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By Brittney Cooper and Treva Lindsey
The following conversation took place on Sunday, February 10th, 2013. What began as a Facebook conversation among several dynamic black feminists/womanists (Joan Morgan, Mark Anthony Neal, Kaila Story, Tanisha Ford, and Yaba Blay) about Brandon Maxwell’s “Olivia Pope and the Scandal of Representation,” evolved into the following piece in which Brittney Cooper, Ph.D. (Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University; co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective) and Treva Lindsey, Ph.D. (Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia) collaboratively discuss Maxwell’s piece and offer a black feminist perspective on one of television’s most compelling and complicated Black female characters to date.
TL: For an hour on most Thursday evenings for the past several months, several of my black feminist folks gather on social media for delicious and intriguing conversations. We react, engage, signify, testify, but most importantly, we stake a claim in our right to pleasure. We enter into a celluloid world where the prevailing moral schema is “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for Dat.” We delight in the deeply flawed characters and find ourselves emotionally invested in their individual and collective unraveling. We lust for the Scandal and we entice in scandalous, salacious, raw, and imperfect representations.
So when I read “Olivia Pope and the Scandal of Representation” as well as much of the commentary echoing the core arguments in Brandon Maxwell’s piece, it left me wondering if he and those affirming his analysis and I are watching the same show. Furthermore, the piece sparked an immediate and visceral reaction from me regarding the usage of Patricia Hill Collins’ groundbreaking work, and to a lesser extent bell hook’s work. Using a “controlling images” argument and a history of representations of black women in popular culture to convince us that Pope is a “political mammy” and a 21st Century Jezebel?— I vehemently disagreed.
BC: Exactly, Treva!
When I read Maxwell’s piece it disturbed me on a few levels.
First, interrogating one’s own position as a Black man, particularly when one identifies as a Black male feminist, would seem to be a prerequisite for intervening in and so stridently critiquing a show centered around a Black woman.
Second, I am really disturbed at this invocation of Patricia Hill Collins’ work on controlling images because it is done really badly. Can Black women ever have an unapologetic sexual self in public without being called Jezebel? How is it that a Black woman who owns and runs the company is called a mammy because of her nurturing moments? Nurturing is not the same thing as being maternal and if she were less concerned about others she’d be called a Black bitch!
But I also really like this other thing you are saying about the pleasure that Black female viewers in particular seem to derive from the show. How do we think about Black women’s politics of pleasure (to quote Joan Morgan) around this without suggesting that Black women have been hoodwinked and bamboozled or are otherwise operating in a kind of false consciousness?
TL: I am right there with you. What’s up with the inability to recognize and savor in black female pleasure being derived from Scandal? Maxwell only briefly acknowledges the popularity of this show among black women, but then dismisses and/or makes light of how some black women, and more importantly, some black feminists/womanists engage with Scandal and Olivia Pope. Perhaps what immediately stood out for me was the point of departure for the critique: Olivia Pope is the “changing same;” a character that can be easily located in the damaging and dehumanizing history of (mis)representations of black women in popular culture. What of a black feminist cultural critique that commences with an analytical framework centered around a politics of pleasure?
For me, one of the primary questions driving any black feminist cultural critique I would do of Scandal would be why are some black feminists not only tuning in every week, but using their online communities to publicly share their enthusiasm about Olivia Pope and Associates. Consequently, I’m ready to engage in meaningful, thought-provoking, and incisive conversations about the show. Being a fan of this show does not and will not inhibit me from offering critiques. BUT I refuse to start from a critical standpoint that does not even entertain the possibility of a politics of pleasure. I remain suspicious of any critiques identified as black feminist cultural criticism that do not seriously interrogate pleasure.
BC: Yes, Black women’s articulations of and desire for pleasure must remain central to the interrogation. And our assertions of pleasure run up against Maxwell’s arguments about faulty representation in a really embodied way. He asserts that Liv, Harrison and Edison, the Black characters, are all summarily “flat.” I really take issue with this characterization. Yes, I would like to know more about Olivia’s backstory. I mean, why doesn’t she have homegirls?! I’ve long been convinced that some of the bullshit Fitz spouts at her would not stand if she had crew that she could talk things out with. But on the other hand, the deeply conflictual nature of her relationship with Fitz, that conundrum of loving somebody that you ain’t supposed to love, is a very personal dilemma. It is used as a vehicle to represent her interiority on the show, and I refuse to concede that it’s an illegitimate vehicle, just because the object of her affections is illicit. In other words, we can’t deny the interiority of her struggle because we don’t like whom she’s struggling over.
Maxwell also says that she’s nothing more than a “political mammy,” but really? Is Judy Smith, the real-life fixer, merely a mammy? Isn’t that a failure of imagination on the part of critics to see Black women as powerful and running shit. Mammies didn’t run shit, they weren’t wealthy, and if The Help taught us anything, it is that Black women domestics’ lives were always severely circumscribed by the recalcitrant racism of white folks.
TL: I am so glad you brought up interiority as well as the real Judy Smith. She became invisible in this analysis as well. Not only is she a real-life fixer, but a co-executive producer of this show. Her voice is important to at least consider when we think about actual black women’s bodies and voices when examining this show.
I think the silences and moments of pause in the show can be read as brief glimpses into the interior life of Olivia. It does not resonate as “voicelessness” to me, but as a subtle depiction of her complex humanity. These moments are restorative, but often plaintive. It doesn’t all have to be out there or be “loud” to be engaged and explored. There are several moments on the show when Liv is reflexive and quiet. You mentioned in an earlier Facebook conversation that you read those moments as possibly providing a very public black woman an opportunity to be private. I find that quite powerful. Yes, I want her to have a circle of friends and to have certain “girlfriend”-oriented conversations about her love life. BUT, those quiet moments serve a rich purpose in providing an alternate view of black women’s emotionality. I identify with those moments of quiet and seek those moments. I love that we don’t get to know so much about her- the show pivots around her unfolding/unraveling and requires a patience that our society so often denies to black women. This impatience informs an expectation of black women as wholly public subjects whose fullness can be captured in less 20 episodes of an hour long drama.
BC: Yes to all of this. The idea that we are supposed to know all of her inner workings comes from this unquestioned societal expectation of Black women always being public objects, not subjects, available for scrutiny rather than engagement. And we are uncomfortable with her love struggle being worked out in an interior way because we are used to seeing Black women scrapping with other Black women over dudes in the most exterior, public, and dare I say, ratchet of ways.
This failure of folks to really understand what it is that, to use your words, “entices” us about this show, suggests that Black women remain in a deep epistemological darkspace wherein we (our motivations, our desires, our struggles) elude detection, remaining unknown and unknowable, other than to ourselves. Some consider this a failure of representation or bad writing, but I think it is deeper than that.
TL: Preach. I too believe that the unspeakable resonates in profoundly moving ways. That’s also why I find it interesting (for lack of a better word) that folks say this show doesn’t deal with race. I see it all over this show, but it’s in the depiction of or perceived “invisibility” of the interior lives of the show’s characters where I see race, gender, class, and sexuality being negotiated. The conflation of interiority and flatness is dangerously uncritical. You miss hearing the lower frequencies of black women’s experiences when you encase them in historical tropes without exploring the specific contours of the world they inhabit. If these characters were flat, why would we passionately demand wanting to know more about them? We have insight and want to delve further because they intrigued, frustrated, disappointed, and attracted us. These responses do not derive from flat characters.
BC: Right! I love that…the lower frequencies. Sounds kinda Ellisonian. And frankly, when Liv voiced her feelings about love on this last episode, I was disturbed! She wants pain and confusion. When Black women do voice their feelings, they don’t necessarily conform to the things we think either. Her desires, both voiced and intimated, all totally and continually defy respectability politics. The respectable thing would have been to let Edison wife her and give her babies. She declined that respectability narrative, and I think that also makes folks really uncomfortable. Because I mean do we know how to deal with a Black woman who knows what she wants even when what she wants is and sounds painful?
TL: I felt that too. Not that I wanted her to want Edison and what the “respectable” life offered, but I had to pause when she offered her definition of love. And while I still find her understanding of love quite disturbing, I delighted in her choosing (dis)respectability. That scene made it abundantly clear that respectability would not save her from heartache. Edison offered respectability but not happiness, and that certainly makes a lot of folks uncomfortable.
BC: Respectability but not happiness! Yes! Preach!
The other thing is: Is Harrison really flat? You said some intriguing things about what moves you about him on FB. He certainly moves me :). I think some brothers are really uncomfortable with Harrison, not because he’s underdeveloped as Maxwell claims but rather because, in playing the devoted teammate and the person who keeps everyone at the office together, Harrison plays a role that is usually reserved for Black women. I guarantee that if this had been the narrative of Black female secretary, brothers would not be decrying the underdevelopment of the character.
So this failure to recognize his intelligence, devotion, and team player ethic as positive has me looking askance at brothers who should be desiring a different kind of Black masculinity with their feminism.
TL: All of this! Harrison is quite compelling for me (for many reasons, one of which involves my unabashed pleasure in seeing him), as his relationship with Olivia and his relationship with Huck produce some of the richest moments on Scandal so far. We actually develop questions about Harrison, his humanity, his moral compass—but are provided with very few details about how his interiority shapes his decisions and the relationships we see him in thus far. He’s one to watch, as his gradual unveiling should prove to be one of the better story arcs Scandal has yet to unleash.
Now, if being unwaveringly devoted, intensely intelligent, and loving (in ways that we don’t know fully understand yet) renders him one-dimensional, I become confused about what we mean when we identify a character as one dimensional or flat. Harrison could in fact be a particular “feminist vision of masculinity” and I believe the actualization of that vision got some of these folks in their feelings. Harrison definitely got me feeling some type of way too… but that has more to do with my black feminist erotic map.
BC: Yep. Scandal got black dudes feeling all their feelings. As you point out, Harrison is smart, loving, and devoted and frankly unintimidated by a powerful Black woman, and many brothers seem to have a real problem identifying with him, which makes me think they have a real problem identifying with him as a possible feminist vision of Black masculinity.
Esther Armah always reminds me though that just because folks are feminist in their politics doesn’t mean they are feminist in their emotions or relationships for that matter. And so I think that a lot of self-declared Black male feminists get the politics, but haven’t done the emotional work of deconstructing patriarchy at the level of emotional need and desire, which means their rhetoric will be awesome and their relationships with women will look janky as hell. As will their cultural criticism.
TL: Say it! This brand of cultural criticism often re-empowers heteropatriarchy and politics of respectability and that works to de-center black women and the bodies of knowledge and criticism black women founded and live in on a daily basis.
This conversation has been so helpful in processing my initial reaction to this article and the conversations I’ve had over the past 24 hours. I cannot not overstate the importance of materializing a commitment to the black feminist practice of collaborative and dialogic inquiry.
BC: Yes, I think that we have meaningfully modeled what Jacqueline Bobo calls “Black women’s interpretive community,” and I’m glad we could convene this space and try to make some meaning out of all this together.
TL: See you Thursday 10/9c. Now let me put my elbow length white gloves back on and let the rest of the Gladiators know, #itshandled.
Brittney Cooper, Ph.D. is assistant prof of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. She’s also co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective and blogs there as Crunktastic.
Treva B. Lindsey is an Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her research and teaching interests include: black feminist thought, African America popular culture, critical race and gender theory, and U.S. history.