Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Kerry Washington: Scandal, Love and Hate

I have been catching up on ABC's Scandal.

Scandal is about Olivia Pope, the head of a crisis management company in Washington who happens to be having an affair with the married President of the United States.

All sorts of other stuff happens but back to the affair. Olivia is black. The President is white.
I. Can't. Stop.Watching. On Facebook a friend posted,"Black women hate adultery except for Thursdays at 9 pm."

As a married black woman who is also an actress I struggle with my investment in the doomed affair between Olivia Pope (played by"it" girl Kerry Washington) and the President (Tony Goldwyn).
Actress Kerry Washington

Shonda Rhimes Scandal's creator has broken ground by creating the first black female lead character on a network TV drama since 1974. Despite the history she has made I think she is sending a mixed message.

Olivia Pope is educated, runs her own company, is powerful, beautiful, smart, fashionable.
She is also locked in a dysfunctional disaster of an affair. 

Her white lover; the President is often mean to her, downright verbally abusive and treats her like a sex object. He is often just shy of forcing himself on her. She dissolves into tears after most of their encounters and her "man" has never so much as given her a petal of a flower or a piece of chocolate. 

The Prez summons her and she comes running, then she says, "I am not yours. I don't show up places because you want me.." Olivia, yes you do, Girl.

Their relationship makes me uncomfortable and even though I enjoy Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn's palpable chemistry it bothers me that her character is treated like crap. Sadly, I am so darn happy to see a black actress playing something other than the "sassy black woman" I am complicit.

I think if Olivia Pope were white the affair as it stands would not be tolerated on a cultural level.
When Millie (the First Lady who knows about the affair) and Olivia Pope engage in one of their many steely stare offs there is the sense that Olivia is losing. Ultimately, in their high stakes political world the odds (in part because of her skin color) are against her. 

If a white mistress and Millie had the same stare off the white mistress would seem like more of a viable threat. If the mistress is more of a viable threat maybe I as well as other viewers wouldn't be wanting the affair to continue because oh yeah, affairs suck. 

Some critics can't get over that Olivia Pope is black and the President of the United States is white. They can't believe that Olivia Pope is almost never referred to as a black woman. Although race is not referenced I think it plays an integral if not insidious role in how the relationship between Olivia and the President is perceived. The "mistreated black woman" is familiar. We have seen her before.

I know I am raining on the Scandal parade. At the same time I'm getting drenched because I am hooked. The show is fast paced, has exciting story lines and surprises.

Still, I have a nagging feeling that there is something other than the affair that is fundamentally wrong and should not be applauded. I wonder if Kerry Washington who has been cast in the role of a lifetime struggles internally with the portrayal.

Shonda Rhimes has simultaneously broken new ground while inadvertently setting Scandal on much traversed ground. I hope she allows Olivia Pope to gain some equal footing with her lover.

Or I. Will. Have to. Stop. Watching.