‘Scandal,’ Olivia Pope, and Elevating Black Women Characters
by Danielle Eliska Lyle
“It’s a Man’s World… But it would be nothing without a Woman or a Girl.”
Don’t blame us. James Brown said it first. And while his theory can be proven in all aspects of life, it is reaching one of the most influential industries in the world—an industry that has been dominated by white males for centuries—Hollywood.
The face of the moving image is changing and it is more than gender, alone. It’s race.
Black women are making strides behind the scenes as writers, creators, directors and producers and on camera as actors—giving the industry a facelift. Protagonists are now wearing pencil skirts, waterproof mascara with slanted, almond-shaped eyes, 3-inch stilettos and fierce character depth. I love seeing female protagonists in film. I write them in my scripts. Most of the television series I tune in to watch have female protagonists. Let’s face it—they are a power to be reckoned with.
When I heard through the grapevine that Shonda Rhimes created yet another one-hour drama series, I already knew I was tuning in. I’ve been a fan of Rhimes since Grey’s Anatomy
. I’ll admit it; before I ever saw an episode of Grey’s Anatomy
, I had my own personal wedding ceremony to the television show because Rhimes was Black—and woman. And the lead was female. And I don’t apologize for it.
Rhimes because before she came on the scene, Black women television creators were like centaurs. Her success paved the way for those of us coming up behind her, and we no longer have to be afraid to strut into conference rooms of big television corporations and pitch our ideas with women in the lead roles.
When I learned the leading role for Scandal
was a Black woman, I almost had a full-on cry fest. Our Black female roles are stretching beyond the barriers of the “scratching and surviving” mothers, superficial girlfriends, sassy next-door neighbors and mammy replicas. Black women are now depicted in scripts as educated and successful without the assigned role of the emasculator; fierce and sensual without being a materialistic whore.
For much too long, we’ve been handed scripts to play characters that are demeaning, exhausting, stereotypical, unattractive and unfeminine.
Claire Huxtable set the tone as the positive Black woman of sitcom, but it’s been more than 30 years since we’ve seen a Black female protagonist in one-hour drama television. And now that she’s arrived—standing on the shoulders of Get Christie Love
—she has captured the hearts of many who tune in every Thursday evening to watch Olivia Pope do her thing.
After the Scandal
pilot aired, I entered our mock television writers’ room and one of my colleagues asked, “What do you think about Scandal
I responded, “Black. Female. Protagonist.”
For me, right now—that is enough. We do not have to get into the logistics of the show. It’s just getting started and I believe it has obese staying power. I am elated that Olivia Pope (Scandal
) represents someone who is not “tragically female.”
When I sit and think about Black women in film and television, there are too many to name who paved the way for us as writers, directors, producers and actors. I dare say if Hattie McDaniel had not played the role of Mammy in Gone With The Wind
, we may still be playing background. Although we still struggle with roles that cause me great heartache, we have come a long way.
We live in a world where what young girls see, they become. The entertainment industry has a stronghold on what the Black woman should look like. It is devastating to walk pass newsstands and witness the debauchery of modern-day auction blocks on the cover of magazines. Young girls emulate Nicki Minaj and Amber Rose and haven’t a clue as to who Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne are.
It is our responsibility as artists to continue elevating the image of the woman in film, television, theatre and music. Rhimes is one of the many women a part of our artistic community who is seriously changing the game. Grey’s Anatomy
, Private Practice
all got picked up for next season. With that said, I have three words for you: Go, Shonda Rhimes.
Today, I celebrate Rhimes for adding yet another positive image of the Black woman to the collection.
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