When I think about the television show Scandal, I keep asking myself the same question I ask the students in my course “Race in American Literature and Popular Culture”: Is this pop culture taking us forward or backward in the context of racial justice? In 2015, the journal The Black Scholar published a roundtable discussion about Scandal, with a variety of writers weighing in with their views about the show. As Mia Mask, who introduces the discussion, frames it: “Even in communities of color, folks are not certain whether Rhimes’ Scandal is a progressive step in an anti-essentialist direction or a regressive move backward toward a reconstituted Jezebel-in-bed-with-Massa stereotype” (Mask, Mia. “A Roundtable Conversation on Scandal.” The Black Scholar. 45.1 (2015):3-9. MAS Ultra — School Edition. 18 September 2015:4).
Many critics discuss how the show’s popular with black audiences. Does that mean it’s moving us forward? The show’s also popular with white audiences. Does that mean it’s moving us backward? As a white viewer, I ask myself, why do I like the show? One critic talks about how there are enough white characters surrounding Olivia (Kerry Washington) so that white viewers can identify with them (Erigha, Maryann. “Shonda Rhimes, Scandal, and the Politics of Crossing Over.” The Black Scholar. 45.1 (2015): 10-15. MAS Ultra – School Edition. 18 September 2015:12). While that might be true for some white viewers, and while I do like Abby (Darby Stanchfield), Olivia’s the one who fully captures my attention. She’s confident and fierce and working so hard for justice: how can I not want to be like that? Am I less racist because I feel more connected to a black female character than a white one? Or is Shonda Rhimes pandering to a white audience because I can easily connect to Olivia?
Over the years, there’s been plenty of discussion about Rhimes’ colorblind casting strategy with Grey’s Anatomy. However, just because she advocates for this strategy doesn’t mean our society is as colorblind as many would like to think. In fact, it’s because our society is extremely not colorblind that such a strategy is required. Furthermore, some critics say that Scandal isn’t about race.
While it’s true that race is not often an explicitly discussed topic in Scandal, that doesn’t mean the show isn’t still about race. After all, Olivia Pope is the first black female lead character in a network television drama in how long? Thirty years? Forty? Critics might quibble over that number, but no one can dispute the fact that it has been a long time. By starring a black female character, Scandal is, by definition, about race, and Olivia Pope bears the impossible burden of having to fill that decades-long void. Never mind that the very existence of such a void just reinforces the persistence of systemic racism.
For a show that’s already about race by the sheer existence of its lead character, it can’t overtly focus on race. If the first episode did, it wouldn’t have made it past the pilot stage, no matter the popular reputation of the showrunner. The dominant narrative of the show must appeal to white viewers, especially white female viewers, and not make them too uncomfortable. In order to keep watching the show, they need to remain within the comfort of their white privilege; having both a black lead and an overt emphasis on race would be too much. This audience will accept a black lead, and even connect with her, but only because race is not overtly discussed; instead, this audience is pulled into the love triangle, the political intrigue, the well-developed characters, and the way Pope & Associates often rally behind feminist and LGBT causes.
In trying to understand Scandal more fully, I turn to the field of critical race theory, in which legal scholars analyze systemic racism by presenting counter-narratives that reveal how white supremacy operates (see, for example, Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement). This field has helped me develop my main argument that Scandal‘s able to appeal to multiple audiences through a simultaneous dominant narrative and counter-narrative. The invisibility of an overt emphasis on race becomes visible when we start to look for a counter-narrative, which resists the dominant narrative of systemic racism.
In other words, the absence of an explicit focus on race in Scandal is part of the counter-narrative reminding us that if white audiences were really comfortable with open, up-front discussions of race, then we wouldn’t be in an era where saying #blacklivesmatter was actually controversial. We wouldn’t be in an era when anyone would have to say it, because it would already be taken for granted.
It should be no surprise that the entire first season and almost a third of the second season passes before any of the characters overtly discuss race, as if the audience must be fully on board and settled in first. In “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” (2.8), there’s a flashback when Olivia and Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) are arguing about their relationship. Olivia tells Fitz: “I’m feeling a little, I don’t know, Sally Hemmings/Thomas Jefferson about all this.” Olivia’s blunt statement not only represents her reservations about their power dynamic, but also gives voice to a counter-narrative that acknowledges the stereotypical trope of a powerful white man and black mistress. The fact that she actually said these words directly speaks back against the stereotype she’s concerned she might be perpetuating. This meta-commentary draws attention to the critics who’ve raised these exact concerns.
If that were the end of the conversation, however, then maybe the discomfort and denial of white viewers would be too big of a problem. Perhaps they’d be irritated enough with Olivia for having the nerve to make such a comment that it might jeopardize future viewing. Such concern is fleeting, though, because a few minutes later, we see a follow-up conversation where Fitz is, not surprisingly, upset about her comment, and his denial of the comparison in some ways parallels white viewers’ denial of it. He starts by saying, “The Sally Hemmings/Thomas Jefferson comment was below the belt,” going on to argue, “You’re playing the race card on the fact that I’m in love with you? Come on. Don’t belittle us. It’s insulting and beneath you and designed to drive me away. I’m not going away.”
With Fitz’s response, we hear the dominant narrative speaking back against the counter-narrative. We hear him dismiss the racial power dynamics, insisting that of course their relationship doesn’t reinforce racial oppression through the powerful white man/black mistress trope. They’re just two soul mates in love. Since Fitz is denying any racial subtext to their relationship, so too can the white viewer, who’s thus exonerated from being a fan of a racist trope and can simply be a fan of a love story.
We see the tension between the dominant narrative and counter-narrative again towards the end of the third season, when we begin to hear the repeated phrase, “standing in the sun”. While there are a variety of sayings that join the lexicon of Scandal, I find this one especially noteworthy. If we focus on the dominant narrative’s understanding of the phrase, the definition in one of the online Scandal glossaries makes perfect sense: “Standing in the sun means not pretending, full exposure. . . . The phrase means living in the truth as it presently is and facing it head on” (Huggins, Sarah. “Standing in the sun: A ‘Scandal‘ glossary.” Zap2it. Zap2it/Tribune Broadcasting. 2016. Web. 31 March 2016).
For example, the first time (that I was able to determine) the phrase is introduced occurs in “No Sun on the Horizon” (3.13), soon after Vice President Sally Langston (Kate Burton) has murdered her husband, and Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry) helps cover it up. Cyrus tries to convince Olivia to help him keep the murder quiet, and Olivia says: “you drag me back into the dark. . . . I want to walk into the light and feel the sun on my face.” Then, in the same episode, in a conversation with Captain Jake Ballard (Scott Foley), she says she wants to “stand in the sun”. The dominant narrative’s understanding of “standing in the sun” as facing the truth and working for what’s honest makes sense.
However, what I find significant is that we can also consider another interpretation simultaneously, one that reveals the counter-narrative. I didn’t remember this connection until I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, where in the epigraph to her first chapter, she quotes W.E.B. Du Bois: “[T]he slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery” (Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. NY: The New Press, 2012:20).
This “brief moment in the sun” is post-Civil War Reconstruction, when slavery was officially and legally abolished, when black men could vote and seek elected office. As Du Bois explains in Black Reconstruction in America, and as Alexander reminds us, that period of freedom was “brief”; sharecropping, convict leasing, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, and many other systems that perpetuated the structural oppression of slavery soon followed, just with a different name. Alexander shows us how the same pattern repeated itself a century later, with the civil rights movement granting considerable freedom, but the War on Drugs and mass incarceration taking over in the ’80s as the “new Jim Crow”.
I believe the episode that best exemplifies this interpretation and the counter-narrative is “The Lawn Chair”, positioned halfway through season four (airdate: 5 March 2015). Here, a black 17-year-old named Brandon Parker is shot and killed by a white police officer in a black Washington, DC neighborhood Olivia refers to as “within the shadow of the White House”. I find that as the episode progresses, she reveals the systemic racism within that shadow, and how crucial it is for the people of the neighborhood to be able to stand in the sun.
The episode begins, unsurprisingly, with the dominant narrative. DC Chief of Police Connors (Chris Mulkey) hires Olivia to “handle the optics”, telling her that the teenager had a knife, and “officer shoots him — well within his rights — and now we’ve got a dead black kid put there by a white police officer. . . . I run a clean force. The last thing I want is a riot that sets my city on fire.” Many white viewers would nod along, acknowledging the tragedy but also thinking that the police have a difficult job and they’re just trying to handle a dangerous situation effectively. Olivia acts as a negotiator of sorts between the police and Clarence Parker (Courtney B. Vance), who’s protecting his son’s body, which is still lying in the street. White viewers would likely still nod along when Olivia talks to Officer Newton (Michael Welch), who insists that he’d only use his gun if he feared for his life.
While the first half of the episode represents the dominant narrative, with Olivia in the position of a neutral mediator, there is an abrupt shift halfway through the episode. When Olivia questions the Police Chief’s strategy, he asks Olivia: “Whose side are you on?” She responds with “Not yours,” and walks over to the chanting protestors and joins them. She soon asks her friend David Rosen (Joshua Malina), US Attorney General, to issue a subpoena for the video of the shooting that the police won’t release. At first, he says that he can’t do anything to help her, that he’s doing his job and upholding the law, a law that Olivia says only:
… protect[s] people who look like you … You talk about fairness and justice like it’s available to everybody! It’s not! That man standing over his son’s body thinks he knows he’s going to end up in one of two places: a jail cell or a drawer in the morgue … Imagine feeling like that every single day of your life.
The counter-narrative is on the surface in Olivia’s monologue, and convinces David to issue the subpoena for the video, which does not show a knife. Clarence agrees to look for it on his son’s body, and there is a knife, but the father still insists that Brandon never carried a knife.
Olivia’s team finds discrepancies in the video, and Olivia confronts Officer Newton, who shot Brandon. He unleashes a powerful monologue initially aimed at Olivia but then extending to the crowd inside the police station, including his fellow officers, his chief, and the Attorney General. Officer Newton’s monologue is the climax of the entire episode and exposes the white supremacy of the dominant narrative:
The truth is those people in Rosemead have no respect for anything or anyone. No they’re like you. They just take whenever they want, and they have no problem turning their backs on the people who gave it to them, people like me, who strap on their boots every day, kiss their wife and kids goodbye, and trek forty miles into a city where everyone, including little babies, are taught to look at us like the enemy! They are taught to question me, to disobey me, and still I risk my life for these people. Every day for seven years, I have allowed myself to be disrespected and hated by these people, all to protect them from themselves. I mean, all I hear about on the news are dirty cops, cops who shoot innocent black kids. It’s crap! There were 84 murders in this city last year. Were all of those cops shooting innocent black boys? Hell no. Those were blacks turning guns on each other, and yet somehow I’m the animal! Brandon Parker is dead because he didn’t have respect, because those people out there who are chanting and crying over his body, they didn’t teach him the right values. They didn’t teach him respect. He didn’t respect me. He didn’t respect my badge. Questioning my authority was not his right! His blood is not on my hands!
Here, the counter-narrative reveals not only the persistence of systemic racism, but also the white supremacy that fuels that racism. Officer Newton expresses his white entitlement, his white anger, and his white rage when his authority’s not shown “respect”. I’d add that he also shows us exactly why Donald Trump is such a popular candidate. It’s important to note that at the beginning of this episode, Officer Newton was represented in a way that white viewers would likely sympathize with, so when this shift occurs, they’re going to feel especially uncomfortable. I don’t think that by the end of the episode that discomfort’s resolved; it’s yet another sign of the sustained counter-narrative. However, it took 60 episodes to air before this occurred.
That leads me to wonder: then what? While one could argue that the Attorney General and even the President stepping in to help Clarence Parker shows that justice is served, that this racist incident was aberrant, and that the dominant narrative can resume, I think it’s clear that even with the arrest of the officer, we still have a dead unarmed teenager. So how much is justice really served? Furthermore, Officer Newton’s attempt to cover up Brandon’s murder was only exposed because Olivia was there. What about all of the places in the country where she can’t be?
If we step back a bit, did this episode change anything fundamental about the show? Was the next episode back to “business as usual”? Yes and no. On the one hand, it should be no surprise that the dominant narrative of political intrigue and love triangles, rather than the counter-narrative of interrogating white supremacy, was back as the main focus in the following episodes. On the other hand, civil rights activist Marcus Walker (Cornelius Smith Jr) –who helped organize the protests against the police in “The Lawn Chair” — returns as a client a few episodes later (“I’m Just a Bill”), and then to join Pope & Associates early in the next season (“Dog-Whistle Politics”).
Finally, the episode in which Marcus becomes a fellow gladiator again brings the counter-narrative to the surface in a sustained way when Olivia’s team critiques the racist messages of the media and politicians criticizing Olivia. It’s no coincidence that the episode’s title takes its name from the book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Haney López. He explains, just as the episode shows, that the dominant narrative uses subtle language to reinforce systemic racism, but the counter-narrative reveals this language as “dog whistles”, making the invisible very visible.
If we take a step back even further, this episode allows us to ask some larger questions: What’s Olivia really trying to fix? What’s the real scandal? If Olivia wants to stand in the sun, then is she saying that the moment after slavery can’t be brief, that we need to end systemic racism, once and for all, so that everyone can stand in the sun?
It’s interesting to note that in the same episode that Olivia makes the “Sally Hemmings/Thomas Jefferson” comment, there’s another flashback to Fitz and Olivia visiting the Constitution. Fitz reads its famous opening: “We the people” and then comments “That’s everything.” While the dominant narrative of this scene focuses on Fitz and Olivia bonding in this special moment, where they both agree that they’re “in this together”, it’s hard not to hear the counter-narrative asking questions in the background: “That’s the Constitution, isn’t it? The one that established slaves as 3/5 of a person?” So when Fitz quotes “We the people”, we need to ask: which people? Not only in 1787, but also today.
Finally, I need to be careful about my own dominant narrative and counter-narrative. I know that as a white viewer, I can’t just come to my conclusion and pat myself on the back and say I’m watching the show for the counter-narrative rather than the dominant narrative. I can’t just say that I’ll stand in the sun with Olivia. I need to think much more carefully about Officer Newton, and rather than distance myself from him by listing all of the ways I’m not him, I need to think carefully about what he and I might have in common. How am I complicit in what goes on behind, as Olivia calls it, “the curtain of power”?