My president is black. Finally. We’ve had to wait a long time for that, and I’m willing to wager that, when he leaves office, we’ll be waiting a long time again. So it’s interesting to note that, though Hollywood was the first to publicly present depictions of black U.S. presidents, the only current network show featuring our commander-in-chief has cast him as white. We know that Scandal’sOlivia Pope is based on a “fixer” from the Bush administration, but the show itself is set in 2012. And here we are back to a white republican holding the highest office in the land.

This would be a little unsettling on its own. (If Hollywood’s hypothetical black presidents were presented as a bit of revisionist history or a concessionary nod to a hope for where the country was headed, is Scandal’s white president indicative of a similar hope?) But it’s all the more distracting, given the show’s focus on Olivia’s ongoing love affair with said president.

As soapy and sensationalistic as this show is, it’s hard for me to entirely lose myself in it. I’m too distracted by this idea that, for all her gutsy unflappable-ness, and for all her intimidating, unflinching command in the face of an employee or opponent, the married president happens to be her weakness. Even if it weren’t too convenient a plot point, revealed far too early on, it’d still stick in my craw. One of the reasons why is that I can’t seem to view this show through an un-racialized lens.

This show is giving me too many shades of Sally Hemings. I can’t.

It was especially difficult for me to turn off my Mammy-Jezebel-Sapphire-detector during last night’s episode, as Olivia’s and Fitz’s back story developed. This intense need the story-line has to convince us that these two are star-crossed and that their coupling is Something Real reminds me of master-slave-relationship apologists who either believe that the slave is in a position to“seduce” the master or that their relationship can be rooted in healthy love.

Of course times have changed, and Olivia’s no slave. But in choosing to pursue a dominant-submissive relationship with someone who is, as the script keeps forcing him to remind us, the Leader of the Free World, it’s hard not to connect her to the earliest, collective history U.S. black women share.

If I’m arguing that these complex and uncomfortable connections are being made simply because the show chose to cast a white man as president, I have to ask if Olivia and Fitz’s relationship would still be as uncomfortable if he were, like our actual sitting leader, black. It would still read as immoral, to be sure; no matter how doggedly this show wants us to believe the First Lady is gross and unconscionable, she’s still the president’s wife and Olivia’s still his side chick. And the idea of a cheating black president would come with its own discomfort, given how much we’d associate him with Obama and how much our community seems to revere the Barack-Michelle love story.

Maybe the show chose the lesser of two color-casting evils, so to speak.

What do you think?

  • entro

    I also believe you are off in comparing sally hemmings to Olivia Pope. Sally hemmings was a child and most likely raped by jefferson and she was a slave, she had no control or say in the situation. Olivia Pope is an adult, intelligent and can choose who she has a relationship with. The only similarity is that both women are black

  • Bee

    Thank you for this post! I would be uncomfortable with it even if the president was black (oh, looky look, another black woman that the media has implicitly turned in a “whore” because lets be honest, that’s the patriarchal assumption many would make), but the president’s whiteness makes it even more racialized. It emphasizes the submissive-dominant element of their relationship (and I’m just never going to understand why some folks feel that relationships must have that dichotomy), especially as he kept giving her commands throughout the episode: “go into you room,” “take off your clothes,” “don’t ever call yourself a mistress!” etc. (There were a couple of other commands, but I forget.) I just wasn’t feeling this relationship at all, and I’ve dated white guys and probably will continue to, so I have no problem with interracial coupling. But there’s just some things off about this portrayal, as you noted. And, no, I don’t think the president character has genuine love for her. I think he is a narcissist, like many men in such positions, who saw something he wanted that he shouldn’t have and had to have it. He’s in a loveless boring relationship with his white wife, and found excitement with Olivia. That’s all. I don’t buy the “love” here at all, at least not from the president. I think Olivia certainly loves him, however.

    Also, you stated, “the only current network show featuring our commander-in-chief has cast him as white.” To that, I reply, “And that show was created by Shonda Rhimes, a black woman. Let that simmer for a minute.”

  • Jess

    Well then perhaps I’m a bit more evolved, because I don’t see the relationship through a “racialized lens”. I simply see an unhappily married man who finds himself drawn to a beautiful, intelligent, dynamic woman. Though any potential relationship is stymied not by the fact that he is married w/ kids but by the fact that he is in a precarious position of power.

    Oh and he just so happens to be White, huh so I guess she happens to be Black then, yup… But it’s not the first thing that I see nor is it even the third. This show started off slow and boring for me, it was not until they began further exploring the relationship between Olivia and the President that it became interesting. Also, comparing Olivia to Sally Hemings in any regard is in my opinion woefully off-base. Slaves by definition had no voice, no power and no autonomy. No OPTIONS. Ms.Pope has free will, and this is the man that she chooses to love. His skin happens to be White.

  • CurlySue

    This isn’t directly related to the theme of this article, but I was reading about Sally. I didnt know this but she was 3/4 white (her mother was half and her father was white) and her 7/8 white children entered white society when they were freed by Jefferson. I never knew she was bi-racial to that degree. It boggles the mind that her children were slaves until they were of age but likely looked as white as I do. The one-drop rule was and is so destructive.

  • Toppin (Formerly Known As Just Sayin’)

    “One of the reasons why is that I can’t seem to view this show through an un-racialized lens.”

    Sounds like a personal problem.

    Almost all U.S. presidents are WHITE. It makes more sense to make the president white than black…despite Obama being in office.

    The author appears to have a problem with black women sleeping with “powerful” white men period.

    Had she made the argument against Kerry’s character being the mistress I would have agreed, but the fact is her comments appear to center around the fictional president’s race….not his status as a married man.

    Why doesn’t the racialized lens only come out when beautiful black women are portrayed with white men?

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