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Kayla Upadhyaya: Showing instead of telling on ABC's 'Scandal'

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Managing Arts Editor
Published April 1, 2013

Previously, on “Scandal”: Lisa Edelstein guest stars as Sarah Stanner, a successful CEO whose affair with a Supreme Court justice nominee goes public, prompting her company to call in Olivia Pope and Associates, a team of gladiators in suits led by the fierce, formidable fixer, Pope. When the team arrives, Stanner extends her hand to Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield): “You must be Olivia Pope.” The real Olivia (played expertly by Kerry Washington) breezes past without hesitation, as if it’s routine: “I’m Olivia Pope.” Stanner reels at her mistake, but Olivia shows no surprise. After all, if you’ve never met Washington D.C.’s famed fixer who’s powerful and sharp enough to get the highest caliber of clients out of the stickiest of situations, you’d probably guess she’s the copper-haired white woman, not the pressed-haired black woman.

“Scandal,” ABC’s Shonda Rhimes-run political soap, doesn’t tackle race frequently, but when it does, it punches all the right nerves. This particular moment is a prime example of the series’s ability to show instead of tell. Five seconds are packed with harsh truths: microagression, raced assumptions, implicit racism that Olivia Pope probably faces every day.

Having helmed “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” Rhimes had an established fan base when “Scandal” — now in its second season — entered ABC’s midseason lineup in 2012. But Washington was the main attraction. She’s the first black woman to lead a major network drama since the 1970s, and even though the nine-episode first season wobbled, one by one, “Scandal” think pieces and reflections on race and media representation mushroomed all over the Internet.

Meanwhile, the show itself refused to talk about race. “Scandal” isn’t a race-specific show; Olivia Pope isn’t defined by the color of her skin, and for these reasons, it might just be the most inclusive show on network television right now. There’s nothing exploitive or tokeny about Rhimes’s decision to cast Washington in the role, and at the same time, the show doesn’t erase race completely. In not explicitly calling attention to Olivia’s race, the show doesn’t whitewash or erase parts of her identity; instead, we’re seeing a fully fleshed out character who doesn’t fall into raced stereotypes or archetypes seen on other shows. “Scandal” deals with race and gender in quiet but powerful ways, weaving social commentary into its complicated web of twists and cliffhangers, instead of throwing them in your face.

And the nuances also apply to the way “Scandal” treats its gay characters. The President’s right-hand man Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry) is openly married to a male White House press correspondent, but Cyrus’s sexuality is never pushed to the forefront: It’s presented merely as an aspect of the character’s life, without any kind of self-congratulation on the writing’s part. And when his sexuality does come up, it’s again in a hard-hitting but subtle way: When grimy oil tyrant Hollis Doyle (Gregg Henry) mockingly calls Cyrus’s husband his wife, Cyrus quickly corrects him, calling out Doyle’s heteronormative understanding of gay relationships.

But some of the same issues people have with Cyrus and Olivia are the same: They’re not role models. Rhimes said as much about Olivia when Star Jones hurled criticisms over Twitter regarding Olivia’s morality and ethics. Historically, it’s very difficult for women of color to find role models in media who look like them. There are Leslie Knopes and Tina Feys and Tami Taylors kicking ass all over network television, but heroines of color? They exist in backgrounds and side stories, sure, but rarely come in the form of leading ladies.

So on the one hand, questioning whether Olivia Pope is a woman black viewers can look up to seems like fair criticism, but it ignores another crucial aspect of representation. In a television era dominated by white, male anti-heroes like Don Draper and Walter White, “Scandal” boldly declares that the morally complex, corrupt protagonist can be a black woman. In the past, writers and showrunners wrote black female characters who were virtuous, as if the only black female character viewers would want to see is a morally black and white character. For Olivia, it’s all about the bottom line: Protect the client at all costs, even if someone ends up hurt or worse. On top of her cutthroat approach to problem solving, she’s having an affair with the President of the United States. Her decisions and judgements are imperfect, and her subtleties make her convincing.

So no, Olivia Pope isn’t necessarily a role model, but she’s one of the best protagonists currently on network television, and the fact that she’s a black woman makes that all the more potent.

Its ratings have shot through the roof in the current season, and the numbers tell a distinct story: According to the Nielsen rating system, “Scandal” is the highest rated script drama among African Americans, and for the first half of this season, over 10 percent of black households tuned in week-to-week. People want to see more diverse faces on their televisions. “Scandal” breaks barriers, but does so with finesse. It would be naïve to say that Rhimes has sparked a new era of more inclusive television, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. If only network execs put as much thought into selecting content as Olivia Pope puts into choosing which clients to take on … our TVs might finally not be so over-saturated with white dudes.


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