Continuing a Stereotype: Olivia Pope as the Independent Black Woman

This past Thursday I was selected as one of ten students from the University of Missouri Department of Communication to present a research project that I did in my TV Criticisms class last semester. It was such an honor to be chosen and I was so proud of the work I did on the poster that I wanted to share it with as many people as possible.

So, what better way to do that than by using the internet!?

Scandal Poster

For my project I looked at the show Scandal, a popular drama written by Shonda Rhimes and starring the amazing Kerry Washington. I talked about how Shonda wrote this amazing character who’s successful, the lead of the show and African American, which we don’t see that often. The independent black woman is this new character in media that we’re seeing now and it’s awesome because we’re seeing black women do some amazing things, but it’s also still perpetuating stereotypes of black women in media.

In order to prove this, I looked at the three man stereotypes of black women in media: Mammy (mother figure), Jezebel (sexually promiscuous) and Sapphire, (ghetto, attitude) I also pulled quotes and examples from each season of Scandal where Olivia is portraying these stereotypes.

Mammy- Olivia’s entire line of work is to take care of people, as a mother would, no matter how much her clients or even her associates mess up, she eventually forgives them, just like a mother would.
Jezebel- Olivia has many sexual partners, but commits to none because the one that she wants, is taken…and the President of the United States.
Sapphire- Olivia definitely is not afraid to fly off the handle and get in someone’s face when she needs something done. She demands attention and respect from those around her (as most people would). Unfortunately, when a Black woman acts like this she is often seen as ghetto.

I argued that the reason fans (of which I am one) don’t realize these stereotypes are being portrayed within Olivia’s character is because 1) they’re happening all at once, which is something that other Black women characters on television don’t do and 2) Shonda Rhimes has added this layer of independence to the character. Because Olivia is so successful and great at what she does, we tend to overlook or ignore the stereotypes of black women that have been ingrained in American society dating all the way back to slavery.

Olivia is independent of her family, her friends and a significant other, which makes us love her. She’s powerful and has created a name for herself in Washington D.C., she is a future PR woman’s role model, but despite all those things her character still perpetuates stereotypes of Black women in media.

I concluded with one main thought: Scandal is not new. The show is not a new concept, but rather a very well written twist on past stereotypes of Black women in media. It is so popular among minorities, specifically women because for once we are seeing a successful Black woman, on her own. In fact, the theme of the Independent Black Woman is very popular right now with shows such as Being Mary Jane and How to Get Away With Murder. 

I’m not arguing that Scandal is a terrible show, my eyes are glued to the screen for an hour every Thursday just like everyone else. I am looking at Scandal from a critical view. I can enjoy the show, while also recognizing it’s flaws and I believe sharing my findings will help other become critical media viewers as well.

Like I said, it was such an honor to be grouped with so many talented students for this undergraduate research presentation. I had so much fun sharing my findings and gushing about Scandal with students, faculty and alumni.

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