What Olivia Pope Taught Me
How many Women of Color characters are in the spotlight today? Answer: Not enough.
Take CW’s Iris West and Bonnie Bennett, ABC’s Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating, and AMC’s Michonne out of the running and which names come to mind? If it takes more than a few seconds to conjure up someone else then the sad reality is, it’s slim pickings. Like vegan, paleo, gluten-free diet-at-a-family-barbecue pickings.
But even the occasional fussy tv snacker (people that watch only a few episodes a season) deserve to look at the screen and fell satiated. How is this accomplished? By having a plethora of diverse Women of Color characters in the audience’s line of vision each week.
There are definitely more Women of Color on TV than the aforementioned bunch but becoming a household fixture like Scandal’s Olivia Pope takes a lot more than live tweeting episodes on Twitter and fantasizing about owning even one fabulous item in her extravagant wardrobe. There are steps to how Ms. Pope became a culture all her own.
1. Visibility. ABC made sure to distinguish her position as lead character from the very first promotional images online and hasn’t stopped reiterating her importance over the years. Every time Olivia appears on screen, we know without a doubt that she is in charge.
2. Script. Olivia’s storylines are always gripping, fast-paced and full of black girl magic. Sometimes sad and heartbreaking, other times gritty and morally grey. Her monologues are powerful and personal which leads the audience to care about her and invest time in watching her story progress.
3. Us. Scandal put Twitter’s live tweet scene on the map but viewers like you & I stressed out our thumbs each week talking about both highs and lows of each episode. We even snapped photos of meals featuring wine and popcorn! We made Scandal a community.
Watching Olivia Pope over these past few years has taught me that it is not only possible for women of color to be herald as a show lead but also that with the cooperation and support of an entire network, it is possible to become infinitely more. Scandal fans have endless amounts of respect for Olivia even when we don’t agree with her decisions. I admit to having meltdowns during episodes where I feel she isn’t being rational in the moment. I’ve even cried long after episodes air because the last image I saw was of a heartbroken Olivia. And the following week I make sure I’m in my seat, staring at my screen to see what new drama unfolds.
Olivia Pope is one of the luckier Women of Color characters.
It seems that commercial networks play hide-and-seek with Women of Color characters. Where phenomenal characters of color, who happen to be women, are hidden away and viewers (like us) who crave representation have to actively seek them out. I repeat, viewers that crave representation have to go on the hunt for characters to relate to. This is not good enough.
Big networks like ABC, FOX, CBS and smaller ones are clearly making strides to be more inclusive with casting Women of Color in principal roles that aren’t recurring guest star positions. And scores more of talented, fresh faces are given the opportunity to bare their acting chops with each new show that airs. As a viewer, I personally appreciate the effort on their behalf to do so, but these numbers are not in context. What is on-screen now is reflexive of a previous generation’s cry for representation back when there was more scarcity in the TV landscape.
Progress is important to acknowledge but the call for more action is still needed.
Why not have more than one Woman of Color featured in full capacity where traditional stereotypes do not apply? Shows of the past like Moesha, Girlfriends, Devious Maids, and One on One have had success doing just that.
Let’s continue to learn from characters like Olivia, make our demands and refuse to be silenced so the next time someone asks how many Women of Color characters are in the spotlight today, we can answer. Just enough.