I Love Me Some Olivia Pope, Even Though Some People Find It "Problematic"

“How can you justify watching a show about a glorified mistress? You’re supposed to be a feminist. How can you support a show about one woman destroying another woman’s home?” I was asked.
Publish date:
February 15, 2013
love, scandal, olivia pope

I’ve been doing my utmost to debate less, but it’s hard when you’re as naturally opinionated as I am. This is compounded by the fact I come from a highly opinionated gene pool. Our family dinners sometimes spiral into debates. And when I say "sometimes," I really mean 90% of the time.

Usually my mother plays referee, and when I say "referee," I mean she’ll eventually shout, “Will you all be quiet!” My father plays the contrarian, opposing whatever view I hold. And my sisters may or may not be on my side.

I thought everyone did this. Debate over dinner, as an expression of love and then pretend like nothing happened. Apparently not! Dinner is for small talk. So I’ve been trying to reprogram myself whenever I go out, because my opinions can be a bit disruptive.

Exhibit A. Recently I was at a dinner with friends and strangers, minding my own business, lovingly attending to my cheesecake. Then I overhear some Olivia Pope slander, and I couldn’t bite my tongue. It doesn't matter that Olivia Pope doesn’t actually exist because I can be drawn into debates about people that have never and will never live.

In case you didn't know, Olivia Pope is the fast-talking, flawless suit wearing, hair looks like Jesus pressed it, formidably intelligent, the word FIERCE does not suffice, protagonist of Shonda Rhimes’ hit show “Scandal.” She fixes problems. Not normal problems. Olivia rectifies the type of problems that could spark civil wars and crash the stock market.

On the surface of things, she’s the perfect post-feminist icon (whatever that means). She’s strong, fearless and effortlessly bends the universe in her favor. She also happens to be having an affair with the president of the United States.

Perhaps it’s the fact that before Olivia Pope was my best friend in my head, Kerry Washington, the real life actress who plays her, was my friend in my head (she cast a spell on me in “Save The Last Dance”). Perhaps my love for Kerry has diffused into Olivia and I’m conflating, unable to decipher reality from fiction.

But I love me some Olivia Pope. Unapologetically. Which, apparently, for some people is highly problematic.

Why? Well “Scandal” is the first network show since 1974 to have a black female lead. This comes with a massive responsibility. And in a TV climate where a black female “lead” is likely to be part of an insipid reality TV show, throwing drinks or playing up to a hyper-aggressive stereotype, Olivia’s moral shortcomings seem all the more acute. She could have been our collective projection of perfection; instead, she blew it by being human.

“How can you justify watching a show about a glorified mistress? You’re supposed to be a feminist. How can you support a show about one woman destroying another woman’s home?” I was asked.

Let me begin by stating the obvious. Believing that watching “Scandal” means you support mistresses is akin to claiming watching movies with guns in them mean you support the NRA. Logical leaps where you infer a person’s ethical stance based on what they watch for entertainment purposes should be avoided.

Why? They're intellectually clumsy, presumptuous and borderline insulting.

It is possible to be a Feminist who watches “Scandal” and likes Olivia Pope (I think I need this on a T-shirt). Don’t get me wrong, I get the discomfort. I understand that anyone familiar with the Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson story may contend that the lack of examination of race and power in the context of this TV show, means that for some the "love story” in implausible. Personally, it makes me uncomfortable to see a woman who is ordinarily so strong rendered weak by the most powerful man in the world.

However I do not believe it’s Olivia Pope’s job to be our moral compass or the beacon of hope for (black) women everywhere. Ultimately, she is a television character. Do I condone Olivia’s behavior? No. But I do not believe her imperfections mean her story isn’t worth exploring. Nor do her shortcomings diminish the woman she is and could be. I like to believe we are bigger than the worst things we have ever done and that imperfect stories are worth telling, too.

Lest we forget, the subtext of “Scandal” is that being the mistress of one of the most powerful men in the world means you cry a lot (alone) and it comes with price so high it’s not worth paying. You’ll reject a proposal from a decent suitor (albeit kind of needy) because you want “painful, difficult, devastating, life-changing, extraordinary love,” which is heartbreaking because, “Love isn’t supposed to be painful or devastating. Love isn’t supposed to hurt.” (Yes, I am quoting “Scandal” verbatim. I am that much of a fan.)

I also think Olivia Pope detractors are missing the bigger lesson; the fact that the people we deify are often as screwed up as everyone else.

We could have TV shows with squeaky-clean protagonists who do everything right, but we wouldn’t connect them because such people will never be real. The easy thing to do is to speak pejoratively about TV characters (or anyone) that demonstrate behavior we frown upon. It’s much harder to admit that they’re just like us.

Thankfully no one in my family watches “Scandal” -- I fear if we ever debated it, it would be the one topic to pull us apart. Better we never go there!