The End Of An Era: 'Scandal' Changed The Way The World Watched Television, And How The World Viewed Black Women
Last night was the end of an era.
After seven seasons, Olivia Pope donned the white hat for the last time and we said goodbye to Scandal. When it premiered, Shonda Rhimes gave us a high paced, political drama with more twists and turns that should have been legal for an hour-long program. The world fell in love with Scandal; ratings and reviews quickly proved that it would be a cult favorite. But, while everyone fell in love with Liv, there was so much more to Scandal that showed Rhimes created it with us in mind.
Kerry Washington amazed us weekly as Olivia. The first Black female lead in a primetime show in over 40 years, we were introduced to a Black woman who was a force. She takes no prisoners and wields a power that we don’t get to see many Black women have. Though the character is modeled after real-life “fixer” Judy Smith, Rhimes was able to take Olivia in directions that allowed us to imagine what it would be like to see a Black woman as the most powerful woman in America. And we needed it.
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Those last moments of the first episode when we learned that Liv was having an affair with the President of the United States? We needed that, too. It became crystal clear that, as much as we had begun to fall in love with her, Olivia Pope was no Claire Huxtable. While many were angry that the show was largely centered around this powerful Black woman having an affair with a powerful, married white man, Black women deserved to see themselves as complex and messy. Because we are. No — all of us aren’t having affairs, rigging elections or orchestrating the murders of world leaders, but we all have deeply hidden parts of us that we’ve had to pretend don’t exist because we’ve never seen Black women publicly admit they were there.
Olivia Pope did that for us.
Every time we cheered when she was a boss at work, rolled our eyes every time she took Fitz back, screamed when she didn’t make things work with Edison or all the times we side-eyed that strange brother-sister-lover relationship she had with Jake, we were celebrating the ways in which we could be honest with ourselves about our own messiness. She showed that Black women don’t have to be perfect to wear the white hat. We didn’t have it all together and that was okay.
But while we were glad to see Liv with all of her complications, we missed that she didn’t have any homegirls. She needed them; she needed the voice of a reason to reel her in when she was too far gone because she couldn’t hear us screaming at her through television. When we were introduced to her parents, it became clear why she was such a mess. To be raised by Papa and Mama Pope, the world’s most lethal assassins, would cause any child to need a good therapist. Yet, there was a power in that family dynamic that couldn’t be ignored. While we were celebrating our first Black presidential family, we were also cheering on our Black family that could take down the Republic at a moment’s notice. Black people didn’t have to just see themselves as upholding the respect and the dignity of the White House and America’s quest for our respectability. Papa Pope made every Black man proud when he called the President of the United States a “boy” and Mama Pope, Public Enemy #1, read the world for filth when she talked about the Black woman’s pain. This family presented a new way to envision how Black people could be portrayed. They didn’t have to be supportive characters, popping up every other episode to do the powerful White folk’s bidding. They could also be the ones who instilled great fear and could make America crumble. It was amazing to see.
When Liv checked white women, we hadn’t seen sisters throw that much shade since Dominique Deveraux got Alexis Colby all the way together on Dynasty. Olivia didn’t play and we needed her to be vicious on our behalf. As the country wrestled with the reality of our first Black President, Black women worked to close the ranks around Michelle Obama. She was brutally picked apart in the public eye and it was as if Rhimes and Kerry felt the exact same way the rest of us did. They allowed our frustrations and angst to be channeled through Kerry’s performances. Liv said everything we couldn’t say to those white women, our coworkers and our supervisors. If white women were going to lose their minds because a Black family was leading the country, Olivia Pope was going to help them find it.
And we all watched her do it, saying amen to her every word, together.
That is the power of Scandal. It completely transformed how we watch television. For one hour every Thursday night, everything stopped and revolved around Olivia Pope and Associates. We trended a television show before we really even knew what it meant to be trending. Black Twitter was at its best on Thursday nights. Our witty banter, the way we talked to Liv like she was right there in our living room, all of it was hilarious. We made friends with people we may never meet because of our time together through those tweets and retweets. There was something magical about the community Scandal formed online. It offered an escape, gave us a high energy primetime show that we enjoyed together and provided a much needed energy to get us to the weekend.
Other shows began to use Scandal’s success as the blueprint for their marketing campaigns, in their attempt to build a cult following. And while many shows have been able to replicate aspects of its social media phenomenon, there is so much about Scandal devoted to us and that’s why we supported it. Aside from a Black female lead and episodes that spoke to issues affecting our community, there was the music. For seven seasons, we watched a primetime television show that was sound-tracked by R&B and soul. By using our music, Scandal included us in the narration of America’s current political story. Every Thursday night, Scandal told us that we are important to American history because we are American history.
I don’t know if we are ready to say goodbye to Liv and those iconic speeches from Papa Pope. I want Scandal to sustain us through this current presidency in the same way it did in the age of Obama. In a time when networks are reviving shows that normalize Trump’s agenda and support, we lose much when Scandal is gone. But the reality is that Scandal owes us nothing. Its mark on entertainment history has been made, and the fact that it is a cultural force is clear. Scandal doesn’t have to stay. It did its job in showing us that the way forward is with complicated stories and soulful melodies that allow us to see parts of ourselves, making good friends along the way.