This blog was originally a talk I created for a talk at the University of Virginia in 2012. I recently stumbled across it and I thought I would publish it here as I am currently teaching a class on Black women’s politics at the University of Connecticut and many of these ideas are currently on my mind.
To begin I should be honest with ya’ll and tell you that I’m not a cultural theorist and I don’t generally do media or film analysis. But I think I have a couple of ideas that are worth sharing, and I’m excited about the opportunity to not only share them with you, but to dialogue with you around our discussion today.
I’m going to focus my talk on Kerri Washington’s character Olivia Pope, I argue, she represents certain tropes in American understandings of black women’s political engagement. That is, I think that Olivia’s task as a “behind the scene’s fixer” is an all-to common narrative that is used to understand, not only black women’s political engagement, but black women’s purpose in the world more generally.
In Scandal Olivia Pope is a lawyer whom, after advising the republican presidential candidate, opens her own law firm that specializes in crisis management for high-profile and/or wealthy clients that find themselves in compromising positions. Throughout the last two seasons we’ve seen her represent a wide-range of characters. From men caught up in prostitution scandals, to the former democratic presidential nominee’s murder case. Week after week, the audience is left wondering, what crisis will come to Olivia’s door step and how will she fix it? Interestingly, I don’t recall Olivia’s firm representing any female clients, but maybe you all can correct me on that.
Some have argued that Olivia’s perchance for saving rich white men from themselves places her squarely within the trope of the mammy. In an article published by the feminist wire, Brandon White argues the following:
In most episodes Pope is little more than a political mammy mixed with a hint of Sapphire who faithfully bears the burden of the oh-so-fragile American Political System on her shoulders. The mammy characterization has always had the goal of redeeming the relationship between black women and the white people whom they serve, particularly in the slave economy. Post-slavery, the mammy image has been repackaged time and time again in order to embed itself within an ever shifting culture. Pope is one of the latest manifestations of this characterization. Similar to how the mammy of slavery was normally portrayed as neat, clean, and happy to serve and maintain the inner-workings of the massah’s house; Olivia Pope is neat, clean, and well-dressed; she understands the inner-workings of massah’s house — The White House, and tirelessly works behind the scenes to ensure the house continues to function as expected. Furthermore, just as the mammy stereotype would have us believe, Pope is happy with her life of service to the good white folks running the country.
For White, because Olivia is able to successfully negotiate the many pit-falls and scandals present in the American political system, she fits squarely within the trope of mammy. However, I would argue that White actually misunderstands the mammy trope altogether. As Melissa Harris-Perry reminds us
Unlike the bad black woman who was aggressively sexual, Mammy had no personal needs or desires. She was a trusted adviser and confidante whose skills were used exclusively in service of the white families to which she was attached. Mammy was not a protector or defender of black children or communities. She represented a maternal ideal, but not in caring for her own children… Her loyal affection to white men, women and children was entirely devoid of sexual desire (73).
The Mammy trope works because it is a way to render black women totally asexual and powerless within wealthy households. White, attempts to maneuver around this by saying that Olivia is a Sapphire, Mammy and Jezebel all the time, but ultimately, as one can imagine, definitionally this kind of caricature falls flat. I can expand more on this particular point later if someone is interested. My point simply is this, despite the temptation to do so, I don’t think Olivia Pope fits squarely into any pre-existing narratives of black womanhood. That’s not to say that her character isn’t problematic, or that there are not critiques to be rendered. But it is to say, that especially if we are interested in what Scandal has to say about black women’s political engagement, these tropes don’t provide us with much traction. Harris-Perry points out
To understand why black women’s public actions and political strategies sometimes seem tilted in ways that accommodate the degrading stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior. It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room (29).
In Belinda Robnett argues that “African-American women participated as leaders in the civil rights movement, not simply as organizers… women’s leadership most often took the form of bridge leadership, which served to mobilize and sustain the movement (10).” Robnett argues that during the civil rights movement black women were not able to access the high profile leadership positions occupied by individuals like King, Rustin or Randolph due to certain gender inequities embedded in the movement. Instead, black women served as on the ground grassroots leaders that provided communication “bridges” between everyday folks and the executive boards of groups like the SCLC. While it would be easy to overlook and/or dismiss the contribution of this kind of activism, Robnett’s contribution is important because it lays out the way in which movements cannot operate without on the ground leaders who can respond to crisis’ as it is actually happening. One of the primary strengths of the bridge leader, as Robnett lays it out, is their ability to respond to crisis and spontaneously erupting political moments in a way that would push the movement’s agenda forward.
One could argue that Fannie Lou Hamer’s mentorship of the young people who participated in the Freedom Summer, as well as SNCC, was a type of bridge political leadership that is often overlooked. I would argue that Coretta Scott King’s work on poverty, and Rosa Park’s work on sexual violence are additional examples of bridge work. That is, they did the writing, the pushing, and the advancing of certain agenda’s behind the scenes and on the ground. Now, one can certainly argue that it is problematic that for the most part, these women’s political contributions have been eclipsed by more masculine-centered political moments. However, I think it is to easy of a mistake to, at the same time, dismiss the inherent power of their political contributions, simply because the way in which they had to “stand straight in a crooked room,” was problematically tied to the shape of the American political system.
So, what does all of this have to do with Scandal and Olivia Pope? I would argue a whole lot! In Scandal I think Olivia takes the crooked rooms within the White House and manages to find creative ways to stand up straight, episode after episode. I think it is a given that her political power is in some ways capped by the limitations of capitalism and white male patriarchy, but at the same time, and I can’t say this enough, I don’t think we can continue to allow the existence of oppression to blind us to the manner in which marginalized people are able to express power, in small and big ways.
I find Olivia’s character on Scandal politically meaningful because I think she represents the trope of political bridge-maker. She is constantly finding ways to connect her clients with the systems of power that she has access to, in order to push their individual agendas forward. Does this make her radical or revolutionary? Absolutely not, in this sense, White is right that Olivia’s character perpetuates the agenda of the American Political System with little push-back. Nevertheless, I think that Olivia provides us with a window to continue thinking about what political power looks like for some black women, and in some sense, perhaps a way to imagine how the glass ceiling on that power could be broken into a pathway for diverse and creative political possibilities.
 White, Brandon. “Olivia Pope and the Scandal of Representation.” The Feminist Wire. http://thefeministwire.com/2013/02/olivia-pope-and-the-scandal-of-representation/
 Harris-Perry, Melissa. Sister Citizen