Olivia Pope, Jessica Pearson, and the New Wave of Black Women on Television

When Shonda Rhimes’s political thriller Scandal was set to debut back in the Spring of 2012 I checked it out a little early via the free pilot that was available on iTunes. I was hooked and instantly became one of the many Gladiators who would schedule their business around Scandal Thursdays (It was my catharsis from all that college work). Though people quickly tried to say that Kerry Washington as the lead character Olivia Pope represented television advancing to a point where race did not matter, I was specifically drawn to the show because it had a black female lead. Growing up black in America you immediately gravitated to the black characters you saw in television shows not only because they looked like you but because they are few and far between. Now let me make this clear, Olivia Pope did not bring black people to television, black people have been on television for as long as it existed starting in derogatory racist roles but progressing to roles that showed them as people. Olivia Pope is important because she has opened the gates to a new wave of back female characters on television (Yes Hollywood black people still watch actual scripted dramas and sitcoms and not just those trashy reality shows you know the ones). However, one of the biggest criticisms of Olivia Pope is how she represents blackness, which is totally fair. Olivia is great at what she does but her personal life is a disaster made worst with what in my opinion is some form of abusive relationship with Fitz. I do think their relationship is a “little Sally Hemmings Thomas Jefferson” (BTW this was a great way for the writers to bring up the racial dynamic that many black audience members most certainly thought about from season 1) and poor Edison, Liv’s only black love interest, didn’t even stand a chance as a viable alternative to the “devastating” love that Liv so desperately craved. Then there are the conversations about Olivia being a repackaged Jezebel stereotype, with her being the other woman to a married Fitz which again to an extent I understand and agree. Nonetheless, I also understand the arguments that Liv is making these choices herself and taking ownership of her body in a way her female ancestors wouldn’t have been able to do during slavery. What I am trying to say is that though Olivia Pope is sexy, smart, emotional, and flawed that is what makes her human and important as a black character. I may suspend my personal beliefs to watch what mess Olivia gets in (honestly I’m there for Papa Pope now) but I can understand why she is important and why it is great that she is not a standard Strong Black Woman (This article is great but it has its problems which I will note in a bit).

So why am I talking about Scandal especially since it came out three years ago? Well Kerry Washington’s portrayal of Olivia Pope earned her two Emmy nominations in 2013 and 2014 and we started to see other major networks clamor to get their own version of a black female lead. NBC’s short lived mystery drama Deception starring Meagan Good was one of the first of these shows to emerge after the social media frenzy that Washington and her co-stars cause on Thursday nights with Scandal. In my opinion, the show was great but being that it came right after Scandal it faced a lot of the criticisms that it wasn’t comparable, which is true since both Joanna Locasto and Olivia Pope are completely different characters with their own unique sets of problems that in an ideal world would not be compared to each other. Even in the triumph of having these two prime time shows released so closely to one another , we see how many people still subscribed to a monolithic black narrative which gave Good and the rest of the cast a steep hill to climb. Deception was in Scandal‘s shadow because of their similar set up but it was a necessary stepping stone in the emergence of this new wave of black characters as it showed that Olivia wasn’t a fluke.

Now it is debatable if this wave really started with Scandal as shows like HBO’s The Wire (which I will start watching to see what all the fuss is about) portrayed very nuanced and complicated characters but that show was released in 2002 and ended in 2008 which though significant considering it was the year  then Senator Barack Obama would be elected as the first African American President of the USA, it did not come after his election when mainstream media and conservative pundits started to push the whole lie of post-racialism in America despite the obvious signs that racial inequality was still rampant. Olivia crossed our screen during a similar time when President Barack Obama was up for reelection so in a way her symbolism was very important even if race was never mentioned until the second season. But she was only able to do so because of the numerous black women on tumblr_m8483ch21F1qcqq0yTV who had been chipping off the glass that made the glass ceiling (Shonda Rhimes reference).Yet there is a TV black woman who is often overlooked in the post-Olivia era who emerged  right before Scandal premiered in the person of Gina Torres’s Jessica Pearson in USA’s Suits. Now Jessica isn’t the main character per se of the show but she dominates every time she appears (Gina Torres brought her amazing acting chops as Bella in Hannibal as well alongside her husband Laurence Fishburne, that slap still gives me chills). As the Buzzfeed article I linked earlier argues Jessica is a Strong Black Woman who basically embodies the “I don’t need a man” stereotypical attitude that the author says does a disservice for representing black women in positions of power. Jessica is cold and calculating, winning by using her lack of emotion. But is that a bad thing? Just as how we need an Olivia who is sexually liberated (or naive depending on how you view her relationship with Fitz) we need a black woman who is the representation of a career woman who has made all the sacrifices for her success. Jessica was married but divorced and once mentioned how there all a lack black women like her who helm a major corporate law firm thus providing a commentary on the reality that driven black women face when they don’t havetumblr_m8wtie4LcR1qcww64o1_500 the luxury to stand in the sun or think about Vermont (Liv get your life please). Jessica is always ten steps ahead of the game even when she appears to be losing to her nefarious white male adversaries. Jessica Pearson is a part of this generation of complicated black TV women alongside Olivia Pope and quite personally though Jessica is terrifying in all her beauty, power, and grace, I kinda like her better than Olivia for her no nonsense attitude (Viola Davis’s Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder is a happy medium between Olivia and Jessica). Plus she started some sort of relationship with D.B. Woodside’s Jeff Malone and the woman dresses like she has designers calling her to wear their designs as if she was a celebrity, so she isn’t simply an asexual repackaged brilliant mammy (oxymoron I know).

Now I wrote this post because of the premiere of FOX’s Empire last night which I loved not just because it is more screen time for black people but because in my love of black women Cookie deserves to be added to this list. Empire is great and I strongly suggested people who like the soapy prime time dramas to watch it (the only major problem is that this show conflicts with black-ish which is a good problem to have because that means we are having more  shows


covering the diversity in the black experience taking up the coveted nightly slots on major networks). I will not review the show, you can read that here. But Cookie is complicated. Not only was she locked up for drugs for 17 years, an astute business woman who helped build her ex-husband Lucious into the man that runs Empire Entertainment, but she is not politically correct and does not care who is offended. She isn’t as clean as Jessica but so far she isn’t as messy as Olivia (Although I think she was only released from prison as a part of a plea deal to gather information about shady dealings at Empire Entertainment. Why else would she be talking to that white woman in a car saying “You gonna get me killed” in the preview for the rest of the season?). Cookie has inherited the new era that Jessica and Olivia have started. She not only has the style to show for it but she has the personality that makes audiences love these women despite their imperfections.

Chuck Hodes/Fox
Chuck Hodes/Fox

That is why I was all for Taraji’s response on 50 Cent’s criticism of the show that it was ripping off his Power on Starz (which is also a great show that complicates the narratives of black stories). We have enough room for both shows plus they aren’t the same thing just like how Scandal and Deception are not the same thing, (we don’t compare shows that have white leads as being rip-offs this much, so let’s try not to think all shows with black people as leads are the same).

This post is getting long so I’ll end it here by saying this new wave is great and amazing and complicated and dangerous even but it is necessary to tell these stories. At a time when black women are fearful that their sons will be killed and people are protesting around the world saying #BlackLivesMatter, these black women and the shows they are on are important. Though the media can create derogatory stereotypes about blackness and black women that still reappear in the media and sometimes in these shows, these characters along with the likes of Nicole Beharie as Lt. Abbie Mills in Sleepy Hollow, Gabrielle Union as Mary Jane Paul on Being Mary Jane, Halle Berry as Molly Woods in Extant, Jada Pinkett-Smith as Fish Mooney in Gotham (a role written for her), Octavia Spencer as Nurse Jackson in Red Band SocietyAnnalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder (Winner of last night’s People’s Choice Award for best Actress in a new series), and the characters in shows with black male leads such as Omari Hardwick in Power,and the black family in black-ish are vital for the movement. We need these complicated stories to be broadcasted into the households of individuals who may not live near black people because hopefully they will see the humanity that black people are so often denied and understand why we protest so much about racial inequalities.

Something to make you laugh if you’ve seen Empire last night you’ll get it.1907928_1016350441714334_1138293018850200788_n

Last one I promise!


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5 thoughts on “Olivia Pope, Jessica Pearson, and the New Wave of Black Women on Television

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