Idolizing the Submissive, Sassy Mistress: ABC and the Scandal of the Stereotype

Curator's Note

When Scandal premiered last April, future fans were all abuzz, intrigued and excited about a major network carrying a show featuring an African American female lead for the first time since the 1970s.1 2  The hope was that she would offer an empowering illustration of black women on television; however, the show’s lead, Olivia Pope, represents a series of contradictory representations, many of which harken back to days of the plantation south. The paradoxical nature of Pope’s character represents the struggle that leaders within television media, those like Scandal’s executive producer Shonda Rhimes, have breaking ties with familiar tropes, even when those tropes are problematic. I offer two examples for consideration:

1) Jezebel

Even as the show tries to construct Pope as woman respected for her intelligence, leadership and charisma, she is still (and mostly) valued for her sexuality. Hyper-eroticized Pope threatens the traditional family in much the same way the Jezebel slave woman did on the plantation. Pope engages in a steamy affair with the married President Grant, as he illogically forsakes his reputation and his duties to country and home. Her mythical sexual prowess disempowers him.

2) Sapphire

Pope’s character, while often very calculating in her approach, often slips into the stereotype of black women as quick-tempered, loud and, of course, angry. This sharp-tongued Olivia’s demeanor reads as negative, placed in contrast with more palatable passive behaviors. As Sapphire, we see Olivia snap on co-workers and clients, and even threaten White House aide Cyrus Beene.

Producer Shonda Rhimes, when asked How much pride do you take in the fact that your casts are much more racially diverse than most other shows?”, replied:

I don’t take pride in it at all… there aren’t enough people of color on television. Why is that still happening? It’s 2013. Somebody else needs to get their act together.

To Rhimes’ point, representations of people of color are limited. So, for those who choose to reverse this trend, is there an added responsibility to carefully consider how those characters develop?  Does Olivia Pope’s connection to these slave tropes become less troubling if there were any other black women on television to compare her to? Or, is there still a need for showrunners like Shonda Rhimes to be more conscious of the way these characters are constructed? 

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