There has been excitement over the ABC drama Scandal that has been steadily increasing leading into the premiere of the Third Season last Thursday, October 3rd. As a writer and a consumer of pop culture it is hard for me to ever indulge in anything without critiquing the social implications and motifs that are laid out to millions on a daily basis. The celebration of this show comes from what I perceive from my peers to be happiness in what seems to be a progressive image of a Black woman exerting power in a system where most Blacks are victims of its repressive nature. Through the quiver of her lips and the annex of her emotions, her gender and her skin color, Olivia skews the ideology of the great white (patriarchal) hope. After two seasons of the salacious drama and watching last week’s episode, a closer analysis of the show is centered on the idea that anyone can exist and be powerful within the white male patriarchal world only when they play the role that is demanded of them. This is echoed through the diversity of the cast and their feverish efforts to secure the President’s power.The opening scene of last Thursday’s episode perpetuated this observation with a powerful assertion of Black parenting in America. After being exposed as the mistress to the President of the United States, Rowan Pope, the father of Olivia Pope tries to oust her from the country to save her from her inevitable downfall. As his anger and disappointment hover over the meek and childlike candor of Olivia he urges his daughter to repeat back to him a mantra that he has instilled in her since her earlier years.
Rowan: Did I not raise you for better? How many times have I told you? You have to be what?
Olivia: Twice as good.
Rowan: You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.
To whom do these personal pronouns belong? The them and they are the white folks, and, you are the collective of Black children whose parents warn them about the high rate of failure within the community in comparison to their white peer. Through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram updates, the sentiment seemed to reverberate with nearly every one of my African-American peers who indulge in the show. I felt like the Black girl out because I never received the racial filled lecture from my own mother. There were speeches on hard work and excellence but the assertion that I was Black or even that I was a woman was never a variable to success or at least not until I saw them as one myself; so, I questioned why she never gave me the speech.
After a quick and candid conversation, this all boiled down to the cultural differences of growing up as a Jamaican and what commissions itself as success in West Indian culture vs. American culture. Being from a country where the veil of racism isn’t as heavily cloaked over affairs, as it is in America my mother sees most issues as effects of class rather than race. She believes that if you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth you have to work hard to prevail in America. Some may say this would cause a conflicting consciousness on my views of race but I’m grateful for lacking the experience for a few reasons.
If we view race as a ideological state apparatus the African-American assertion to its children that you must be twice as good may be perpetuating a model of lesser than rather than the necessity of work ethic. Commonly, the people I encounter who received this speech use race as a barrier and an excuse for why they cannot or will not try to achieve certain things. As if they will no doubt always lose the battle when fighting against White people. My mother avoided implementing the idea and so I do not wear the racial chip that is inherent to a majority of Black people.
Where she left out the speech of lesser than she ushered in the greatness of African American people whenever I picked up a new hobby. I was forced to research uncommon faces of success when it came to Black History Month projects, thus, proving to me that there are many Black faces who defy the system and that all people can achieve anything. I was a smart girl, so I asked race-related questions and she always answered truthfully and as racial issues arose in the media, we discussed them in terms of my maturity, i.e., Rodney King, O.J. Simpson and so on. In elementary school people who looked like me because of my level of intelligence and my nerd ways, teased me. That all changed when I entered Junior High. In this right of passage my mom introduced me to the film American History X and began to have a dialogue about race in America (through my interests) because she knew my experience with color was about to change.
I went to a school where I was 1 of 5 Black students and as I achieved better grades or recognition from my teachers, I was being taunted for my skin color. White kids and Asian kids alike would make fun of the kinkiness of my hair, the color of my skin, and the way I spoke. It got so bad and at one point, I would avoid gym because they would throw basketballs at me and say, “that’s all your people are good at maybe you should play.” At 11, I was experiencing racism on a daily basis but I was able to comprehend the matters at hand and what they represented because of how my mom introduced race to me.
In retrospect, I believe had my mom given me that twice as good speech I would have focused on these incidents in a different way. I knew that the envy came from the fact that I was performing better than most of them by naturally working hard and not because I had to because I was Black. Hard work was just something expected of me as contribution to my household. Here, I also grew to love Basquiat’s defiance of the “black artist” title. My work created fear and my diligence to be an excellent person spoke to more than the box that society tries to put women or people of color in.
I also feel these incidents caused me to be able to critique Black Culture without always feeling like a victim. I strive to educate on the Black experience without always assuming that people mean it harm. So, when watching Scandal I can see that though the portrayal of a Black woman such as Olivia Pope seems progressive, it is only promoting the same old representation of Blackness and the conversation with her father all but reveals that. I also find it, ironic, that in a later conversation her father discloses the laziness, lack of critical thinking that Americans hold in awe of gadgets and TV that leads to their blindness of how the system is working to keep them down; and it did not receive the same outpour of emotions as the twice as good line.
James Baldwin wrote in an essay entitled Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: “these movies are designed not to trouble, but to reassure; they do not reflect reality, they merely rearrange its elements into something we can bear. They also weaken our ability to deal with the world as it is, ourselves as we are.” To me Scandal is no different, Olivia Pope’s character can be flat and though she works hard, she continually is willing to throw away everything for this guy whom she has a haunting and unhealthy love – his Whiteness does not change that. A mediocrity that her father wanted to evade with the speech but ultimately inserted somewhere with the daddy issues that came along in her life.
I receive backlash for saying I do not want my children to see the world in terms of color. People often think that it means I will not educate them on the oppressions of Black Americans but that is wrong. I want to raise them in the same way I was raised in things being revered for their greatness because all people are capable of it. While still educating them on our past and present racial divide. Allowing them to form opinions based on their experiences and not what is suggested will happen to them because of their skin color, like my mother did. Had she not have done that I would not be the critical thinker I am nor would I want to strive for a career in academia based on transcultural media.
So how about we get Olivia to use her hard work to run for government office and not just to be a puppet who fixes the system designed to hinder us? Then we can celebrate a progressivism that the media rarely sees when it comes to Black people.