234

    I enjoy scandal but I dislike the adulterous storyline it’s disgusting.

    • niki

      why wacth it?

      • Treacle234

        It’s a good show but I don’t like the adulterous storyline.

        • niki

          then dont wacth … lol im sure they wont care…

          • Treacle234

            I will continue to watch, but since I usually watch it the day after it airs I am able to skip through the adulterous parts.

    • Suchalady

      I agree.

  • old soul

    IT’S JUST A SHOW. Olivia is far from a basketball wife because unlike them she actually has skillsShe fell In Love with a married man. Is that right? No but it’s a show for entertainment. Every soap opera on daytime TV has te same sub plot. Infidelity is ok on television but not in real life an that is the difference between a fictitious show like Scandal and “reality”.

    • chanela

      yes it’s ok on a tv show, but don’t say that it’s a positive representation of black
      women and then call her independent. that’s where my problem lies.

      • Stephanie

        She is independent as far as her job is concerned. The fact that she has bad judgement when it comes to men (like alot of women) doesn’t make her less independent.

        • chanela

          she can’t get her own man. that’s not independent to me.

          • Dichu eba realy lub mehSteebie

            She could get her own man if you were watching the show. But she could not help that the man she fell in love with happened to be the married president. Heck, him and his wife only got married as a business proposition for power and because they made a great team. They weren’t in love it was an act. Am I saying Olivia didn’t over step her boundaries? No. But the heart wants what the heart wants. At least she “tried” to put an end to it.

  • chanela

    YES! thank you!finally somebody said it. everybody was jonesing over this show and saying how the show is such a breathe of fresh air and a positive representation of black women, so i watched it and it was cool till they showed her sleeping with a married man. wth? how is that positive? that just reinforces the stereotype of black women being jezebels.

    i really hope the REAL ” olivia pope” wasn’t doing that. how is a woman being with a man that everybody knows is married,positive or inspiring? excuse me? SMH

    • Guest360

      How does one flaw take away from the fact that she’s powerful, she’s a leader, owns her own business, has her own money, is the head honcho in Washington where even the PRESIDENT bows to what she wants, and lets not forget, she’s the first black woman to lead her own show in primetime in the last 40 years? THAT is what makes her a breath of fresh air. She’s not the sassy, neck rolling best friend. She’s not the video girl used for her body. She’s not a mammy. She’s not stripped of her beauty in order to be seen as lesser than the white characters around her. She’s allowed to be glamorous, powerful, independent, and yes full of FLAWS. She’s the first three dimensional black female we’ve seen….ever. You may not agree with her sleeping with a married man, but I fail to see how this ONE thing detracts from all of her qualities and what she means to black women and their representation in the media.

      • Rayjulian85

        Well said. Also, even she struggles with her relationship with the President. She’s called herself his “Sally Hemmings”. Now perhaps if she was pulling a Monica Lewinsky I could see the issue. The man literally calls her his soul mate. It’s more a case of right love at the wrong time than it is her being a home wrecking Jezebel

      • chanela

        it’s one flaw but it’s a huge and horrible flaw. you mean to tell me that’s it’s okay and doesn’t mean that a woman has horrible values if she fell “in love” with YOUR husband?

        hell, one could argue that shooting a school full of kindergartners was just a”flaw” of that guy who did it. doesn’t justify it now does it?

        you guys have got to be kidding me! so since the man says she’s his “soul mate” (men say bs like that ALL the time) it’s okay? it’s stupid on her side anyway, if she DID get with him and he got a divorce, then hes just gonna go find somebody else to sleep with and call his soul mate and “sweet baby” just like *GASP* in the first episode! this heffa got all upset that he was seeing somebody that wasn’t her. um, DUH he isn’t even respecting his wife so how do you think you’re gonna be treated?

        it says a lot about a person if they’re willing to participate in adultery. i loved the show in the beginning of episode one, but that last part just turned me ALL the way off.

        she may not be the neck rolling friend (which is great,finally!)but this is a new kind of low behavior.

        • Guest360

          I never said it was ok but the fact that she’s in love with a married man doesn’t take away from all of her other qualities she has a character. She’s being portrayed as HUMAN….god forbid a black woman be one of those lol.

          And did you seriously just equate a mass murder of 20 REAL children and 6 REAL adults to two characters on a FICTIONAL show falling in love at the wrong time? Really now?

          It does say alot about a person who participates in adultery but when that person is WRITTEN by a team of writers, it doesn’t say anything more than this is a character and this is their storyline. To try and apply real life standards to fiction is just weird to me. As if this type of character has never been seen on television before. “New kind of low”. Whats that? Clearly you’ve never seen Dexter, Homeland, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy or the like if Olivia Pope is a “new kind of low” lol

          • chanela

            hone i’m aware that it’s a fictional tv show made by television writers. LOL i personally don’t even watch tv, i only checked out the show because of what people were saying about it on sites like this and clutchmag. i’m aware of there being worse tv shows,BUT my point is that i was disappointed/outraged by people claiming that this show is a positive representation of black women and someone that young girls can look up to, while she’s banging the president of the united states who is married. okay NOW i know that the president marriage was fake or whatever so i get it

            i was mentioning the guy who killed the kids because despite him doing that, people were talking about how he was such a great guy,a genius, making excuses for him ect and trying to make him seem like hes still a great human being no matter what horrific things he did.

            people are doing the same with scandal. despite her sleeping with a married man, people are saying “it doesn’t make her a bad person” “don’t judge her” and making excuses for her. that was my point. BUT i know more about the show now so i’ll probably watch it again. who knows?

            • chanela

              i just know that her sleeping with a married man after everybody praises the show for being so positive for black women turned me off to it. thatisall