For six seasons, Scandal has romanticized a Republican presidential administration and has shown the brutal murder of way too many women. Still, it has long been considered a feminist series. The women characters on the show have always been just as important and capable as the men, for better and for worse. Viewers have had to sit through more than our fair share of speeches about women having it all, standing up for themselves, and coming together. And then of course there is the strong Black woman at the center of it all, Olivia Pope. But rather than act as the cherry on top of a TV feminist sundae, Pope’s centrality to the show always made me crave more. Last night, in the penultimate episode of the season, I finally got my moment.
I've always considered Scandal to be feminist in the same way that Sheryl Sandberg or Ivanka Trump might identify as feminist. It's about women having the same opportunities under nationalism and capitalism. It's about women simply being “nice” to each other and getting their piece of the pie. The show's writers put a lot of effort into making Liv and Mellie’s heart-to-heart talks full of uplifting messages for women. But intersectionality has never been a thing in Rhimes’ DC.
With the exception of their Black Lives Matter episode in season four, and Eli/Rowan’s complex about being controlled by white people, race is almost never addressed. Apparently it’s not an issue in the Scandalverse, and they have a bunch of interracial relationships — Oliva & Fitz, Mellie & Marcus, Fitz & The Black FBI lady, Olivia & Jake, Huck & his kid’s mom, etc. — to prove it. But race does matter, in feminism and everything else. There are a unique set of challenges that Black women face from within and outside of their communities.
It took Maya Pope, not Olivia, to drop the science for us. Being held captive by Rowan — a theme in their relationship — she gets frustrated when he doesn’t believe that she is trying to protect Olivia. “I tell you… Being a Black woman,” she starts. “‘Be strong,’ they say. Support your men. Raise a man. Think like a man. Well, damn. I gotta do all that?” she asks rhetorically. The answer that Black women have overwhelmingly received from our culture is yes. She continues to wonder aloud, “Who’s out here working for me? Carrying my burden? Building me up when I get down? Nobody.” Certainly not the feminists who want us all to lean in and come together. “Black women out here trying to save everybody,” she says in disgust. “We still try. Try to help all y'all, even when we get nothing.” If you doubt the validity of this statement, I employ you to check the receipts from the 2016 election.
Even though Mama Pope’s analysis can be applied broadly, I loved that it was primarily a critique of Black men’s treatment of Black women. She said to Eli directly, “God forbid you let a sista like me help you out. No, you don’t want that. Don’t let me put you on my back when you fall, wipe the crust out of your eye, put a pep back in your step.” And for what it’s worth, at every stage of Black liberation there have been Black women leading and supporting Black men. Maya goes on, “Because when we do, you resent us for making you better, smarter, stronger; then drop us so you can be with someone basic. Someone without all that baggage you left us with. But we still try.”
Truer words haven’t been spoken on primetime television. The realities of anti-Black racism make it difficult to confront the male dominance and misogynoir in Black communities in such a public forum. It’s taboo and sometimes dangerous to “air our dirty laundry.” But it’s a conversation that needs to be had. I’m grateful that, in an otherwise lackluster finale, Scandal pivoted from mainstream to Black feminism.