Last Sunday, to hype up tonight’s season finale of Scandal the New York Times did a “day in the life” piece about show runner Shonda Rhimes entitled “Network TV is Broken so How does Shonda Rhimes Keep Making Hits?” The piece is pretty illuminating, (especially if you read between the lines) but as the Racialicious blog pointed out, the most interesting part of the story was Rhimes comments on race in regards to her hit show:
When people who aren’t of color create a show and they have one character of color on their show, that character spends all their time talking about the world as ‘I’m a black man blah, blah, blah,’ ” she says. “That’s not how the world works. I’m a black woman every day, and I’m not confused about that. I’m not worried about that. I don’t need to have a discussion with you about how I feel as a black woman, because I don’t feel disempowered as a black woman.”
And later in reference to the famous “Sally Hemmings” moment on Scandal between Olivia and Fitz.
I don’t think that we have to have a discussion about race when you’re watching a black woman who is having an affair with the white president of the United States,” she explains. “The discussion is right in front of your face.”
Initially I was taken aback by indifference bordering on resistance in Rhimes’ comments. So the idea of fully fleshing out characters of color has to come from a place of “disempowerment”? Olivia Pope is a “black woman”, and the show’s lead, why wouldn’t all aspects of her life be worth exploring? I decided to forward the story on to my unofficial “Black Women’s War Council” three good friends of mine who help me out from time to time with my columns (They also happen to be much bigger Scandal fans than I am.) The following are highlights from our afternoon email exchanges about the Rhimes article and Scandal in general. (Names Changed to protect the guilty.)
My main problem with Scandal and many of Shonda’s other shows is that the black characters are always underdeveloped. Nobody is saying you necessarily have to discuss race explicitly. But if we knew the back story of the characters -in the case of Scandal the MAIN character – we would have a better understanding of her black experience (which varies for ALL black people)….. We don’t even know if Olivia Pope got a mama, daddy, sister, brother. Yet we know ALL about Fitz and why he is manipulative and hella insecure (Daddy issues). There is no rhyme or reason for why Olivia does what she does other than she is dickmatized by a “Biff” who just happens to be president.
(Tanya : Single, 34, working as a Capitol Hill Staffer for the last 10 years)
All and I mean, ALL of the hetero relationships on her show were like this, where the men were supposed be great or brilliant or geniuses or tragic heroes so we were supposed to forgive that they were also neglectful, douchey, cheaters, manipulative, shady, violent or controlling. It always feels like Shonda is like the chick who wrote Twilight — someone who has never been in a relationship who is just imagining what it’s like.
(Carla: Divorced, 35, political journalist and writer)
For me, Shonda writes ways that are unintelligible. Entertaining but unintelligible. She seems to have no sense of the rhythms of relationships even the dysfunctional ones. Plus she doesn’t even really address one of the central issues: Why it’s so much more awful for a white Republican president to have a BLACK mistress.
(Dana: Single, 35, African – American studies professor)
We all talked over email for the better part of the work afternoon, and it struck me how, even for many black fans of Scandal there are some problems when it comes to reconciling some of the race and gender issues with the show even though they want to support Kerry Washington and Rhimes’ efforts. Is Rhimes not aware of these conversations that happen between black men and women on message boards and twitter? Does it simply not matter to her? Scandal counts some of the brightest African American thought leaders as fans, Melissa Harris-Perry, Marc Lamont Hill and Roland Martin (not to mention Michelle Obama) just to name a few, so it’s hard to believe that my friends are the only ones who wrestle with the racial undercurrents of a manipulative and powerful married white man carrying on an affair with a supposedly strong black woman. So are Shonda Rhimes milquetoast views on race and Scandal because she doesn’t know the show’s problems, or doesn’t care; or it is something else? I suspect it’s “something else”.
Let’s be real, how honest can Shonda Rhimes be about race, in an interview with the New York Times let alone with Olivia Pope on Scandal? She knows the score, she knows what network executives will and will not allow on air, let alone what white viewers will accept and pointing those realities out won’t change things. Consider her experiences with her first hit Grey’s Anatomy. According to Hollywood legend, Isaiah Washington was initially supposed to play the Derek “McDreamy” Shepard character (Which is one of the reasons why she cast Ellen Pompeo, a white woman with a black fiancé / husband in real life to play love interest Meredith Grey). But the network execs were not trying to have a prime time show about a handsome black doctor sexing up his blonde white resident, (all while his mother disapproved of the relationship). So this was kiboshed and Patrick Dempsey was moved into the role. Rhimes could never tell that true story in an interview. That is real race talk, dangerous race talk. The kind that makes reporters uncomfortable; the kind that most black people in Hollywood, no matter how powerful, could never tell in public. So do I find it disappointing that Shonda Rhimes writes a show about a black woman that assiduously avoids any discussion of her blackness? Definitely. But it doesn’t surprise me. My friend Dana the professor put it best:
Can’t knock her hustle – she’s clearly tapped into a kind of cultural zeitgeist and for that, like Tyler Perry, you have to respect it. But her interracial fantasies of grandeur are troubling.
So keep tapping into that zeitgeist Shonda, and keep making hits. Even if that means you’ll never tell the whole story.
DR. JASON JOHNSON, Politic365 Chief Political Correspondent, is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell. You can read more at www.drjasonjohnson.com or follow him on Twitter @Drjasonjohnson.