It irks me that people (usually black men) keep saying that black women shouldn't love Olivia Pope because she is flawed. "Flawed" in this case usually equals "having an affair with a white guy". They don't realize it, but the concentrated hate that they hold for her is steeped in a very specific kind of racialized misogyny. Walter White was no hero, but somehow we managed to love him. Dexter was a serial killer and yet, we lauded him too. What do they have in common? You guessed it. Men. White men. Who also happened to be anti-hero characters whose virtues were valued alongside their flaws. But I'm going to set that aside for now.
I'm a black woman and I LOVE Scandal. I am not blind to Olivia's flaws. I love her because she has flaws. Black women are so severely underrepresented in media that Kerry Washington's role has garnered a considerable amount of attention simply because she is a black woman in a lead role of a network television show. And because she remains the only black female lead on primetime (Megan Good's Deception unfortunately didn't get picked up for a second season) she is expected to be everything for everybody. But Aunty Shonda rebukes your bullshit notions of black respectability, and instead, has created Olivia Pope as a fully fleshed out person. She is neither completely good nor completely evil; neither stark black nor brilliant white. Olivia Pope is a beautiful mix of all the eternal shades of grey. She is composed of both light and dark. She is often morally ambiguous. Like a real person.
I know that Olivia has flaws. I am very vocal about my distaste for her questionable decisions. I cannot stand Olitz's abusive dynamic on any level and I think that her continued association with Fitz will eventually be her undoing. I think that the fact that her colleagues (save Abby) are criminals and felons she has "saved" (for reasons as yet largely unknown to the audience), is highly suspect. I think that her moral relativism will continue to get her in trouble. I think that she believes not meaning to hurt someone is the same as not actually hurting them (which is obviously problematic). I think that she believes a little too strongly that "the ends justify the means." I think that she tends to get a little too preachy for someone who essentially committed treason and stole the republic. And on and on.
Olivia is a deeply flawed individual. There is literally no denying that. This season, we're finally starting to understand why, (Hey Goon Daddy!) but that does not mean that her morality does not tip towards good at the end of the day. It does not mean that she is not a fiercely loyal woman and friend who will go to extremes for the people she loves. It does not mean that she does not always try to do what she thinks is right in order to get the best possible outcome for her clients. It does not mean that she is a sellout or a slave.
Too often, black women in television are painted as tragically one dimensional; mere caricatures of people. You get the Mercedes Jones's, who are sassy, neck-snapping sidekicks. You get the Miranda Baileys, who are bossy and terrifying. You get the Tasha Macks, who are loud, crude and inappropriate, or you get the Madeas, who are non-sexual, overbearing and unlikeable. That's the extent of their personalities. And that's if you get them at all.
But black women are people. They have complex emotions and social perspectives. You cannot fit them into singular boxes because they are not singular entities. People are not singular entities. Personally I think that the root of this constant problem is that black women often aren't seen as people, but rather bit players in other people's stories; we see them as either strong and respectable (strong black women), or over sexualized and "ghetto" (jezebels). Black women (especially professional black women; looking at you Tyler Perry) are rarely given room to oscillate between the two. We accept them only if they are morally unquestionable, and reject them if they are not. There is no allowance to be anything other than the perfect representation of virtuous black womanhood.
It's the reason why Miranda Bailey's breakdown in the season six finale of Grey's Anatomy is one of my favourite moments of television. For once, smart, sassy, scary, authoritative Dr. Bailey allows herself a moment of completely understandable weakness. Why should she be expected to keep it together when there's a shooter loose in the hospital and a colleague dying in her arms? For once, she is allowed to be something other than "strong".
And that is why Olivia is such a spectacular characterization. She does not fit into one box. She is not a stereotype. She is a complex person who routinely accesses the full spectrum of human emotion; she is strong when she needs to be, but also allows herself to be vulnerable when she is weak. She is a black woman presented as a person first, which is a frighteningly rare occurrence in 2013.
Olivia Pope resonates with so many black women because for once, she is a character we identify with, rather than aspire to be. (I mean, except her wardrobe. I definitely aspire to her wardrobe.) She is an example of a professional woman who (largely) has her shit together but still gives herself room to get things wrong occasionally, without attributing her professional failing to personal flaws. She is on our level emotionally. She is faced with complex professional and moral questions and navigates them as best she can. Most times she gets it right, but sometimes she gets it wrong, and has to pay the price. Olivia is not a know-it-all, or a perfectly and constantly capable person. She is a representation of the many elaborate issues that people face everyday, and the way they do their best to negotiate them. It is rare to get such a full and real representation of a black woman.
So when I see tweets like these:
Olivia Pope is (1) cheating w/ a married man & (2) is complicit in allowing another woman to take the fall: we're cheering for her? #Scandal
— Reggie Galloway (@ReggieGalloway) October 11, 2013
"@YaboySkeete: The most powerful black woman on TV is a slave to a cracker & U bitches look at her like she Oprah" well damn...
— D3ftone (@GhostofJXtacy) October 11, 2013
I can recognize them for what they are; a desperate attempt to fit a very complex character into a very narrow framework in order to invalidate, discredit and diminish her. Well tough shit suckers. Olivia's here to stay.