'Scandal' speaks back to black female critics in season 3, episode 1

OPINION - Olivia Pope's story challenges those who doubt black women's desirability -- and seek to make them conform to patriarchal expectations...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Yes, Scandal is back for season three. But, unlike the legions of black women who flooded my social timelines with virtual shrines commemorating the return of Olivia Pope last week, I had no intention of watching episode one when it aired Thursday on ABC.

I know what I’m about to say is going to spit in the face of those who felt that the show and Kerry Washington were robbed at the Emmys, but I was quite finished caring about Pope and all her “gladiator” antics halfway through the last season.

What used to have some semblance of a relationship to the inner workings of Washington, D.C. has totally dropped its façade and turned into The Bold and the Beautiful — a daytime soap, but at night, complete with melodramatic dialogue and cheesy music.

Folks down on Scandal and Pope — for wrong reasons

As a matter of personal taste, these sort of shenanigans about “who is sleeping with who” are not what I look for in political dramas. But on Thursday, I had a sudden change of heart, mostly spurred by the legions of other folks who don’t fancy themselves fans of the show, but for much different reasons. These folks, who also flooded my various social timelines, dislike the series out of a fear that Olivia Pope, a fictional character on ABC, has led real black women astray.

How so? Well, she is a black woman having sex. Not only is this black woman having sex, but she is doing it with a married man. And not just any married man, but a married white man to boot. She is putting all sorts of ideas into our minds about sex, and more sex – did I mention with a white man?

It’s the kind of story that challenges those who doubt black women’s desirability — and even makes some black men jealous — which is why I decided to give the series just one more shot.

I’m glad I did. I might have missed what is likely Shonda Rhimes‘ personal, poignant message to those with reservations about Pope’s character.

Pope: Confronted, judged, infantalized

When we meet up with Pope, she is in the backseat of her Daddy Pope’s limo. The news is out. The world knows the most powerful problem-solver in D.C. has been engaged in some diplomatic relations of her own with the president. Daddy is here to fix it.

Pope jumps out of the limo and screams, “No!” But Daddy Pope is relentless. With the same intonations we have heard from Olivia over the seasons, her father delivers Pope one of the richest slut shamings ever witnessed on television.

In the time-honored tradition of many well-meaning, but often ill-advised, fathers, mothers and Iyanla Vanzant, aiming to guilt black girls and even women into chastity, we see Daddy Pope call her stupid and say, “[you] opened your knees and gave it to a man with too much power.”

He reminds her that she is both black and woman, thus has to be “twice as good for half as much.” He chastises her for aiming too low, as if her sex and love life are chess moves as opposed to expressions of the basic human need for love and physical intimacy.

He chides that she, “could have been Secretary of State… or even a first lady.” He puts special emphasizes on first lady, because every respectable woman’s goal in life is to be a wife.

For six whole minutes we watch the most powerful fixer in D.C. get the tongue lashing of a wayward child. Coincidentally, these sentiments mimic criticisms of Pope’s character.

Daddy tries to make Pope “disappear”

Just like a disobedient girl showing up on her pastor father’s steps pregnant and unmarried, Daddy Pope tells — no, demands — that she disappear for a while.

She’ll go away for eight months and then Daddy will arrange for her to start a new life — elsewhere. This is not debatable. More importantly, it is being done for her own good.

For a second, Pope concedes. She gets on the plane to nowhere. Perhaps Daddy Pope is right? Mulling over her decision, she decides to make a call to her friend Cyrus, who tells her not to run. Filled with a renewed sense of courage, Pope storms off the plane, past her father. With head held high, she triumphantly tells… no, demands, respect for her personal choices.

“What is happening is that I am taking care of this myself,” Pope asserts. “Take me to my office…”

Will Pope’s power play last?

As this is only the first episode of season one, it is hard to say how all of this will pan out for the white pant suit-wearing maverick.

I’m thinking she should have taken the free plane ride out of town. But, what is clear is that Pope is not going to let folks shame her, then chase her into obscurity. Not overbearing Daddy Pope with his obvious boundary issues. Not Cyrus, who later in the episode, contemplates railroading her with the “ambitious slut card.” And definitely not those folks who like to finger wag at black women viewers for watching (and more threateningly, enjoying) a show about a black woman who does not to conform to the patriarchal expectations of what a “respectable” black woman is suppose to be.

Nope. Olivia Pope is going to go back to her own life, and will continue to make her own decisions, good or bad. If she can be responsible for fixing everybody else’s life, certainly she knows how to fix and direct her own.

Her life may not be perfect, but she is woman enough to claim it as 100 percent hers. For that reason, I will be watching Scandal on ABC again this season. Hopefully Pope’s haters will come to see her narrative as unusual, but empowering.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

This essay has been updated.