One of my lovely viewers, Shaquillia Murphy, reached out to me and suggested that I do a piece on the character Olivia Pope from the hit show Scandal and examine if the chacrter reflects the Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire stereotypes examined in Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire and their homegirls: Developing an “oppositional gaze” toward the images of Black women by Carolyn M. West
What the hell is a Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire and what does it have to do with black women?
“Mammy” is a very dark skin, obese, kerchief (head scarf) wearing, nurturing, selfless black woman, and she is physically unattractive. This narrative was created by historians, because in reality “Mammies” during slavery were actually rebellious and of course no one likes to talk about “rebellious” Black folks. Historians depiction of “Mammy” as a black woman coddling the needs of people, most importantly coddling the needs of white people has become an age old story for Black women.
On Scandal, Olivia Pope, is constantly “fixing” situations and in many ways coddling the needs of white people, especially her love interest who happens to be the President of the United States. In episode seven of season one, the President faces a big issue when it gets out that he slept with a White House aide and there is a recording of it. In reality, the recording was of the President and Olivia during one of their many sexual encounters. To save the president’s career Olivia says that she will come out and say it was her in the recording in order to save his career. In the next few scenes the president’s wife tells Olivia that she has to “fix” the situation in a very forceful way.
Olivia is willing to throw her career away in order to “fix” aka help this white man and his presidency. The white wife giving Olivia a duty to “fix” something as it pertains to her life is nothing new. In slavery Mammies were at times given the responsibility of taking care of white women’s children along with their children. Olivia jeopardizing her career is a selfless act as it relates to the selfless characteristic of Mammy, who will put the needs of others infront of her needs.
The “Jezebel” stereotype branded Black women as sexually promiscuous and immortal and of course there is a reason to how this narrative started. If they created this narrative of us being unable to refuse sex it justified slave owners and Ku Klux Klan members raping us. Black women couldn’t be raped; we wanted it. This tool of white supremacy has of course seeped through our Black community where our Black men and Black women, yes women, rape us and nothing is done about. I think we begin to feel like hell maybe I did want this or maybe I did ask for it, or maybe if I wasn’t dressed this way. How about we teach people not to rape instead of what clothes to wear and how to act to avoid rape, but look at me getting off topic. Let’s move back to how our favorite chick Olivia Pope is the “Jezebel” at times on Scandal.
This is a pretty simple one actually… For starters the show revolves around the sexual relationship that Olivia is having with a married man who is the President of the United States. In numerous scenes Olivia is seen slipping off anywhere to have sex with this man right under the same roof as his wife. Hell at one point Olivia is actually living in the White House with the President. Olivia has sex with the President anywhere at anytime. This directly taps into the Jezebel characteristic of Black women always wanting sex.
“Sapphire” was originally a hostile, nagging Black female character on the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio and television show. The “Sapphire” stereotype branded Black women as naggers, hostile, and having very sharp attitudes.
In the final episode of season five, Olivia gets completely hostile with her love interest Jake. After “freeing” Jake from her father, Jake thinks they can leave the politic craziness and have a normal life together. Jake is the running mate for a repiblican President nominee whose campaign Oliver is in charge of. When Jake suggest they live a normal life Olivia says, “I have not gone through what I’ve gone through, worked twice as hard for half as much, only to end up living an unimpressive life!” In this scene Olivia is very hostile and forces Jakes to put his tie on and go on stage with the republican Presidential nominee. This perception of a hostile, “I worked for what I have” black woman is constantly played out in media and in real life. Let’s be real Sistas, how many “I worked for what I have” Sistas do you know? I’m guilty of letting people know that I’ve worked for this and that, and my struggle and selling this narrative of being a “Strong Black Woman”.
Sistas we have to critically examine the images of ourselves on television and not stay silent about the stereotypes we see in these characters. Please believe that I am a Scandal fan, and an even bigger How To Get Away With Murder Fan, (mainly because I love my girl Viola) but when I watch these shows or any other shows with Black women in it, I critically look at these characters. White women have been sleeping with men on television for centuries, but they do not receive the same backlash as black women who play in roles where they sleep around.
As we gear up for the return of Scandal let’s look at our homegirl Olivia Pope deeper than just another Sista on television.