Kerry Washington and Shonda Rimes make history with “Scandal”
So, here’s something kind of depressing: Kerry Washington’s starring role as crisis “fixer” Olivia Pope on Shonda Rimes’ new series Scandal marks the first time a black actress has headlined a US network drama in over 30 years. It’s also only the fourth hour-long drama with a black female lead ever. Womp.
I have a serious nerd crush on Washington after catching her recent appearance on Melissa Harris Perry (a show named after its host, another nerd crush of mine, and the first black woman to ever solo host a political news and opinion show) . On top of being a talented actress, Washington is a women’s rights activist and advocate for arts education, and she dropped some knowledge on the connection between who and what we see on screen and how we imagine American citizenship – i.e., whose perspectives and experiences are included in our notions of what “American” means.
Speaking of herself and Harris-Perry, Washington says:
“We are both in a wonderful position of kind of adding to inclusivity in the media, that people should be able to when they turn on their televisions not just see one perspective, and one story being told – one person’s take on current affairs or one person’s take on the state of their own lives – so both of us are adding this voice of expanding the idea of who ‘We the People’ really is.”
She makes a similar point about the role of the arts, and specifically diversity in the arts, in shaping political landscapes and possibilities: “Sometimes the arts help us expand the idea of what’s possible before it happens in the real world…we saw African American presidents on television before we saw them in reality.”
Scandal is the brain-child of Shonda Rimes, the most visible black female producer in TV, and who seems to be single-handedly responsible for about half the gender, race, and sexual diversity on primetime network dramas. Say what you will about the melodrama of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, there’s no question that Rimes has brought several complex, diverse, memorable female characters to pop culture prominence, including several women of color (my favorites: the brilliant, prickly, staunchly child-free Christina Yang, the impulsive and tomboyish Callie Torres – one of the few queer women on TV, period, speak less of bisexual women of color – and buttoned-up, uber-responsible Naomi Bennett).
No surprise, then, that Scandal’s Olivia Pope is a smart, if imperfect, portrayal of a woman who is at once powerful and vulnerable, competent and flawed, sympathetic and not entirely likable – certainly not a “strong female character” in a one-dimensional sense. It remains to be seen what kind of impact this role – and the new prominence of Melissa Harris-Perry, Viola Davis, and other black women in media – will have on how black women are imagined (or not) as part of “We the People,” or on future opportunities for black women in arts and media:
Scandal premieres with a mix of the Shonda Rhimes halo and the glow of Kerry Washington’s stellar acting skills. Together, that combination can change television history by offering a different dimension and revealing an image of black women often visually absent on television and beyond the box. Will viewers tune in to look beyond one-dimensional images of the help, the healers and the heathens and see what leading roles, and the women in them, should look like in the 21st century? Will television push past crawling into making history? Another step is in the works. NBC is developing a drama pilot, Notorious, with Meagan Good in the lead role as a detective. It will take a while to learn if history repeats itself only every 37 years or rapidly plays catch up. – Flo McAfee, Care2
There are other promising signs that primetime TV may become more colorful in the near future, with shows with female leads of Black, Asian, and Latina heritage in the works. But Veronica Miller of The Grio is not so optimistic that there’s been much progress for black actresses:
It will be easier to have more faith in Hollywood’s relationship with black actresses once Hollywood shows it’s committed to that relationship. It will be easier when black actresses become more visible in roles across the spectrum, (think fantasy hits like Harry Potter, or romantic dramas like The Notebook) and not just ones that call for an African-American female.
It would be nice, too, to see more unknown black ingenues suddenly become household names thanks to a hit show or film, much like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, Kristin Stewart in Twilight or Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Surely there is a young brown face out there who can draw America’s fascination in the same way, given the right script and a good PR push.
There’s been a recent surge in programming aimed at black women but, most of this has been in reality TV. When it comes to scripted TV, networks seem either clueless or indifferent to the value of black women as an audience - despite higher than average rates of TV viewership and considerable purchasing power. The potential success of Scandal and upcoming shows featuring actresses of color could persuade networks to invest more in women of color as an audience – or it could, as so many other “unconventional” media successes have, be dismissed as an unrepeatable anomaly.