Olivia Pope And The Depiction Of Multifaceted Womanhood: Why We Love Kerry Washington And Her Honest Portrayals Of Women

February 21, 2013  |  

I haven’t heard this much criticism of a television character… ever. Kerry Washington’s role in the hit prime time drama Scandal as Olivia Pope, the boss yet internally conflicted “fixer”/mistress to the President of the United States has EVERYONE talking. And when I say “everyone” I do mean everyone. On Thursday nights at 10 pm EST, my Twitter timeline is rockin’ with Scandal hashtags by family, friends, politicians, athletes and actors alike, raving about the twists, the turns, the brilliant writing, the fashion, the flashbacks, the very different funky 70s soundtrack… Every aspect of the show seems to be something of a phenomenon, especially since it’s the first primetime drama with a black female lead role on a major network in years. Some of us see progression in that. Some of us see off-the-charts talent and entertainment.

Still, the show has its vehement critics. Those not unlike CBS, Atlanta reporter Mo Ivory who breaks down Washington’s role as “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.”

I don’t agree or disagree with Ivory’s thoughts. I’ve been so focused on Washington’s accurate portrayal (no matter how messy) of just a WOMAN in general that I haven’t had the time to bust down a list of the horrible characteristics.

I watch Kerry beast through her performance as Olivia Pope every week and think to myself that I have NEVER seen such a consistent powerhouse performance in primetime, week after week. As Pope, Washington peels back the layers of a very human woman who can clean up anyone’s, EVERYONE’S mistakes and hiccups around her but is just barely holding together the steadily unfolding mess that is her own life. I don’t see a black woman who is a mistress when I watch Olivia Pope. I see a woman in general who has issues just like the rest of the world and is trying to get clarity and peace of mind in the midst of a crap storm of confrontation and seemingly buried secrets. Kerry Washington executes the human-ness of the role flawlessly. That’s what I’m tuned in for.

Is she playing a mistress? Yes. I know, I know. That sets black women back hundreds of years and blah blah blah. I don’t agree with all that simply because for years, blacks have had to fight with screenwriters and directors and producers to allow us to be human beings on screen. Not caricatures. Not trumped up stereotypes. Not ALWAYS Mammys and drivers or harlots and drug dealers. Just everyday, normal human beings, whatever that entails. For this particular role, Kerry Washington unfolds a woman’s struggle with loving someone she cannot wholly have, being strong for everyone else all the time, working almost ‘round the clock, trying to cover past mistakes with present goodwill. Who of us haven’t dealt with at least one of the above?! She plays a human being, people! She shows the multi-faceted womanhood that many of us try to deny by criticizing roles like this or even everyday people like this.

About a month or so ago during her interview with Oprah, Washington drew parallels between Olivia Pope and her character of “Broomhilda,” a slave woman in the deep south spaghetti western Django Unchained, which opened as a box office hit with very mixed reviews. She expressed that her goal as an actress is simply to honor humanity by telling these stories in as real a way as possible. Washington also stated that she felt honored to play both roles because it showed how far we had come as a nation. Her ability to be able to play such a multi-layered character like Olivia Pope essentially was an answer to her character Broomhilda’s prayers that one day that kind of freedom would be possible for a black woman. She talked about the timeline of black acting, citing that in the beginning, everything was stereotypical if you wanted to be a black actor. Then, there was the era of “black perfection” where all roles taken on by black actors had to be pristine, no flaws. Now, we live in an age where we are beginning to be allowed to simply be human. Flaws and all.

That idea struck a chord with me as I reviewed Washington’s body of work from Save The Last Dance to Django. She has always chosen roles that some might say have made black folks “look bad,” yet they offered an honest look into the lives of honest characters. And what is a serious actor if not an honest vessel?

During her acceptance speech at the 2012 Black Girls ROCK! event, Washington said, “I get to honor humanity. We are all valuable human beings and all our stories deserve to be told.”

We, as freethinking human beings need to stop being so quick to judge the black artist. What Kerry Washington and Viola Davis and countless other black actresses are doing is monumental if we change our outlook. We cannot whittle down the idea of black art only to what makes us feel comfortable. Was Viola Davis’s role as a 1960s maid too painful a memory for some of us? Is Olivia’s role as a mistress (no matter how classy and fierce) too telling of many a modern day reality for some of us? I see Washington as a brave soul for pushing through and bringing a truth to television that has long been airbrushed to ease internal tensions. I see Washington as an example of the versatility black women have not been allowed to exhibit for so long. The honesty we have not been able to speak on or to portray without feeling some sort of way. I celebrate her courage to honor humanity even in the face of such opposition. If we’re more fixated on the flaws of the character rather than the honesty those flaws bring to entertainment, perhaps we need to do a bit more soul-searching and a little less judging.

La Truly is a late-blooming Aries whose writing is powered by a lifetime of anecdotal proof that awkward can transform to awesome and fear can cast its crown before courage. La seeks to encourage thought, discussion and change among young women through her writing. Check out her blog: http://www.hersoulinc.com and Twitter: @AshleyLaTruly.

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