Film & Television

The Show Is Called ‘Scandal’ for a Reason


I love ABC’s new hit show, Scandal. It’s my Thursday night guilty pleasure, inspired by the life of Judy A. Smith, a phenom in crisis management and a former special assistant and deputy press secretary to President George H. W. Bush. Among her famous clients are Monica Lewinksy, Michael Vick, and Larry Craig. I don’t think Smith takes easy cases. Here’s why I am impressed with the show:

  • It is based on a real woman who is a badass in the best of ways. Confident, talented, smart, takes-no-prisoners, and doesn’t dumb down her good looks. We don’t see nearly enough women like this on television.
  • It is created and directed by Shonda Rhimes, a woman extraordinaire who has written, directed, and produced two other hit television series: Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice. Time magazine identified her in 2007 as one of 100 people who help shape the world.
  • It revolves around the life of a sophisticated grown woman, not a 20-something young’un working her way through her quarter-life crisis. This is not a put-down; I watch some of those shows, too. There just seem to be more shows about young(er) women than about mature women; shows like Girls, 2 Broke Girls, Pretty Little Liars, New Girl, and The Carrie Diaries, to name a few. Then again, most TV shows have males as the lead characters, but that’s another article.
  • Judy Smith is played by Kerry Washington, the first African-American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years. Ethel Waters starred in Beulah, a comedy, in 1950, Diahann Carroll starred in Julia, a comedy, in 1968, and Teresa Graves in Get Christie Love!, a drama, in 1974. And that was it until the Scandal debut in 2012.

Kerry Washington’s character is Olivia Pope. Single, self-assured, smart, stylish, and beautiful. As a single woman, I identify with Olivia in some ways.  Like me and countless other single women, Olivia isn’t sure that the kind of life that marriage offers is right for her. Though unlike me, her job is her life. My job is decidedly not my life. I actually live for time off. She, on the other hand, is energized by every minute she spends on the job.

And like some of the world’s best spinsters, her love life is complicated. Olivia turned down the marriage proposal from the handsome senator who wants her desperately. Her heart belongs to the equally handsome and married POTUS (President of the United States).  That she’s sleeping with a married man checks off one box in the scandalous category. That this is an interracial affair makes it juicier to some and more scandalous to others. Especially now that the president is being mean to her. Others find that the relationship skirts dangerously close to the exploitation of black women by white men during the slavery era.  Yet, Olivia is definitely not powerless.  She falls willingly into his arms. I usually think adultery is just plain wrong and it’s always hard to justify rooting for an adulterous relationship . . .  and yet I am rooting for Olivia and POTUS.

In the infamous words of Woody Allen as he strode off into his new life with his girlfriend, Mia Farrow’s, daughter: “The heart wants what it wants.” And Olivia’s heart wants this good-looking, powerful, and very married man—married to the country and to FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States).

This show has been the talk of the Web as people decry that Olivia Pope’s character is wrong for women and especially black women. That she’s a powerful woman who has her own successful firm, is loyal to the people in her life, and is respected by Washington’s “people in the know” doesn’t matter.  They choose to shine a spotlight on her affair—her steamy, jaw-dropping, be-still-my-heart affair.  No, we should not imitate this part of a fictional character’s life. She’s not real.

Scandal is a great show, not a great black woman show. I am puzzled by those who protest the show as sending the wrong message about women. Why don’t we hear more people concerned about the crazy, un-role-model-like women on most popular reality shows like Mob Wives, The Real Housewives, Basketball Wives, and Love & Hip-Hop franchises, and Bad Girls? These are real people.

Perhaps if there were more black women leads on scripted television, Kerry/Olivia wouldn’t have to carry the mantle for all black women. She wouldn’t be expected to be a role model. And thank God she isn’t. When I’m sprawled on the couch watching television at 10 p.m. on a Thursday night, I’m looking for a little fantasy, something juicy.

But if you must look to a television show for someone to emulate, model yourself after Kerry Washington—a real woman, a smart and talented woman—not Olivia Pope. Kerry is a graduate of George Washington University, a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and a political activist involved in such efforts as V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women and girls. Let’s not confuse the character with the woman who plays her.

And, by the way, the name of the show is Scandal, not Saint.  It’s supposed to incite. It’s a failure if it’s not scandalous. 

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  • Janice March 25, 2013 at 11:46 pm

    Whoops, I need to learn to attach the link before posting:

  • Janice March 25, 2013 at 11:45 pm

    I am a major fan of Scandal, but dislike the recent Oliva-Fitz dynamic. Last week, though, things starting changing for the better, and Olivia stood up to him. On the other hand, her business savvy and command are fantastic. This afternoon on “All Things Considered” our fictional Olivia was held up as an example of women needing to learn negotiation skills. Here’s the link; Scandal is near the end, but the whole piece is worth a listen.

  • Phyllis Blair March 21, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    I am a big fan of “Scandal.” I don’t see Olivia as an lack woman just a smart, attractive, saavy, hard working woman during what alot of women and men do, fall for the wrong person. There is more to show than the affair. Really good story lines. Eleanore did an excellent critique on. Aunt Danny

  • Fiona March 21, 2013 at 11:35 am

    Great article. Think I’ll watch the show. Speaking of real characters, Judy Smithalways fascinated me.

  • Chris Lombardi March 21, 2013 at 11:30 am

    Eleanore – I’m just thrilled that someone I admire is as hooked on Scandal as I am – and even admits to being on Team Olitz, as I am despite myself. See you on Twitter tonight?

  • hillsmom March 21, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Excellent commentary, and thanks for explaining about the Judy A. Smith connection. It’s one of my favorite shows, too. There seems to be IMHO a dearth of good stories on TV these days. Or perhaps I’m alone in that opinion? I would also mention “The Good Wife” with smart writing and female leads who are out of their twenties.

  • Walker Thornton March 21, 2013 at 8:20 am

    Eleanore, I couldn’t agree with you more. if we want to start blaming television characters lets look at the women on the Cougar series or the woman who stars as a Dr. for the Mob.
    I can’t help but think that part of the discomfort is due to the assertive sexual desire this character displays. She’s confident and in touch with her sexuality! Which I love.
    You’ve written a very thoughtful, balanced statement! So glad you brought this to my attention. And, reminded me to get back to watching the show again!