Shifting Roles: The Depiction of Black Womanhood in 'Scandal' and 'Deception'

When you think about black women on television, they are almost always the supporting actress or t...

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When you think about black women on television, they are almost always the supporting actress or the reality TV star. And if they do have a main role, it is usually for a program with a majority black cast.  ABC’s Scandal altered this trajectory when it aired in April of 2012 with actress Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope the main character of the series.  And in January 2013 NBC’s Deception followed suit with actress Meagan Good as Joanna Locasto the leading lady of this mystery soap.


We’re currently six episodes into Deception and more than one season into Scandal. We’ve been presented with countless critiques and analysis of the individual shows, along with comparisons and contrasts of both shows. So now I cannot help but to reflect on the depiction of black womanhood in Scandal and Deception.

What stands out about both shows is that aside from having black leading ladies another similarity between the shows is Olivia and Joanna’s relationship with a powerful white male. These relationships are parallel in that they are both extremely flawed and complex.  Olivia is essential the president’s mistress and Joanna seems to be just a resurfaced old fling of rich party boy Julian Bowers.

In a day where everyone wants to believe that black women aren’t wanted by men of any color, especially white, this is monumental.  While these relationships are extremely flawed Scandal and Deception both prove that black women are desirable… within limitations.

While having black women star on two prime-time network dramas at the same moment in time is a huge step in elevating black womanhood, the limits on the Olivia’s and Joanna’s relationship with the white men they are involved with can be seen as analogous to black women not being good enough for white men in general. 

I am not condemning the shows because the black women are not the only objects of affection in their white male significant other’s life.  That’s how life goes.  Black women in television should not be afforded perfect lives just because they are black.  It’s good that these characters have flaws and obstacles in their lives; it gives them more than one dimension and makes for interesting TV.  But unfortunately it does cast a negative haze on the progress that these shows are making.

While you could classify Olivia Pope as a combination of the mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire stereotypes (if you dig deep enough), she is a black woman who has control over Washington. She is respected for her skills, not because she is a loud aggressive stereotypical black woman.  And while Joanna Locasto is the daughter of a black maid for a white family, she only pretends to need the Bower family’s help as apart of her undercover duty.  In reality she is an independent detective who is successful by her own means. Flawed relationships aside, it is refreshing to see black women on TV in respectable and powerful leading roles as opposed to supporting actresses or wild reality TV stars.

Related:

The Best Black Female Characters in Television History
Having Our Say: Melissa Harris-Perry and the Voice of Black Women
Kerry Washington Demonstrates the Meaning of Sisterhood


Alexis Jackson is a student studying Creative Writing and Fine Arts at Vanderbilt University. You can reach her at alexis@forharriet.com.

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