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January 2013

Why The Characters On Scandal Work

“Olivia” and “Harrison” are interesting. She used her social capital and power to keep him out of prison on charges of insider trading, a crime he willingly committed. He repays her with admiration, respect and loyalty. (Remove the high social status and her helping him this way is what many Black women do for Black men.) They aren’t presented as lovers, angry exes or blood relatives and he isn’t the “gay sidekick” (a character type often used to marginalize gay men). Their relationship type is non-existent anywhere else on TV. She is his boss but she doesn’t dominate him. He doesn’t feel dehumanized (the correct word to use, NOT “emasculated” as that suggests not performing patriarchal masculinity and being “feminine” is the worst of all, which makes that word inherently misogynist) by her having more power in the firm because truthfully, as a team, they work together. Very little can be achieved without them all doing their parts, even when “Olivia” has to hide things from them. They all know that at certain levels, the nature of their jobs requires deceit.

Now, whether or not their work is “good” (in “moral” code, not in level of talent/ability exemplified, as the latter is obvious, the former is murky) is another question.

“Olivia” and “Harrison” excel as characters on Scandal because they are NOT simply “positive” constructions that exist as reactionary elements to typical Black female and male characters that solely exist to reinforce stereotypical norms shaped by White supremacist capitalist patriarchy and its intersection with television/film. Though each character on Scandal has not been overly fleshed out in the way other shows that are character-driven more than plot-driven (as this show definitely feels more plot and situationally-driven versus character-driven, which actually works for the theme; in other words I don’t give a shit about who “Olivia’s” mother is or “Harrison’s” last fuck; it’s irrelevant in the context of Scandal unless it’s later made relevant to plot or situations) fleshes them out, they are strong because they pull viewers into the plot and situations, leaving viewers wondering what will happen next.

They are strong because race and relational power are always questioned by the critically conscious viewer, yet none of the characters seem to be stuck in the binary of “Look, I am here to remind you that I’m a ‘positive’ Black character!” versus “Look at me I am a sexual buck/jester or a mammy/Jezebel/Sapphire.” For once, viewers get to step the hell outside of the most boring (and enraging) basic media binary and still get to question important elements of race (for example, I wrote about the common Jefferson/Hemmings vs. “Fitz”/”Olivia” analogy before), gender, sexuality, crime, politics, love, power, deceit, betrayal, dating, marriage, friendship, work, money and more. Because the work of navigating that primitive binary is not needed, viewers (especially Black women) now have an inordinate amount of energy left to superficially or critically dissect other elements and actually…enjoy the show.

Many of the other characters interest me as well. Actually, I like all of them (except “Quinn”); even the ones I hate. Like “Sally Langston.” And “Mellie.” I think “David” being portrayed with almost Boy Scout-like goodness is actually funny because honestly, there’s nothing wrong with anything he’s doing, but the world of good vs. bad is so gray and messy on the show that his juxtaposition seems almost juvenile, which makes it that much more compelling. I actually miss “Stephen” from season 1. He’s the only one who truly knows (and seems to understand) “Olivia’s” love for “Fitz.” (I say this since I suspect “Huck” knows, but whether he understands in the way that “Stephen” did might be questionable.) I think “Cyrus” being incredibly heteronormative, patriarchal and even violent by proxy is important (even if not “good”) because the reality is many gay men are. His juxtaposition to his lover is complicated for some people to process since many assume that all gay men are thin, good-looking, White and more effeminate like his partner “James.” They aren’t.

“Huck” is probably one of the most fascinating since he’s a character that many viewers empathize with. He’s a trained killer and torturer, formerly with the CIA who deceives and kills for Olivia Pope and Associates…and he’s still empathized with. And, I don’t think it’s the usual White violence empathizing that is shaped by White privilege such that he being the killer is okay but if “Harrison” was, it wouldn’t be okay (though for some viewers, this would be their viewing path). I think it’s because viewers see this Latino man as a product of the imperialistic actions of the military and its phantom appendages (like the CIA) and the damage that is left when someone like him is used up for the greater need of imperialism and genocide abroad, an American mission more important than any individual person’s life or well-being. His actual mannerisms are usually endearing though his actual actions are usually frightening, which makes him complicated to totally love or hate. Also, he is a different television portrait of a Latino man; NOT a knee-jerk flat “positive” character to react to previous racist imaginations, but a conflicted, violent, used-up genius, who still has the capability to love and be loved. Honestly, he makes me think of a milder version of “Bane” from The Dark Knight Rises, as they evoke similar complexity and pathos.

Even the characters that appear for one episode have left a mark on me. The gay soldier from the premier episode? I now see that the actual actor (Wes Brown) will be on NBC’s new show Deception, and as soon as I saw his face in a commercial, I was emotionally transported back to that episode of Scandal. The civil rights’ minister’s wife and mistress and the juxtaposition to “Mellie” and “Olivia” in season 2? That was great.

The characters on Scandal work because they’re excellently flawed in a way that at times is truly uncommon and at times is recognizable. Their presence drives the situations and plot and temper the calm and loving moments with the chaotic ones. This dichotomy makes watching each episode worth watching.

Related Post: Regarding Criticism On Scandal

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