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May 2013

On Scandal: “Olivia Pope,” Sexual Politics and Privacy

As a fan of Scandal, one thing that I have always loved about Scandal is “Olivia Pope’s” personal, business and political power and the fact that she can make the choices that she wants for her life, no matter how excellent or how flawed the choices may be perceived by the other characters on the show or of course, the viewers, whether stans, fans, non-fans or miserys.

While there were times where I rooted for “Olivia” and “Fitz” as a couple, examining the nuances of their complex relationship and what ultimately pulls them together, and other times when I was not feeling them, last night’s episode (Season 2, Episode 20: A Woman Scorned) brought something else to mind.

A measure of privacy regarding the physical sexual intimacy part of her sexuality is completely non-existent and not by “Olivia’s” own choice. When I speak of privacy, I don’t mean the actual secrecy and deception that is involved in extra-marital affairs, nor am I placing a value judgment on them externally, because other than “Mellie,” “Olivia” and “Fitz” in such a situation, external value judgments get really annoying here. They often involve respectability politics and misogyny. If they didn’t, men would face the same level of social disregard and disrespect for affairs as women do. However, they do not. The “other woman” is always the object of shame, not the man who took wedding vows with someone else and broke them.

The privacy that I am speaking of is how the other characters either invade her space with their knowledge, their surveillance or even their knowing yet uncomfortable silencing or condescension around her affair. For example, “Cyrus” knows about the relationship and has made incredibly misogynist remarks to “Olivia” regarding it. In one episode he condescendingly asked whether or not “Fitz” used a condom with her, in reference to the pregnancy of the intern “Amanda” who also had an affair with “Fitz.” In another episode, he condescendingly asked “is your vagina apolitical?” in response to “Olivia” declaring herself apolitical. Anytime “Olivia” backs him into a corner in one of their political face offs, he tends to retreat to misogyny. However, though he is gay, she never retreats to homophobia. This is interesting to me considering they are supposed to be friends.

And the surveillance? Just…wow. “Billy” recorded “Fitz” with “Olivia” in Season 1. “Cyrus” watched “Olivia” with “Fitz.” “Fitz” watched “Olivia” with “Edison” and even had photographs made of their moments together. “Jake” watches “Olivia” because “Fitz” told him to. “Jake” also slept with “Olivia,” and recorded it, which “Charlie” saw because he broke into “Jake’s” home under “Cyrus’” request. In every situation, “Olivia” is more of a sexual object to watch, mate with, or attempt to control despite her having an incredible amount of power. (To be clear, understandably, some women find sexual empowerment in being watched or filmed and even in voyeurism/exhibitionism. But as clearly seen in episode after episode, ANYTIME “Olivia” realizes that she is being watched, she gets ANGRY or scared. “Huck” regularly sweeps her home for bugs.)

It appears that her entire team knows about the affair now, though how and when each person realized what was going on, I am not fully clear on (perhaps that episode where in “Olivia’s” absence, they decided to tell each other the truth about everything they know). “Harrison” seems to always know everything, but respects their relationship and her authority enough not to judge her or question her. His loyalty is fascinating but sometimes his silencing around “Olivia’s” affair with “Fitz” is awkward and says more than if he actually said something. “Huck” knows, because of the entire team, “Olivia” seems ironically emotionally closest to “Huck.” (The Seven Fifty-Two episode revealed this.) In last night’s episode when “David” asked about who “President Grant” is “banging” and the staff all hurriedly walked away, it felt like everyone was in “Olivia’s” space and it felt like some of her power was drained away by that reaction.

Now, certainly “Olivia’s” career and firm involves invading spaces and boundaries, gathering information, breaking codes, rules and laws, taking, removing, changing, altering and plethora of things that teeter on the seesaw of moral relativism. The show is not about “villains” and “heroes” but humans amidst a gradient of grey. Thus, I am not interested in interpreting this as solely “others” invading “Olivia’s” space and nothing else. However, the invasion that seems to occur specifically around the sexual aspect of her relationship with “Fitz” is bothersome. While the general image of a White man and Black woman conjures up images of sexually oppressive politics in general for some (though I think such an interpretation still needs a nuanced view by those who make it), it’s not their sheer existence as an interracial couple that loves deeply, is incredibly problematic and is intensely aggressive and sexual that I am speaking of here. It’s the nature of the policing and invasion of that intimacy by almost every man in her life.

As Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins writes:

Black women’s sexuality has been constructed by law as public property—Black women have no rights of privacy that Whites must observe.

Black women’s sexuality (whether controlled through rape as slaves, gynecological experimentation for centuries, eugenics, through social welfare legislation or through controlling and stereotypical images) has always been constructed as public and without Black women’s control. “Olivia” herself challenges this construction, but the invasion by the men in her life speaks to this construction.

As Black feminist scholar Barbara Omolade writes:

White men used their power in the public sphere to construct a private sphere that would meet their needs and their desire for Black women, which if publicly admitted would have undermined the false construct of race they needed to maintain public power.

The factor of race cannot be ignored here. “Fitz” would not solely lose his power because he cheated, but because “Olivia” is Black and viewed as an “opposite” to “Mellie,” despite them actually being quite similar. In last night’s episode, “Fitz” described “Mellie” as brilliant, focused and logical. The same could be said of “Olivia” who has a similar pedigree despite not having the long history of family money that “Mellie” has, which “Fitz” mentioned in a past episode.

While it is intellectual lazy to simply write “Olivia” off as a ‘Jezebel’ who doesn’t have sexual agency, as many have tried to do, it is important to note that while the men in her life either proclaim loyalty to her (i.e. “Harrison,” “Huck”), lust for her (i.e. “Jake”), platonic love for her (i.e. “Cyrus”) or romantic love for her (i.e. “Fitz”), at times, they seem to operate in invasive ways that reek of male privilege and complicated racial/sexual politics regarding the sexual aspect of the relationship she has with “Fitz.” Even the spoiler for next week reveals “Cyrus” running into the actual bedroom where “Fitz” and “Olivia” just made love and are still in bed, to tell them to get out. Despite “Fitz” being the President of the United States and his boss and “Olivia” being his friend, he still feels that he has the right to do this?

Last night, I did and also did not want “Olivia” to go back to “Fitz.” I felt the conflict that she must have felt, which the incredible writers have conveyed all season long and even in Season 1. It’s clear that their relationship is not solely about sex but a deep and obviously hard to fully break bond of love, friendship, and admiration of each other. At the same time, it’s incredibly turbulent, possessive, and at times, emotionally abusive in both directions. It’s one of the most complicated portraits of love (and I don’t think love, in general, is only the absence of pain) that I have seen on television, and it is clear that despite the invasion and/or domination that the men in her life (including “Fitz” himself) seem to want to have in regards to her relationship with “Fitz” she ultimately has the space to make the choices. She’s willingly playing tug of war. She’s willingly moving away from or closer to him at any time. And no matter how excited or angry it makes viewers feel, she’s exhibiting choice. It’s empowering to me, even when it excites or angers me.

I’m trying to think of an interesting outcome for the season and for the show overall, if that outcome is not “Olivia” with “Fitz.” Will she find joy alone or will a new man that is in no way connected to “Fitz” appear? (Notice that ALL of the men in her life are connected to him or fear his power—the luxury of him being President.) Or, like the complexities of real life often play out, will she end up alone or with him, but never completely happy? (Let’s be real, right now the best relationship on the show is “Cyrus’” and “James’;” I applauded that authentic intimate moment in last night’s episode; a milestone for network television.)

As a fan, I am not certain as to what I want right now for “Olivia.” I am certain that I love that Scandal has me thinking about complex issues on a consistent basis in a way that no other drama does.

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    brilliant piece.
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