Scandal and respectability politics: Olivia Pope is not setting her race or gender back by having an affair

Popular reactions to Olivia Pope’s extramarital affair with white president Fitzgerald Grant reveal the (internal and external) racism of respectability politics and a sentiment of entitlement and control towards women of color’s sexuality.

Everyone watches Scandal these days. But apparently, the controversial relationship that Olivia Pope has with the President has people “feeling some type of way“, especially some of the men of color (and women invested in male dominant ideologies) in my social media circles. They are trying to interpret a complicated relationship through more than one interesting lens. What are they saying? Well let’s just say I’ve seen this image pop up on my timeline.

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Some folks are suggesting that black women hold a double standard when it comes to interracial dating.

And then last night, I had the misfortune of coming across this piece.  I want go into details about this sub par analysis of Pope and Fitz’s relationship (it involves the writer equating Olivia Pope with Sarah “Sally” Hemings, a slave that was most likely raped by Thomas Jefferson). But a couple of things were mentioned in this piece that were particularly telling. The first is this:

Olivia Pope is the president’s whore and that completely turns me off from liking the show.”

Pope’s character is a lot of things. A whore is not one of them. It’s made clear that Fitz and First Lady Mel, are in a marriage that was arranged by their parents and that they’ve learned to tolerate each other. And it’s even more obvious that Olivia and Fitz love each other very much. But folks can’t acknowledge that because if your relationship isn’t acknowledged within parameters that are deemed “socially acceptable” the very real feelings that you all have for each other don’t matter. It’s also a testament to our Western tendency to pledge allegiance to marriage – even if it’s abusive, loveless, inauthentic, forced, etc. Those politics of respectability remain all over us. Especially when we’re talking about a black woman from a prestigious background, with a successful career and financial independence: she should have known better, right?

“What’s even funnier/slightly disturbing is Black women’s recent infatuation with this character. Like Olivia Pope is some[one] to admire. She’s fucking a married man that’s her boss. ”

The subtext in this statement brings us to the real message: No matter how much success you’ve achieved, if your sexuality does not fall within the parameters of respectability politics (that conveniently apply primarily to women) you should not be allowed to have a voice and you don’t deserve respect.

Obviously many women, myself included, have politely said “fuck you” to said politics and that is the real threat to this male dominated ideology. The writer is conveying a fear that women will actually feel autonomous enough to define their relationships outside of the boundaries of what is respectable. To which I say, you should be afraid. Be very afraid.
Avatar Image Sesali is a black girl who writes and loves outside the box. 

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One Comment

  1. Posted October 17, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    I am a little at a loss here: i do not watch the series.

    However, i am a little perturbed.

    One, it is only a story. And two, who says that an actress is a representative for her sex and her racial group?

    Did she volunteer for those roles? As far as i can tell, no.

    So what is being said is that someone who shares a characteristic with others is deemed to represent the group as a whole: you have red hair, and therefore you should not do anything that other people with red hair might disapprove of.

    Isn’t that a little silly? And pretty outrageous? Scandalous?

    Does anyone hold white males to such standards?

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