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Yaa-Hemaa Obiri-Yeboah

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"Scandal": Talking and Not Talking About Race on TV

Posted: 04/01/2013 12:16 pm

I've noticed a few discernible differences in season two of Shonda Rhimes' television show Scandal. For those who have not been watching the drama, Scandal features, as its main protagonist, a woman named Olivia Pope who works as a 'fixer' in Washington, D.C. When the big names are in trouble (be they elected officials or CEOs of companies) they run to Olivia to sort out their problems and to handle the media and publicity machine. In addition to being a 'fixer', Olivia is also involved in a sordid romantic relationship with the president of the United States, who she helped -- through fairly nefarious means -- to win the presidential election.

While the wheeling and dealing and fast-talking and fast-walking that are the staples of the show are fascinating in and of themselves, what's most striking about the show is how race is simultaneously discussed and not discussed at all.

Olivia Pope -- based on a real life figure, Judy Smith, a former press aide in the George Bush administration -- has managed to reach, interact with, and influence individuals at the highest echelons of power. She manages to do this not only as a woman, and sartorially elegant in designer wear, but also as a person of colour. To be a woman of colour and to have achieved the success necessary to play with and push the big wigs, she must be good -- extremely, terrifically exceptional, that is. While season one made no direct mentions of Olivia's race (although it should be said, given the visual medium that is television, her race is obvious for all to see), season two has dipped its toes in the bucket of American colour politics on a few occasions.

In "Happy Birthday, Mister President" a flashback episode, we witness the complexities of being 'the other woman', particularly complex when Olivia Pope, 'the other woman', or mistress, is black and her partner in matrimonial crime is the Republican president of the United States, Fitzgerald Grant, who happens to be white. Olivia, in a fit of frustration with their act of creeping around, declares to Fitz that she's "feeling a little Sally Hemmings-Thomas Jefferson" about their situation. It's a seemingly one-off line, but there is so much richness, history, and truth behind her comments. As the mistress -- even one who is described as the love of Fitz's life -- she cannot occupy the main stage of her lover's life. Her name will never be found indelibly etched beside his in the history books when the president's life is accounted for -- his wife will hold that spot.

Unlike Sally, Olivia is not legislatively or socially enslaved -- she lives in a different historical context. But, while she may have significant economic and political power, at the end of the day she's not so different from Sally. She's just one in a long series of black women in the tangled history of the United States, involved with a white man who holds most of the power and who can never really be hers.

The fact that Fitz is a white Republican makes the Olivia-Fitz relationship especially captivating and serves as a ripe foundation from which to build storylines for the show. Fitz, in the aftermath of surviving an assassination attempt, seems to 'see the light' and feels invincible and declares that he wants to divorce his (white) pregnant wife, in order to pursue his relationship with Olivia. In response, his chief of staff, Cyrus Beene, states, "'Liv is a lovely, smart woman... but she's not exactly a hue that most of your Republican constituents would be happy about." Hmmm. Le plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

The latest episode, "Top of the Hour," deals deftly with the topic of race without so much as a word. It touches on the judgements and assumptions many of us make about who we see as naturally filling powerful roles. Olivia comes to the rescue of a female CEO, arriving at this woman's home with a few members of her entourage: Abby (a pretty redhead) and Harrison (the black male lawyer in Olivia's company). The CEO has never heard of or seen Olivia Pope before. She immediately walks up to Abby and says, "You must be Olivia Pope." Before she can shake Abby's hand, however, the real Olivia interjects, shakes her hand and says, "I'm Olivia Pope," while Abby and Harrison give each other knowing looks in the background.

No one dwells on the moment, because it's time to get to the work at hand. But it is truly priceless.

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  • 2004

    HOLLYWOOD - MARCH 6: Actress Kerry Washington attends the 35th Annual NAACP Image Awards at the Universal Amphitheatre March 6, 2004 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

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    BEVERLY HILLS, CA - OCTOBER 17: Actress Kerry Washington attends the 11th Annual Diversity Awards at The Beverly Hills Hotel on October 17, 2004 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images)

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    NEW YORK - DECEMBER 9: Actress Kerry Washington arrives at the premiere of 'The Sea Inside' at the UA Union Square Theater December 9, 2004 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images)

  • 2005

    HOLLYWOOD - APRIL 5: Actress Kerry Washington attends the premiere of Showtime's 'Reefer Madness' at the Regent Showcase Cinemas April 5, 2005 in Hollywood, California. The musical comedy is adapted from the legendary 1938 anti-marijuana propaganda film of the same name. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 9: Actress Kerry Washington attends the 'Lucky Magazine Cover Girl Party' at the Chateau Marmont on August 9, 2005 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images)

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    BEVERLY HILLS, CA - OCTOBER 24: Actress Kerry Washington arrives at the 9th Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on October 24, 2005 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

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    LONDON - OCTOBER 18: Kerry Washington wearing a Marchesa dress arrives at the UK Premiere of 'The Last King Of Scotland' during the opening gala of The Times BFI London Film Festival, at the Odeon Leicester Square on October 19, 2006 in London, England. The film kicks off the annual film festival, which runs from October 19 to November 2. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

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    HOLLYWOOD - NOVEMBER 07: Actress Kerry Washington arrives at the Premiere Lounge after party for 'The Dead Girl' during AFI FEST 2006 presented by Audi held at Sideways Restaurant & Lounge on November 7, 2006 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

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    NEW YORK - APRIL 25: Actress Kerry Washington attends the opening night premiere of 'SOS' at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival on April 25, 2007 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

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    NEW YORK - MAY 1: Kerry Washington attends the opening night of the New York City Ballet's 'Romeo Juliet' on May 1, 2007 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

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    NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 27: Actress Kerry Washington attends the 17th Annual Gotham Awards presented by IFP (Independent Feature Project) at Steiner Studios November 27, 2007 in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

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    NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 19: Actor Kerry Washington attends the premiere of 'Trade' at the United Nations on September 19, 2007 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)

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    LOS ANGELES - MARCH 7: Actress Kerry Washington arrives at the premiere of Fox Searchlight Picture's 'I Think I Love My Wife' at the ArcLight Cinemas on March 7, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

  • 2008

    LOS ANGELES - JANUARY 31: Actress Kerry Washington attends the CNN, LA Times, POLITICO Democratic Debate at the Kodak Theatre on January 31, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images for Turner) 15480_0133.jpg

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    NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 14: Actress Kerry Washington attends V-Day's V to the Tenth: NYC - Kickoff to New Orleans at Hammerstein Ballroom on February 14, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Wintrow/Getty Images For V-Day)

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    CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 23: Actress Kerry Washington arrives for the Synecdoche, New York premiere at the Palais des Festivals during the 61st International Cannes Film Festival on May 23, 2008 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

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    CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 24: Actress Kerry Washington arrives at the 'Palermo Shooting' premiere at the Palais des Festivals during the 61st International Cannes Film Festival on May 24, 2008 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

  • 2009

    BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 19: Actress Kerry Washington attends the 2nd Annual ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel on February 19, 2009 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

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    CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 24: Actress Kerry Washington attends the 'Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky' Premiere at the Grand Theatre Lumiere during the 62nd Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 24, 2009 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images)

  • 2009

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  • 2009

    NEW YORK - OCTOBER 05: Actress Kerry Washington attends the 2009 National Arts Awards at Cipriani 42nd Street on October 5, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

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    NEW YORK - OCTOBER 15: Actress Kerry Washington attends Keep A Child Alive�s 6th Annual Black Ball at Hammerstein Ballroom on October 15, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

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    NEW YORK - DECEMBER 06: Actress Kerry Washington attends the after party for the Broadway opening of 'Race' at Redeye Grill on December 6, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

  • 2010

    NEW YORK - MAY 03: Actress Kerry Washington attends the Costume Institute Gala Benefit to celebrate the opening of the 'American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity' exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 3, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

  • 2010

    BEVERLY HILLS, CA - OCTOBER 18: Actress Kerry Washington arrives at ELLE's 17th Annual Women in Hollywood Tribute at The Four Seasons Hotel on October 18, 2010 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

  • 2010

    NEW YORK - OCTOBER 25: Kerry Washington attends the premiere of 'For Colored Girls' at Ziegfeld Theatre on October 25, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

  • 2011

    NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 10: Actress Kerry Washington attends the 2010 New York Film Critics Circle Awards at Crimson on January 10, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

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    BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Actress Kerry Washington attends the Fourth Annual ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel on February 24, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

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    SANTA MONICA, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Actress Kerry Washington arrives at the 2011 Film Independent Spirit Awards at Santa Monica Beach on February 26, 2011 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

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    HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 04: (EDITORS NOTE: For Editorial Use Only. NO ARCHIVE) Actress Kerry Washington attends Tyler Perry's First Annual Rise Above Celebration at Boulevard3 on March 4, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images For Tyler Perry Studios)

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 26: Actress Kerry Washington arrives at the BET Awards '11 held at the Shrine Auditorium on June 26, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

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    HOLLYWOOD, CA - AUGUST 14: Actress Kerry Washington arrives at the 2011 VH1 Do Something Awards at the Hollywood Palladium on August 14, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

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    NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 24: Actress Kerry Washington attends an evening with Ralph Lauren hosted by Oprah Winfrey and presented at Lincoln Center on October 24, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Ralph Lauren)

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    NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03: Kerry Washington attends the 8th annual Keep A Child Alive Black Ball at the Hammerstein Ballroom on November 3, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

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    NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 07: Kerry Washington attends Glamour's 2011 Women of the Year Awards on November 7, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Glamour Magazine)

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 17:Actress Kerry Washington arrives at the 16th Annual GQ 'Men Of The Year' Party at Chateau Marmont on November 17, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

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    PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 10: Actress Kerry Washington arrives to the Disney ABC Television Group's 'TCA Winter Press Tour' on January 10, 2012 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

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