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