Olivia Pope, Bougie Politics and the Crimes of Black-on-Black Film

Confession of a black, semi-professional, 20s-something cliche: I love Scandal.


I love Olivia’s fierce, I know my shit retorts; her self-assured walk that is more strut and stomp than stroll; I love the permission Olivia doesn’t ask for to writhe in self-destructive anger, lavish in on-the-desk-in-the-closet-I-can’t-tell-my-girls-about-this sex, and spend some incredibly lonely Friday nights in bed; the way she thinks five steps ahead of crises; and the wordless language her lips alone command: quivering pout; the sneer; the tight, angry line; and the occasional, breakout smile.


Not to mention her coats. I had to give the idea of them its own paragraph because they are indeed that fly.


Because, listen: I have needs. I need different stories about who black women are; I need stories that have texture and complexity, that do not ossify black women into symbol, metaphor, and prop. Sometimes we want to be more than angry, funny, or nurturing and we want our purpose to transcend what we can do for the children or the men in our lives. Sometimes, we need to be the point, and to see women that we actually want to be. And Olivia Pope alone isn’t that, but she’s enough of a start to keep me captivated Thursday nights; So I need Scandal in a somewhat shallow and pathological, but mostly intrigued and relieved kind of way.


With that said, I have also been in enough sanctimonious “Tyler Perry movies are the Root of All Evil and Scandal is What Will Save Our Black Girls” conversations to know a more insidious reason why I and so many other women of color cultishly like Olivia Pope from Scandal, Mary Jane Paul from Being Mary Jane, Joan from Girlfriends and even Claire from the Cosby Show: aside from the other qualities that seduce us into watching, they answer our class aspirations. Much of their “goodness”, their “positive image-ness”, their “role model worthiness” that folks always evoke in these debates about what makes black film authentic or good draw less from the arc of those women’s moral lives and more from their power suits and palatial apartments. I think we owe it to the conversation to be honest about that.


I am not of the camp that insists entertainment is above critique, that it somewhat is desecrated by reading deeply into it, and that we should just mindlessly consume what makes us laugh or feel good. What entertains us is as much an essential signifier as our politics and our ethical codes.But I am also not of the camp that believes the habit of critique should strip the vitality and the joy out of life expression. I have no interest in unraveling and shredding every line, every symbol, every political implication of my favorite TV shows until I am left with the bone and gristle of what art means rather than how it moves. And because I am in the middle, because I can simultaneously watch Scandal and Diary of a Mad Black Woman while still appreciating the way both can be problematic, I believe in the kinds of conversations I end up in, which are usually about how to demand black filmic expression that feels honest, powerful and unriddled by lazy, racist tropes.


What bothers me about those conversations, however, is that they usually turn into a moral crusade, an insistence upon a singular narrative, and a defense of respectability politics disguised as anti-racist, pro-art activism.


As someone who used to love Tyler Perry’s work when it was just bootlegged DVDs of live-performance plays, now continue to watch his Hollywood productions begrudgingly, and can fully understand what got lost in translation when Perry transformed niche theater into blockbuster hits, I concede there is much for us to talk about. Perry’s baroque storylines, stilted, one-dimensional characters, and unnuanced sermonizing are distracting, and at times even horrifying, on screen; and you can’t quite understand just how magical and stomp-down funny gun-toting Madea, ashy-kneed Mr. Brown, and electric-voiced Cora used to be when they were on stage, when they were improvising, call-and-responding, singing, crying, sometimes laughing at their own jokes. It is worth questioning why white Hollywood is so amused by Perry’s work, why he and not other black filmmakers got catapulted into stardom, and whether producers are in fact reassured by the ways his work sometimes confirms their racist stereotypes. But rarely do the conversations I find myself in ever get that deep.


The conversation is usually monopolized by an anxiety about role models–who should be allowed to represent “the black experience”, what the “‘true black experience” should be; and what a positive image of blackness should look like. Should, should, should.Truth be told, we’re embarrassed, just like we’re embarrassed by Antoine Dodson and Trinidad James. How dare Tyler Perry. We’re deeply deeply embarrassed by what we imagine white America must be thinking when they watch his movies. And then Scandal–Olivia Pope in particular–is usually offered up as the antidote.

But I did not sign up for that. I officially resign from the moral police force that every black person with a degree apparently gets pledged into–you know, that oath to critique into obsoletion every movie, song, tv show and news appearance that isn’t about the coifed, upwardly mobile, black professional?


Olivia isn’t even a role model. The only critique I ever hear is about that moment she dropped that Sally Hemmings line, but I’m more concerned about what Scandal and other shows tell us about the interior lives of “successful” black women: when the coat comes off and the phones stop ringing and it’s just Olivia in her silk pajamas with that perennial glass of red wine, Olivia strikes me as terribly alone. She does not seem to have friends, family or a love life that isn’t dysfunctional and self-destructive; she does not even seem to have a relationship with herself; and she demands a dependent, sycophantic loyalty from those who work with her.  We don’t love Olivia because she’s perfect or even particularly good; we love her complicated shards, we love what we recognize about ourselves in her, whether it be some version of FItz or how exhausting and exhilarating it is to be a fixer; and we love well-written, well-acted nuance.


Maybe when we outgrow the agenda to leverage black film for that unending moral campaign to prove to white folks that we can be something other than poor or loud, when we relieve black film of the impossible burden of managing stereotypes, asserting respectability, educating, moralizing and on top of that, entertaining, and we then expend that energy figuring out what about Tyler Perry’s films resonate, then we can begin to have a productive and honest conversation. There are some that need Madea like I need Olivia–she is a reminder of women in their lives that are fiercely loving; there are some that need their Christian values echoed back to them; who need to see their dilemmas, their crises told; there are some who need to laugh at themselves and their neighbors, who need to hear that high-pitched gospel chord and that message that they are loved. And Olivia Pope will never be their remedy. Once we admit that, we can begin to demand that someone tell their stories with bravery and humor and complication, even if it won’t be Tyler Perry. I personally think that was the imperfect genius of a Boyz in the Hood or a Martin.


I don’t think we should be asking for role models from black film. I don’t think we should ask black film to “show us in the best light.” I don’t think we should ignore class when we pretend there can be a singular black story or not own up to the fact that part of wanting to see suited blacks on screen is self-interested. I don’t think obsessing over respectable images of Black Middle Class is the way of making black film “positive”. I believe these things because the enterprise of policing black art tends to backfire and silence the already silenced.


I love Scandal, enjoyed Being Mary Jane, and was a diehard Girlfriends fan, but don’t we need other stories told, too? Maybe what we should be asking for is a show about working class living that isn’t The Wire–that isn’t political commentary, expose, satire or crime-busting; that is simply well-written, complicated, funny, and has its imperfect heroes and sheroes; maybe what we should be asking for is black, queer love that isn’t voyeuristic sex; maybe we should be asking for more Diasporic black folks; maybe we shouldn’t even ask for particular identity representations or plotlines and maybe we should just demand good writing, good vision, good acting, and let the cards fall as they may.

I’m an 80s baby, so I’m spoiled and therefore naively optimistic- I mean, I spent a whole childhood on the diet of Love Jones, the Cosby Show, Crooklyn, A Different World, Family Matters, and the Wood, for goodness’s sake–but I think those cards can’t fall anywhere but up.


Scandal’s season 3 premiere will be aired  THIS THURSDAY OCT 3 10|9c on ABC.

In Case You Haven’t Checked Them Out: 

  1. Anything Black and Sexy TV, the Unwritten Rules, No Strings Please, Smoke and Mirrors
  2. Frutivale Station, I Will Follow
  3. This blog about black film



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