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ABC's new legal-ish drama, Scandal, boldly runs the risk of being despised. Its protagonist, Olivia Pope is so almighty, she can make women cry for making women cry. She bulldozes the men who get in her way. She confronts other guys rabidly and condescendingly. ("You're pretty. And smart. So pretty. So smart," she says to a co-worker who questions her process.) She breaks yet another down, getting an on-record homophobe to reveal his homosexuality, using her will as her magic lasso. She runs her own company (a crisis-management firm, whatever that is), sets the rules, milks her employees 24/7, doesn't believe in, "I don't know." All the while, she is black.
You need to look no further than the pearl-clutching that has resulted from Michelle Obama expressing an opinion about virtually anything to know that the "black-bitch" stigma is alive and crippling. On TV, supposedly badly behaved black ladies are segregated, if not by race then at least by gender. Every once in a while, a domineering black female character will pop up on a show (think The Good Wife's Wendy Scott-Carr, as portrayed by Anika Noni Rose); I can't think of an instance in which one been made the center of a series. (I can't recall that with good reason, it turns out). Watching Scandal, I couldn't help but wonder how much of herself the show's co-creator Shonda Rhimes sees in Olivia. I wonder how often Rhimes has been accused of being a bitch because she is a powerful black woman, and I wonder if that had anything to do with her interest in adapting Helena Andrews' Bitch is the New Black into a film. I wonder how often the show's inspiration, Judy Smith, has been accused of it as well.
On last night's Scandal premiere, Olivia was initially presented as a superhero whose powers lie squarely in her intuition ("My gut tells me everything I need to know"). As the pilot went on, though, we were treated to her humanity, specifically in a turn reminiscent of Carrie Mathison's character development on Homeland. We learned that Olivia previously had an affair with her boss, who's married and just happens to be the president of the United States. What's more, she still isn't exempt from his charms. The only thing that makes Olivia more potentially unlikeable than her strengths are her weaknesses.
She does show considerable empathy, though. And Kerry Washington spits out Olivia's lines in a Sorkinesque cadence that's proven satisfying for TV viewers. There are things about Olivia for latent racists to latch onto. Far more important, though, is that it is nothing less than revolutionary to have such a damaged black female character carrying a primetime show on a major network. Scandal isn't perfect – it feels carved from one-hour-drama marble and accordingly stilted. As it breezes by, we're pummeled with Olivia's character but everyone else evaporates as soon as the words come out of their mouths. Those words are often really dumb, too ("I am publicly anti-gay…I am a hero! I can't be gay!"). Despite the considerable turmoil in Olivia's life, the pilot still managed to produce a happy ending. How tacky.
And yet, I found myself rooting for Olivia, just like I'm rooting for the underrated Washington who's get to get her due, just like I'm rooting for the show itself. I'd never call Olivia a bitch, but I'm not begrudging her the right to be one, either.