On News One Now with Roland Martin, Jason Johnson and the panel discuss last night’s Scandal on ABC.
An Anonymous Conversation about Shonda Rhimes, Race and Scandal
Last Sunday, to hype up tonight’s season finale of Scandal the New York Times did a “day in the life” piece about show runner Shonda Rhimes entitled “Network TV is Broken so How does Shonda Rhimes Keep Making Hits?” The piece is pretty illuminating, (especially if you read between the lines) but as the Racialicious blog pointed out, the most interesting part of the story was Rhimes comments on race in regards to her hit show:
When people who aren’t of color create a show and they have one character of color on their show, that character spends all their time talking about the world as ‘I’m a black man blah, blah, blah,’ ” she says. “That’s not how the world works. I’m a black woman every day, and I’m not confused about that. I’m not worried about that. I don’t need to have a discussion with you about how I feel as a black woman, because I don’t feel disempowered as a black woman.”
And later in reference to the famous “Sally Hemmings” moment on Scandal between Olivia and Fitz.
I don’t think that we have to have a discussion about race when you’re watching a black woman who is having an affair with the white president of the United States,” she explains. “The discussion is right in front of your face.”
Initially I was taken aback by indifference bordering on resistance in Rhimes’ comments. So the idea of fully fleshing out characters of color has to come from a place of “disempowerment”? Olivia Pope is a “black woman”, and the show’s lead, why wouldn’t all aspects of her life be worth exploring? I decided to forward the story on to my unofficial “Black Women’s War Council” three good friends of mine who help me out from time to time with my columns (They also happen to be much bigger Scandal fans than I am.) The following are highlights from our afternoon email exchanges about the Rhimes article and Scandal in general. (Names Changed to protect the guilty.)
My main problem with Scandal and many of Shonda’s other shows is that the black characters are always underdeveloped. Nobody is saying you necessarily have to discuss race explicitly. But if we knew the back story of the characters -in the case of Scandal the MAIN character – we would have a better understanding of her black experience (which varies for ALL black people)….. We don’t even know if Olivia Pope got a mama, daddy, sister, brother. Yet we know ALL about Fitz and why he is manipulative and hella insecure (Daddy issues). There is no rhyme or reason for why Olivia does what she does other than she is dickmatized by a “Biff” who just happens to be president.
(Tanya : Single, 34, working as a Capitol Hill Staffer for the last 10 years)
All and I mean, ALL of the hetero relationships on her show were like this, where the men were supposed be great or brilliant or geniuses or tragic heroes so we were supposed to forgive that they were also neglectful, douchey, cheaters, manipulative, shady, violent or controlling. It always feels like Shonda is like the chick who wrote Twilight — someone who has never been in a relationship who is just imagining what it’s like.
(Carla: Divorced, 35, political journalist and writer)
For me, Shonda writes ways that are unintelligible. Entertaining but unintelligible. She seems to have no sense of the rhythms of relationships even the dysfunctional ones. Plus she doesn’t even really address one of the central issues: Why it’s so much more awful for a white Republican president to have a BLACK mistress.
(Dana: Single, 35, African – American studies professor)
We all talked over email for the better part of the work afternoon, and it struck me how, even for many black fans of Scandal there are some problems when it comes to reconciling some of the race and gender issues with the show even though they want to support Kerry Washington and Rhimes’ efforts. Is Rhimes not aware of these conversations that happen between black men and women on message boards and twitter? Does it simply not matter to her? Scandal counts some of the brightest African American thought leaders as fans, Melissa Harris-Perry, Marc Lamont Hill and Roland Martin (not to mention Michelle Obama) just to name a few, so it’s hard to believe that my friends are the only ones who wrestle with the racial undercurrents of a manipulative and powerful married white man carrying on an affair with a supposedly strong black woman. So are Shonda Rhimes milquetoast views on race and Scandal because she doesn’t know the show’s problems, or doesn’t care; or it is something else? I suspect it’s “something else”.
Let’s be real, how honest can Shonda Rhimes be about race, in an interview with the New York Times let alone with Olivia Pope on Scandal? She knows the score, she knows what network executives will and will not allow on air, let alone what white viewers will accept and pointing those realities out won’t change things. Consider her experiences with her first hit Grey’s Anatomy. According to Hollywood legend, Isaiah Washington was initially supposed to play the Derek “McDreamy” Shepard character (Which is one of the reasons why she cast Ellen Pompeo, a white woman with a black fiancé / husband in real life to play love interest Meredith Grey). But the network execs were not trying to have a prime time show about a handsome black doctor sexing up his blonde white resident, (all while his mother disapproved of the relationship). So this was kiboshed and Patrick Dempsey was moved into the role. Rhimes could never tell that true story in an interview. That is real race talk, dangerous race talk. The kind that makes reporters uncomfortable; the kind that most black people in Hollywood, no matter how powerful, could never tell in public. So do I find it disappointing that Shonda Rhimes writes a show about a black woman that assiduously avoids any discussion of her blackness? Definitely. But it doesn’t surprise me. My friend Dana the professor put it best:
Can’t knock her hustle – she’s clearly tapped into a kind of cultural zeitgeist and for that, like Tyler Perry, you have to respect it. But her interracial fantasies of grandeur are troubling.
So keep tapping into that zeitgeist Shonda, and keep making hits. Even if that means you’ll never tell the whole story.
This article originally appeared online in Politic365.com.
Michelle Obama versus Kerry Washington: The War on Black Women
For a moment there I was beginning to think that the “War on Women” only had upper class White women as casualities. While the decades long “War on Women” continues to fill Democratic fundraising letters and the much shorter lived (like about 24 hours) “War on Mommy” seems to have left Ann Romney and her Barbie Dream House unscathed – the other War on Women continues unabated.
What other War on Women?
The one about the most powerful Black woman in America: Michelle Obama. A few tabloids have reported that Michelle is in full diva mode and has decreed that Kerry Washington be banned from the White House for being too ‘flirty’ with President Obama. While we all know this is bunk it makes you wonder: why aren’t attacks on Michelle (or Kerry for that matter) considered part of this war as well?
Word on the political street is that due to Kerry Washington’s flirtatious nature, Michelle Obama has added her to something of a “‘hoochie’ watch list” full of women that she doesn’t want in her home because they are perpetual line-steppers with her husband. This list included other important ladies of the night like Oprah Winfrey and at one point Gayle King. What strikes me about this story is that it is part of a long line of slights against Michelle Obama, by both politicians and pundits and press that play upon still powerful stereotypes about Black women.
An African American woman has to be the Jezebel, the Harpy or the Mammy, and sometimes a combination of the two. Despite the immense popularity of Michelle Obama, these themes still permeate popular culture and pretty much explain a lot about Kerry Washington, Michelle Obama and this whole fake “Scandal.” Consider Kerry Washington’s new show Scandal, where she plays Olivia Pope, a super secret insider who does crisis negotiation for the rich and powerful in D.C. Oh, and by the way, she was a side piece to a powerful White guy running for president. What is funny about that whole storyline is twofold to me: 1st) this reaffirms most of network television’s unwritten rule over the last decade that any prominent Black woman’s romantic relationships have to be with a White man. (Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives, Parenthood, even cancelled shows like Undercovers, The Deep End) Something that would NEVER be done with Black Men and White women.
But 2.) It establishes the narrative that Kerry is still the Jezebel, the irresistible chocolate treat that lures White men into ruin. Trust me, you’ll hardly ever see a prominent white female lead in a show with that kind of baggage and it certainly would never be with a Black man.
Along the same lines the War on Women Michelle Obama-style has taken some time to hit its stride, but it has finally arrived. Michelle Obama can’t be a Mammy, she’s not a heavyset dark Black woman sitting around making White people feel good about themselves. Plus, Barack thinks she’s hot and mammy’s aren’t allowed to be sexual. She’s not the Jezebel since she is faithful to her husband. So clearly she must be the harridan, constantly bringing Obama down right? The war against Michelle began during the campaign when she was chastised for talking about Obama picking up after himself. And has pretty much morphed into the typical racist “Mrs. Yo-Mama”, comparisons between Michelle and a gorilla , that she emasculates her husband to more specific racially motivated attacks about her looks, personality etc. This current Enquirer story just wraps a couple of these War themes together.
For all the dalliances that Bill Clinton had during his presidency (let alone before) there were seldom stories of Hillary blocking women from coming to the White House. For all of the rumors about Condi and George Bush, there were never stories about Laura having a ‘watch list’ of women who couldn’t enter the premesis. And interestingly enough, even though a lot of noise was made about Scarlett Johannson’s personal emails with Obama you never heard of her being banned from the White House. Yet, two Black women, first Oprah, and now Kerry Washington are linked to this tabloid story. Because you know, Black women are just that dangerous and catty with each other.
Again, this is a fake story, so it won’t get much traction in any reputable outlets. More importantly everyone knows how Kerry Washington rolls, so I’m not sure why Michelle would be worried about her anyway. But, it is worth noting that this little war has other targets besides law students and rich stay at home Moms. Black women like Michelle have been on the front lines for years and no one has sent them a flak jacket yet.
This article originally appeared online at Politic365.com.