Scandal: Exploring The Criticism Of “Olivia” and “Fitz”
Some people think that fans of Scandal love the “Olivia” and “Fitz” relationship solely because it is interracial. Others are ignoring the CONTEXT of their specific affair and think viewers solely like this affair just because it’s an affair or only because “Olivia” and “Fitz” are of a higher socioeconomic status and that viewers would shun affairs that occur with people of a lower socioeconomic status. Perhaps a tiny sliver of viewers have such a limited view, one apparently as limited as the critics’, but many fans are well beyond this, emotionally, culturally and intellectually.
What pulls so many Black women in is the chemistry, passion, longing and friendship between “Olivia” and “Fitz.” (This doesn’t necessarily mean that the problematic issues of their relationship are ignored.) It’s dynamic because it’s not just them having sex. Anyone can have sex on screen. Anyone whose actually watched the show, critically, knows it’s not just sex, taboo sex, or “look, a White man has a Black woman!”
A few of the things I DON’T like about “Olivia” and “Fitz”: The fact that they can’t actually be together. When their mutual longing moves from sexual and emotional desire to sheer pain for each of them. “Fitz’s” nosiness and possessiveness. Some of “Fitz’s” and “Olivia’s” risk-taking. How they get rude and verbally aggressive which each other, which admittedly is out of frustration from their longing becoming emotional pain.
A few of the things I like about “Olivia” and “Fitz”: They’re intellectual equals; she’s on his level enough to provide strategic political advice; he’s on her level enough to know it’s clever and accurate, and accepts it. They allowed time and slow-building moments before actually having sex and the hesitation revealed the longing. Also, they built up to sex, first with intellectual flirting, then occupying close space (i.e. the “one minute” moments, which are sweet and continued well into the relationship), lots of talking, then touching (i.e. her finally calling him by his first name and hand holding on the campaign bus) and eventually sex. Their talk easily switching between political, sexual and emotional. Their staring. There’s so much unsaid and so much intensity whenever she looks at him or he looks at her, when they are both aware of each other looking…and when they are not.
Where have Black women seen such chemistry, passion, longing and friendship (even if riddled with very human complications, as with Scandal) dynamically portrayed on screen between a Black woman and a Black man? (I ask, since many behave as if “Olivia” were White or “Fitz” were Black, everything would be “fine” and no critiques against the show would be needed.) I don’t recall this since the film Love Jones. I really don’t. (I read the script for Middle of Nowhere [exquisite] and I feel it there; once I see the film, I can 100% know.) As far as on TV, I can’t think of anything recent. (Maybe “Tara” and “Eggs” on True Blood in a past season would be an honorable mention; but that’s on HBO. Everyone doesn’t have the luxury of that premium channel.)
Love Jones portrayed genuine chemistry, within the sexual realm and outside of it, and love. Connection existed beyond them just being the same race. Some Whites and Blacks seem to think that same race and compatible resumes are all that is needed for Black couples, both on screen and off. This is beyond limiting. The presumption is that Black women are so career-oriented that we no longer have desire, or if we do, we are all desire and nothing else. Sounds familiar? Same old stereotypes here. (See the binary social construct of consciousness without sexuality vs. sexuality without consciousness.) Thus, why would we need chemistry, passion and friendship if “all” that we desire in a Black man is him being Black, a nice haircut, abs, a college degree, a job and no criminal record? Real life stereotypical garbage about our desires (usually labeled as “unreasonable” when they are as basic as the aforementioned and definitely labeled “unreasonable” when they exceed the aforementioned) have infected TV and film portrayals of same race relationships, if they are even portrayed in the first place.
Though I liked the first episode of Deception, they clearly created more chemistry between Meagan Good’s character (“Joanna”) and her past White lover (“Julian”) than between her and her current Black one (“Will”). “Joanna” and “Will” have ZERO chemistry. They read as siblings more than lovers, or him as a boss more than a lover in that first episode. He didn’t even truly comfort her when she cried in her house about losing her friend to murder, yet wanted sex a few days later. Further, Deception revealed a sex scene between them in the first episode. Scandal waited six episodes. In TV time, that’s an eternity of building of small moments. (To be clear, I am not comparing these shows to denigrate Deception. I want it to succeed. I am solely revealing the WORK put into an interracial coupling on Scandal [and even the interracial one on Deception thus far] versus a same race one on Deception. Even more work was put into “Olivia” and “Edison” on Scandal than most Black same race couples portrayed on TV, and we have a Black woman writer, Shonda Rhimes, to thank for this.) Thus, they deemed that same race is all that is needed for the Black couple, but went out of their way to create complexity and nuance for the interracial coupling on Deception. This could be to combat stereotypes that interracial couples exist solely for power/sexual transactions.
In the case of Scandal, created by a Black woman, I believe that a different motivation exists. “Olivia” and “Fitz” had a major conversation about race, one that shattered the myth that IF they have problems THEN it must be because she’s a slave and he’s the master, solely because of their race. Shonda’s brilliant writing presented this theory then obliterated it and rendered it false. (I am glad she did since the ahistorical Jefferson/Hemmings nonsense persisted amidst critics.) I think her motivation is more about “Olivia” being engaged in a range of human emotions, ones that clearly reveal desire and less about “Fitz” being White or not, though race is always a factor in life. Again, remind me of what shows feature a Black woman character with a complex romantic relationship, with a variety of emotions, including feeling desire and being desired (yet not only being made up of desire, but so much more, and has fascinating relationships with a multitude of characters) on television. I’ll wait…
Oh and the "well…she’s just a ho" critiques are interesting, considering “Mellie” (a White woman) had an affair as well, but coincidentally she isn’t viewed as a ho, now is she? “Stephen” (a White man) from season 1 had multiple affairs and used his sexuality to acquire information and he wasn’t viewed as a ho, now was he? “Harrison” (a Black man) uses his sexuality to acquire information and he isn’t viewed as a ho, now is he? The Black people who have this simplistic view of “Olivia” might want to check their views against the politics of respectability and the racialized nature of how Black women’s sexuality is constructed by others. These limits are sadly absorbed and proselytized by some Black women who think this makes them “honorable” and by Black men who cannot confront Black women’s sexuality outside of a virgin/whore binary. For those who will take the "colorblind" approach and claim that they view “anyone” (regardless of race) who cheats or uses sexuality as a tool of power as a “ho,” think about WHY this show gets the critiques it does when infidelity and sex are critical elements to almost every and any drama on television, period. Why is it this show is compared to the over abundance of Black women in reality shows (shows which I think are purposely created as a “replacement” as to not have to cast Black women in quality or even mediocre dramas, which still tend to supersede the emotional/intellectual depth and context of what is conveyed on reality shows) that exist solely to affirm stereotypes, yet Scandal regularly rejects such stereotypes?
There are critiques out there that seek to minimize Scandal to being about a “simple” affair—one that voids the politics of respectability, which makes some people determine it’s “no better” than a reality show, despite the fact that it’s nothing like one in plot, motivation and design (and if it was, that would mean all dramas with affairs are like them, and would include stories that pre-date television). It’s not the sheer presence of affairs themselves that make reality TV desired by viewers; it’s the responses to basic disagreements with extreme hyperbole and/or fist fights by “real people” that does, as well as viewers needing to feel superior to reality show stars in class (i.e. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) or behavior (i.e. RHOA). IF Scandal by virtue of a Black woman (and let’s be clear, these comparisons are being made SOLELY because the lead is Black) having an affair is a “reality show,” and a realty show is “bad” because of the politics of respectability for Black people, THEN this is a view that most who critically think about Blacks in media will reject because we reject the rigid sexual paradigms established under the politics of respectability.
First it was a slave/master show, then it was a soap opera and now it’s a reality show? Really?
When are people going to address the fact that moving away from basic racial/gendered stereotypical characters AND reactive “positive” characters that exist solely to “prove” Black worthiness, only leaves humanity? One that’s not perfect. One that is complex. One that is a very gray-area. One that is true. When are people going to address the fact that the real reason why “Olivia” bothers them is they’ve become comfortable with one-dimensional, reactive, “positive” constructions of Black womanhood (in other words, anti-mammy/Sapphire/Jezebel) that are “safe” (and view this as “progress” from mammy/Sapphire/Jezebel) but not truly dynamic or human?
In some Blacks’ minds, being simple and “positive” and hopefully “acceptable” in some Whites’ eyes is better than being simple and “negative” but also better than being dynamically human with positive and negative traits, and complex emotions, behaviors and motivations. In their minds, riddled by internalized White supremacist thought, any presence of any negative at all (which “Olivia” has some) is an invalidation of her character in totality and renders her “simple.” Why? Well that’s because that’s how Whites (and Blacks with internalized White supremacist thought) view Blacks off-screen…in real life.
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