Lights Out: Olivia Pope and the Outsourcing of Black Male Power

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Each Thursday—well, when Shonda Rhimes and the crew decide against punitive three-week breaks—millions of viewers tune in to ABC for the political drama Scandal. The stylish, calculating Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, navigates the center of delicious presidential pandemonium as we watch, react, and salivate over her wardrobe. Add in popular social networking site Twitter, and now we can watch, react, and salivate together.

Television-watching in the micro-blogging age has fostered a new, digitally-intimate experience. Even if we’re alone in our living rooms, Twitter allows us to watch these shows amongst friends, in the form of followers,—laughing at each other’s’ comical commentary and engaging in-depth conversations on various ‘isms as they relate to Scandal’s characters and how they interact.

Admittedly, it’s a lot of fun.

It has also pulled the curtain back on negative reactions to shows we know and love, like Scandal. Notice, I say negative, not critical—critical responses are important reactions in media and popular culture.

This negative commentary, during the last few episodes of Scandal, involves Black men’s comments on Olivia Pope and her sexual and political juxtaposition to Fitzgerald ‘Fitz’ Grant—a White man—the President of the United States, played by Tony Goldwyn. Black men, and many Black women, have expressed discontent, not only with Olivia Pope’s romantic involvement with a married White man, but with Kerry Washington for even agreeing to such a role.

There is this simple, telling tweet: “Olivia Pope is a #hoe #ho #Scandal”

Then, this one: “Man why couldn't the President be black and Olivia Pope be white? Y'all would be mad huh?”

And this one: “Why does Kerry Washington (Olivia Pope) always play a black woman lusting for white dick? She needs a new agent.”

In Kirsten West Savali’s Such A Big Ego: Why Some Black Men Have A Problem With “Scandal” at Clutch Magazine, she explicitly identifies the issue as potent Black patriarchy:

I swiftly discard that exaggerated criticism because it is so obviously steeped in feelings of emasculation and instinctive powerlessness that it would take much longer than a sweep of social media to peel back all of the layers and address its core.

But these anti-Scandal black men are a wily bunch. Oh yes, they are. They realized that they couldn’t continue to post pictures of Kim Kardashian on Monday, quote little Wayne talking about “bet that bitch look better red” on Tuesday, break down all the reasons why white women stay “#winning” on Wednesday, then complain about a black woman being in love with a white man on Thursday.

These responses, from Black men, are indeed part of discourse on patriarchy and male privilege. And they’re also a part of the conversation on how the institution of Black male power is being sourced. Black men represent the highest population of incarcerated persons. Unlike other races of men, homicide is top five killer of Black men. I do not pose these systemic issues as Black men’s fault. Instead, I mention them to illustrate the dire atmosphere Black males face and how these issues possibly foster conditions in which Black men turn to the other avenues for power—in this case, Black women’s agency.

These avenues vary by nation, culture, and context, but Black women’s immobility, whether sexual or economic, seems to be a supreme source of power for Black men. Whether we’re being tacky by carrying condoms or freezing at night because we dared to earn degrees, if we’re performing choice, it’s perceived as a threat to Black male mobility. In so many arenas, Black male power is being siphoned from Black women’s livelihoods—a cultural crisis of sorts.

When examined just as tweets, they appear to be harmless, crude opinions from contrarian viewers. But in a larger cultural context—when we start looking at social hierarchies and who comes first in line for power—these comments represent a rift between Black men and Black women. Though still oppressed because of their Blackness, male privilege in a patriarchal society has given Black men a one up on Black women. Even in terms of historical order of political rights, it’s always been the White man, the Black man, the White woman, and then the Black woman—at the bottom of the barrel. And each time these select Black men speak about how Black women are portrayed in non-Black media, film, and television—this privilege oozes thru the cracks in their teeth. Mainly, because they don’t critique “damaging” representations of White or Latina women in media, and they absolute aren’t critiquing representations of Black women in hip-hop.

Like Savali says, “I get that no one is allowed to objectify black women but them.”

Black men and women have both suffered from hypersexual stereotypes. After Spike Lee’s 1991 movie, the term ‘jungle fever’ became the moniker used to describe a White person’s (sexual) attraction to a Black person. (Because of course, there is nothing civilized about being attracted to a Black person.) Even in its metaphoric genius, the term sums up American—even global—perceptions of Black sexuality. Primitive, animalistic, and deviant. But while Black people of both genders of portrayed as strictly carnal, Black men have always had the privilege of dominance. They’re represented as being in control during intimacy, in all their animalistic glory. Black women however—are not. While some argue that Olivia Pope also appears to have little agency in her sexual dealings with the president, I argue that their encounters happen within powerful context.

And that’s where the conversation gets controversial. Black men seem to be expressing discontent with Pope not because she’s the “other” in an extramarital affair, but because, debatably, she’s a confusing amalgam of sexual history, sexual modernity, and agency—and a badass wardrobe. She’s powerful, but not ‘loud’. Sexy, but not overtly provocative. Pope has reclaimed a level of humanity. And with this reclamation comes the privilege of complexity—a possible threat to Black male power.

In his well-formulated critique of Scandal over at The Feminist Wire, Brandon Maxwell wrote,

On the surface, the show seems progressive. It is rare to see such a diverse and unlikely group of characters come together to fight for a shared cause within a mainstream TV show. Furthermore, Rhimes appears to break the normative Hollywood modus operandi wherein the protagonist is typically both male and white. In fact, she is portrayed as “the great white hope” who is required to save the day alone. But the assumed central character of Scandal, Olivia Pope, is neither white nor male: the flesh of a black woman appears to be at the center of this drama.

Of course, no art or entertainment form exists in a random vacuum devoid of historical context. Yes, the mammy personification is an issue. The Jezebel personification is problematic. I ask, though, at what point does the performance of Black womanhood, even if it’s sleeping with married White men, become about sheer choice and not projection?

Later, Maxwell returned to the dialogue to address black male privilege’s role in his critiques. I don’t believe he approached Scandal through privileged lenses. I speak exclusively about the tweets.

Though she remains in a position of submission, to a White man, Pope has stepped from behind the Black man and cut the proverbial political line. There is this implicit “how dare you?” tone in Black men’s Twitter commentary about the show. Black women have played ‘other women’ to married Black men, for decades. It’s not until now that it’s an issue of morality. The show’s relational dynamics aren’t what we’re used to. And likely, because so much of Black men’s power has come from Black women’s oppression, this shift makes them uncomfortable.

For years, non-Black women have starred in film and television roles in which they participated in scandalous romantic affairs with married men, or were sexually philandering wives themselves. But their access to White privilege has allowed them to escape accusations of being strictly erotic beings.

For the most part, Black women haven’t had the privilege of playing modernized, complex characters. For far too long, we’ve been relegated to polarized roles—the wise, regal, asexual, queen Mother of the Earth or the lowdown, downtrodden, broken, sexually irresponsible harlot. In so few instances have we had access to the middle ground, like Pope. While Pope is overdue for some added depth, she embodies a degree of complexity I can appreciate for now. More than Tyler Perry has attempted, at least.

Having ascended from the deaths of primitive whoredom and descended from the heights of queen ankh’s throne, Black women—Olivia Pope—finally have access, limited albeit, to the mixture of contradictory characteristics that make humans, human. Intelligent and faulted. Powerful and imperfect. Sexual, even.

And so, as Black female identity slowly begins to transcend historical dichotomies, this generator of sexual, political Black female immobility—that has powered Black male power and patriarchy for so long—is running out of fuel.

I’m worried that pretty soon, it’ll be lights out. Lucky for them though, there are a few activist, feminist Black male allies to the womanist movement—and they’ve brought flashlights.


In Praise of the Messiness of Scandal's Olivia Pope
Shifting Roles: The Depiction of Black Womanhood in 'Scandal' and 'Deception'
Speak For Yourself: Why Fighting Stereotypes With Generalizations Does Not Work

Photo credit: Scandal Moments

Asia Brown is a culture critic, writer, and author. Her 2nd novel, White Girl Hair, debuts on July 6th. She is currently attending the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for a Master of Arts degree in Communication Studies, specializing in rhetoric, media studies, and popular culture. Follow her daily musings on Twitter: @AsiaBrown

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