And what of Olivia? Viewers are not privy to this type of information where her character is concerned. All we know is that this black woman committed herself to Republican Presidential Candidate, Fitzgerald Grant, and has been a fixture of his campaign and administration to varying degrees throughout the show. Thus, any depth Pope possesses is always connected to the American Political System and/or Fitz.
The type of information we are allowed to know about Olivia is quite reminiscent of the ways black actors and actresses accent the story lines of white folks in television shows that do not claim to place them at the center of the drama. As a result of this sacrifice of significant character development, the character of Olivia Pope must rely on stale media representations of black women for the semblance of substance.
In most episodes Pope is little more than a political mammy mixed with a hint of Sapphire who faithfully bears the burden of the oh-so-fragile American Political System on her shoulders. The mammy characterization has always had the goal of redeeming the relationship between black women and the white people whom they serve, particularly in the slave economy. Post-slavery, the mammy image has been repackaged time and time again in order to imbed itself within an ever shifting culture. Pope is one of the latest manifestations of this characterization. Similar to how the mammy of slavery was normally portrayed as neat, clean, and happy to serve and maintain the inner-workings of the massah’s house; Olivia Pope is neat, clean, and well-dressed; she understands the inner-workings of massah’s house — The White House, and tirelessly works behind the scenes to ensure the house continues to function as expected. Furthermore, just as the mammy stereotype would have us believe, Pope is happy with her life of service to the good white folks running the country.
But she’s not always all smiles as we’d expect a typical mammy to be. Pope just as quickly puts her hands on her hips, hardens her facial features, and roles her neck ever-so-slightly letting us know that she won’t take anything lying down. Just like the Sapphire representation, Pope is up for a fight. But to only portray Pope as a political mammy with a hint of Sapphire would be too obvious to viewers and would make her character even more noticeably flat. So, the show utilizes the ingredients of sex and violation masked as a romance to make her character seem a bit more complex.
When Pope is not gleefully maintaining the house or being overbearing, thus undesirable, she’s in the back shed with massah — the Oval Office — Fitz where we realize she’s actually quite desirable (see Season 1 Episode 1). President Fitzgerald Grant can’t keep his hands off of her. He continuously expresses his incalculable love for her, but can only seem to express this “love” by forcefully grabbing her and feeling her up whenever he gets the chance. In the very first episode he forces himself on her while she attempts to decline his advances. But because of our conditioning, we see Pope as a Jezebel: she really wants it, we think. So, we accept the violation and believe there’s nothing wrong with Fitz’s unwelcomed advances; apparently “no” really doesn’t mean “no” in this case. The problem is, sexual intrigue and force do not equal love. We have seen no actions that support Fitz’s claim to love Olivia; but we do have plenty that suggest she is the object of his sexual desire.
Everyone plays their role in the process. Olivia Pope leads the other characters in this role playing by example; playing not only the one role that the system demands of her, but three of them. The only way Pope is empowered and seemingly in control is through service to the system that demands her powerlessness and capitulation. Ultimately, Scandal is not concerned with the life of Olivia Pope or portraying a black woman in a new way in spite of our celebrations of the show. It is concerned with the fragile foundation of the American Political System. It’s goal is to subtly train us in the ways of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and teach us that playing our roles is the only way to truly succeed and be happy within its confines. The show merely rearranges the elements of our world to make them more bearable and reassure us that political mammies like Pope are out there tirelessly fighting to maintain the system we so greatly desire to uphold.
Arrianna: Also, the dynamic of Fitz telling Olivia that she was not his Sally Hemings was … interesting. It’ll take more thought for me to unpack that.
T.F.: Yea, it’s not really his call to make, is it? I’m also intrigued that Shonda has Olivia be the one to invoke the Hemings reference. To be honest, her throwing Sally Hemings in Fitz’s face was the first time I found their romance remotely interesting.
Anyway, I’m not sure who we’re supposed to side with in Fitz and Liv’s exchange. Having the heroine of the show raise the issue invites viewers to identify with her to some degree, but I think we’re also meant to see Fitz’s side of things as well — that he’s in this untenable position of having found the love of his life, but being unable to act on it in any honorable way, and apparently also unable to not act on it.
Which personally I think is a load of crap. Sure, he’s in a tough position as president, but there’s very little about Fitz/Liv’s relationship that says “great love” to me. It may very well be that they can’t stay away from each other, but that isn’t necessarily love. More like toxic and codependent.