By Brandon T. Maxwell
The following is an attempt to respond to some of the critiques of my article, “Olivia Pope and The Scandal of Representation,” recently published by The Feminist Wire. Herein, I attempt to address what I perceived to be overarching critiques of the essay and respond to them accordingly, engaging criticisms directly where necessary. I also attempt to clearly rearticulate points that seem to have been misread in the initial piece. Hopefully, this response will provide some clarity, confession, and opportunity for further critical engagement with Scandal. I’ll focus on my black manhood, my personal relationship to Scandal, the politics of representation, and agency, and I’ll also offer a specific response regarding Pope’s interiority and the politics of pleasure as discussed in “Love In a Time of Scandal.”
#1 – Black Male Privilege
I can admit when I’ve messed up. Before going any further in this important and tough dialogue, I find it necessary to honestly acknowledge a real, albeit limiting and confession-invoking critique. I am a black man. There are power dynamics attached to my biological and gendered self that I cannot escape. I have patriarchal grooming and training, from which I strive to distance myself on a daily basis. Sometimes I fall for the okie-doke and unconsciously allow said patriarchal logic to influence my person. I failed to fully acknowledge this in my initial essay. Specifically, I did not name the ways that my critiques of Olivia Pope’s sexuality embody power dynamics that could be read as me not having done the work of deconstructing patriarchal thinking in my own personal/emotional life.
Pause. I’ve been on the other side of this discussion, too: telling white folks who wanted to be down with the anti-racist struggle that they had more homework to do. So, I know how half-assed or self-serving a confession can sound when given after invocation.
This is not that.
What this is, however, is a genuine acknowledgement of oversight in hopes that the continuing discussion that is needed around media representation of black folks (particularly in Scandal) can move forward without being constrained by essentialist understandings of gender and biology, while also still being aware of the real ways they are operative. While my critiques, to some, may ring ‘unfeminist,’ I stand by them and contend that they ring differently feminist – more on this later.
#2 – Beyond Like and Dislike
In reading comments on the initial essay, I noticed many readers perceived me to be sipping on Hater-ade – hating on Olivia Pope, Shonda Rhimes, the show, etc.
Again, this is not that.
In the first draft of “Olivia Pope and the Scandal of Representation,” I started with an epigraph from bell hooks, which read, “For me, insightful critique exists in a world beyond like and dislike; it is all about passionate response, whether positive or negative.” In later revisions, I edited it out under the assumption that it could be taken for granted – a mistake on my part.
This is to say, I don’t hate Scandal, Olivia Pope, or Shonda Rhimes. I, too, watch the show on a weekly basis (albeit several hours behind folks in the States and without the joy of #BlackTwitter commentary). While I watch Scandal and understand the politics of pleasure associated with the show, I am attempting to offer one perspective on the clear constraints placed on the character of Olivia Pope at the hand of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
My question remains: how far does one’s agency go when placed against – or given in service to – patriarchy and capitalism? Do understandings of agency solve how white supremacy works on black bodies, not only in the show, but also in real life? Does the fact that we enjoy the show, or take (un)guilty pleasure in it, make unreal the fact that white supremacy is doing its work on us, specifically on black bodies, in spite of what we do?
This leads to a third response, hopefully a clearer expansion of my initial critique.
#3 – Power/Dominance in Scandal and Beyond
Scandal is wrapped in a narrative of American exceptionalism, statehood, and democracy; and a black woman is embodying this narrative, championing it.
Many commenters/responders to my initial piece name Olivia Pope’s position as one of empowerment, which black women can relish for an hour on a weekly basis. For some, this – the politics of pleasure – is the starting point. For me, however, the starting point is one that considers the politics of representation and the sociopolitical context in which Olivia Pope is placed. It’s no secret that many of us enjoy/take pleasure in the show – check the weekly viewership numbers. After acknowledging this obvious fact, for me, the critical starting point – as commenter ‘MaximusConfesses’ pointed out in response to the original post – is a critique of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and the transformations it enacts upon black female bodies regardless of how they themselves actually are” or how we perceive them to be.
This is not an attack on Olivia Pope, but an attempt to analyze and critique the real work that white supremacy is doing in Scandal. Perhaps my title lent itself to misreading, seeming to propose that the article was about Olivia Pope’s character committing this representative scandal. The thesis of the essay, however, clearly pointed to the fact that my critique was one targeted at imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Olivia Pope can be a black woman in power, running shit, exercising her agency, rejecting a sexuality of respectability and still be encumbered by the tropes that some want us to believe the needle has moved beyond. Again, this is not an attack on Olivia Pope or an attempt to ‘fault’ her and/or Shonda Rhimes, per se, but an acknowledgement of the fact that even when Olivia Pope is not responsible for enacting these roles, white supremacy works that transformation on her requiring her to do so.
For this reason, understandings of her agency cannot be separated from how her agency functions in the plot. Pope may not be the trope of Jezebel proper, but within the plot her sexuality – particularly as it relates to her relationship with Fitz – is depicted as something that will not only destroy this white man’s political career, but also send the whole American political system into a spiral of confusion and turmoil. Granted, we may not know how to handle the love between Grant and Pope, but we can still be critical of it.
Pope may not be the (political) mammy trope proper, but one cannot ignore the fact that she is working in service to the (fictional) Republican Party whose political stances in recent, non-fictional history have blatantly championed policies that demonize and other people who don’t fit into or succumb to their white male patriarchal vision for the world. This is why I draw the parallel between massah’s house and the White House in the original essay. Symbolically, The White House doesn’t stand for anything progressive. It symbolizes a history of legal actions that have had the goal of furthering the causes of whiteness. The White House represents the continued turmoil, strife, struggle, and oppression of women, people of color, poor folks, and queer folks across the globe. And Pope is tirelessly devoted to it; giving it her (love) life, her health, her energy, her strength and getting nothing in return. Though one could argue she gets sex, love, and a certain level of pleasure – maybe even satisfaction. Nevertheless, in Pope’s character we have an over-the-top representation of devotion to this system. The character doesn’t ‘fit’ the stereotypes because the way she is situated in the plot calls for the convergence of these stereotypes into a dressed-up, bougie version of them.
Here, it is interesting to consider the class dynamics of our varied critiques. Many folks quickly critiqued The Help for its attempt to romanticize the relationships between poor black women and the white women they served. However, we don’t want to level the same critiques at this middle-class representation of a black woman, and the rich, politically powerful white folks she’s serving. Apparently, only depictions of poor black women as mammies deserve critique. Are we tirelessly fighting to uphold this middle-class representation because we read Pope as being empowered? Even though the representation is neater and more middle-class than what we see in The Help, Scandal utilizes virtually the same narrative, merely changing the class dynamics. Ultimately, Scandal creates the same type of role for black women: not because Pope has no agency, but because of the way she is situated within the sociopolitical climate of Scandal as the fixer of predominately white, wealthy people’s problems.
This leads to the real-life black woman, Judy Smith, from whom Scandal receives its inspiration. I acknowledge that my initial critique failed to name her explicitly, though I alluded to her in the last sentence of the piece. Smith’s life narrative is similar to Pope’s. She is well known for serving as Special Assistant and Deputy Press Secretary to former President George H.W. Bush. She is often credited with managing the crisis/controversy surrounding Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court, whose appointment required the stifling of Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual misconduct, and shifted the court’s ideological balance to the right.
Let me take a step back and emphasize that I am not attempting to demonize or shame Judy Smith. One could also analyze Condeleeza Rice’s political career through this lens. And the list of black male political figures we could analyze through this lens is even longer: Clarence Thomas, Herman Cain, Michael Steele, J.C. Watts, Barack Obama, just to name a few. To chase this point any further, however, would derail me from my main critique. What I am attempting to acknowledge is even the real-life stories of these black folks with political power highlights the fact that they, including black women, can be in power and in charge, and also use their agency in problematic ways. The same way we must critique problematic uses of agency in real-life, we must also critique problematic portrayals of the use of agency such as we see in Scandal. Just as we critique representations of lower-class women and people of color, black middle-class representations also need to be critiqued, even when we interpret them as being empowered.
In Scandal (so far), Pope is the agent of American imperialism and statehood and she uses her agency to further its causes. I have no problem with black women being powerful, but we must still evaluate how that power and agency are being used. Pope’s agency in Scandal and Smith’s in real life are more often than not contingent on and/or allegiant to the American political system in ways that are problematic. They resemble an understanding of agency that merely seeks acceptance by the state and participation in its dominance rather than its transformation. For me, that’s problematic and part my of critique of the show–again, not of Olivia Pope, her agency, power, or sexuality.
#4 – The Work of Interpretation
In case it hasn’t been clear up until this point, I acknowledge my neglect of the politics of pleasure in “Olivia Pope and the Scandal of Representation,” mainly because that was not my axe to grind. I didn’t and still don’t have a problem with folks deriving pleasure or entertainment from viewing the show. Also, I acknowledge that I maintained a level of intensity in my critiques of Olivia Pope that may have lent itself to a misreading of me as taking issue with Olivia Pope’s agency, sexuality, and power simply because she is a black woman asserting these characteristics. However, my criticisms of her agency or power are applied insofar as she is a willing actor in a dominating patriarchal American imperialism. Thus, I still believe the critiques are valid and feminist in their scope, and I find the arguments of Brittney Cooper and Treva Lindsey lacking in serious engagement with this particular critique; which I’d like to note has been leveraged by other feminist-identified folk who are female, black, and queer (see The Scandal Behind ‘Scandal’, as pointed out by Aishah Shahidah Simmons in the comments on ‘Love in a Time of Scandal’).
My point being that to call my original critique ‘unfeminist’ because of my now-acknowledged oversights, unlettered credentials (a kind of elitism?), and because of an alleged ‘very bad’ invocation of Patricia Hill Collins’s work on controlling images does not sufficiently engage the reality of the politics of representation in our world or the structural and political implications of Olivia Pope’s character and her devotion to US imperialism. The needle may have moved in feminism – though I contend along with one commenter that folks are quick to use these same tropes to critique the women of “Real Housewives Of Atlanta” and other non-bougie black women in the media – but our world still relies on them.
Here, I’d like to bring in Cooper and Lindsey’s understanding of the interior complexity of Pope to further this point. The writers suggest that it is in the moments of silence that we see subtle depictions of Pope’s ‘complex humanity’ as well as race, gender, class, and sexuality being negotiated within the characters. They suggest those moments have a restorative quality for Pope. This understanding of interiority suggests that there are ways in which Pope’s character is made more complex through this silence.
I find this to be an interesting notion, one which I’m not ready to dismiss, but neither am I fully convinced by it. My point in bringing this up is to highlight the fact that in the same way persons with differing critiques claim I am ‘forcing’ dated tropes on Pope, one has to utilize the same ‘force’ and/or imagination in order to interpret her character as liberative.
Can it be seen as positive/liberating that Pope reserves portions of herself from being fully known in the plot? Yes. It can also be seen as problematic considering that these negotiations of race, gender, class, and sexuality are so often forced to be internalized and unvoiced in every day life.
Furthermore, I’m also not ready to buy this particular critique because it is inconsistent with Rhimes’s larger canon of work. Take Grey’s Anatomy,for example. Christina Yang, another leading woman of color in Rhimes’s show, enacts many traits similar to Olivia Pope. She is a powerful and commanding female agent who indulges in moments of silence in ways similar to Pope. Yet in episodes where her narrative takes center stage, we never have to wonder what she’s thinking in a situation. Her voice-overs dictate how we view her silent moments. Each episode is bookended by her voice; which tells us what to think on the front end, and reminds us what we should be thinking on the back end in case we forget over the course of the episode. This narrating mechanism is utilized for Rhimes’s white female character, Meredith Grey, as well.
All this to say, interpreting these moments of silence to be liberative requires the same alleged force of my initial essay. How hard does one have to work to interpret Pope’s character as a liberative one? How hard does one have to work to make Pope’s silences speak?
Is Pope the ultimate amalgam of the stereotypes of black women wrapped into one? At this point in the drama’s life, I’d still say yes: I also acknowledge this amalgam to be a somewhat new way of peddling old stereotypes. But I also leave room for other readings of Pope and acknowledge that the show is still airing, and there is always the potential for a dramatic shift. Though I believe the show’s ratings would probably drop significantly should the plot take such a dramatic shift.
Finally, I’d like to give a nod to the fact that my critiques have been developed in community with folks, most of whom are feminist-identified, who both agree and disagree with the critiques herein to varying degrees. A small shout out to my conversation partners – Mo’ Armstrong, LB Jones, Joshua Crutchfield, Mashaun Simon, and Valez Thornton – for always being down for proofreading/critiquing, and the occasional randomly timed FaceTime or Google Hangout session.
Brandon T. Maxwell is a blackmalefeminist, culture critic, and budding theological historian whose primary interests include identity, faith, and the intersectionality of oppression. Brandon is an M.Div student at Emory University and is currently studying abroad at the University of Göttingen (Germany).