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Friday, May 17, 2013

The Swirl: What "Scandal" and Olivia Pope Say About Black Women and Interracial Relationships

This week, the cast of ABC's top-rated political drama, "Scandal", was on an all-out media blitz for the series' season finale. During one of the stops, to Bravo's Watch What Happens, actor Tony Goldwyn, who plays the role of hunky President "Fitz", was asked by host Andy Cohen what it's like to be lusted after by millions of middle-aged black women, to which Goldwyn responded with that easy Fitzian grin, "Exhausting."  In fact, over the course of numerous interviews about "Scandal", Goldwyn, as well as series lead Kerry Washington who stars as Washington "fixer" Olivia Pope, have all remarked about their surprise at the explosive reception of this show by television audiences. Black women, in particular, are drawn to the show, and have a particular kinship with Ms. Pope, who is a fearless, intelligent, articulate strong black woman who gets to also show her passion and her vulnerability. In a sea of neck-rolling, eye-rolling, weave-heavy reality TV "stars", the fact that Olivia Pope isn't the typical black woman we get to see on TV makes her even more special.

But even more curious to us black women is the smoldering and forbidden love relationship between Ms. Pope and President Fitz. That it's 2013 and the only consistent black/white romantic story lines we see on American TV are "The Jeffersons" reruns, and the newly-canceled ABC sitcom, "Happy Endings" might have something to do with it. Yet, I think there's something more to our fascination with black/white interracial romance in general, also dubbed, "the swirl", and Olivia Pope and Fitz in particular. One of the fiercest battles that black women have faced has been around standards of beauty. Does my kinky hair make me pretty or ugly?  Am I less desirable because of my darker skin or my thicker lips? To bring the analogy to the music world - am I a Beyonce or a Kelly Rowland? Enter Olivia Pope - rocking her fierce press and curl, brown skin and plush lips. And there, admiring her, loving her, is Fitz - a handsome white man who happens to be the President of the United States. Not since Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker in the 2006 motion picture, "Something New", have we seen anything approaching a relationship like this between a black woman and a white man on film and TV.

In the annals of black/white interracial relationships, high profile black men and white women couplings have become almost the norm in professional sports, drawing knowing, frustrated sighs from black women. But when a white man chooses to date, and even marry, a black woman, then attention must be paid. Think about it this way: this man could have dated and married a white woman, whose attributes are seen as the standard for beauty in western civilization, but he chose a "sister"!!?? When it was revealed that Brad Pitt had once dated Robin Givhan, you would've thought that it was VE Day 1945 for black women. Here was a legitimate Hollywood heartthrob who had dated a black woman, had taken her out in public. Actor Robert De Niro - a certified A-lister - is the patron saint of black women with his gorgeous black wife, Grace Hightower, by his side. These relationships provide validation, but validation of what?

At the core of everyone is the need to feel loved for who you are. In the fictional President Fitz, we see a white man who loves a black woman for all of who she is, and not despite those things. Who loves this black woman more than he loves his white wife. And even though the crossing of this great racial chasm is rarely voiced by the characters on "Scandal", it permeates how the audience receives the show, and how a particular segment of the show see themselves in Olivia Pope's shoes.

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