I love the television show Scandal: Kerry Washington in a starring vehicle and Shonda Rhimes behind the scenes. It’s a Negro girl’s dream. I never watched Rhimes’s other shows, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and the short-lived Off the Map. Mostly because of medical show burnout, but now when I watch Scandal, I get the appeal those other shows must have. It’s decadent, a dessert and you can’t help digging in again and again. I’ve had conversations with black women from their twenties to their seventies who all love Scandal. And then, I’ve also had friends, who are both entranced with and troubled by the character Kerry Washington plays, Olivia Pope. A recent episode was entitled, A Criminal, A Whore, An Idiot, and A Liar. All ended up being features of Olivia Pope. She loves the wrong man, doesn’t marry the one who’s right for her, breaks the law, breaks her friend’s heart, kidnaps, double deals, and would do most all of it again, any time it was needed.
A new ad for the show has Kerry Washington in just her underwear with scenes of the show projected onto her body. At the end the announcer says, “When you’re having an affair with the president, every inch of you is a scandal.” Not a bad tagline and as beautiful as Kerry Washington is not a bad visual either. But the second part of that line, that every inch of her body is a scandal, was too fraught to not stick in my mind for a few days after the first time I saw the ad. Because although Olivia Pope is in many ways delightfully complex, she is also a symbol. Shonda Rhimes has been clear that the character isn’t a role model and so the character’s choices are not meant to be applauded or to uplift the race. Black art often gets weighed down with those expectations. I had a conversation with a friend once as we imagined how sweet it would be to not be saddled with race sometimes, to live with the audacity of a white man, when your body is labeled as nothing but your own, not one that anyone else can own or bargain with, never needing your consent to label your body as someone else sees fit. Little black girls can be cunts and women on the stage at the Superbowl singing and dancing their hearts out can be no more than black hoes (what one white man in my Superbowl watching group jokingly called Beyonce and her dancers). Because that Scandal ad is right: every inch of the black body is a scandal.
But, the black body isn’t just a sexual scandal like Olivia Pope’s might be considered, it’s also a scandal as in a violation, something of which to be ashamed. On The Walking Dead, the black female character of Michonne is that kind of scandal. She has mutilated one of the white male characters, a man called The Governor (think Southern, racist, turn-the-dogs-and-the-firehoses-on-people-kind-of-governor) and in order to save themselves the group the viewer is meant to root for, the group with which Michonne has stayed, fought, and now even helped save, might offer her up to The Governor. On tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead, we’ll discover whether or not the group actually gives up Michonne in order to save themselves. It seems an understandable choice, right? Michonne has committed an act of violence and really, shouldn’t everything possible be done to save themselves? But perhaps more importantly, it would rid their group of the one who is markedly different, darker with coarse hair and wider nostrils. Michonne is a scandal and Olivia Pope is one too because they are othered, from (nappy) head to (brown) toe. Black bodies looked at as violations made slavery an easier enterprise. And Jim Crow. And housing discrimination. And letting forty years go by between a black woman as a lead in a network drama. Those who we malign can ever after be easily oppressed.
Every inch of the black body is a scandal.
But, I’ll wonder when I see that Scandal ad again, when will that only be the tagline for a television show and not a sentiment that people believe?