‘Scandal’: Olivia Pope, Sally Hemings, and the Dangers of Race Neutrality

I’ve been enjoying Scandal, ABC’s Washington drama from Shonda Rhimes about a crisis manager named Olivia Pope (a nicely steely Kerry Washington) modeled on Judy Smith, who worked with figures like Monica Lewinsky and Gary Condit. Scandal is a deeply silly show without much to say about the way that Washington actually works, though its politics are in the right place. In its second episode, Olivia protected DC’s finest madam, a nice bit of pop culture rehabilitation for Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the actual DC madam who committed suicide before she could begin serving a prison sentence. And last night, Olivia convinced a powerful woman to turn in her son on a rape charge rather than continuing to protect him. But the most Washington thing about the show—though not in a contemporary sense—might actually be Olivia Pope’s romantic relationship with the President of the United States himself.

Willa Paskin’s written about how that relationship fits into Rhimes’ larger pattern of telling stories from the perspective of mistresses. And while Scandal may fit Rhimes’ ouvre, it’s also haunted by a pair of historical ghosts: President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a slave who came into Jefferson’s possession through his wife. Now, I’m not saying they’re the same thing. Olivia is obviously a free woman. She didn’t start her relationship with the president as a young teenager. And she isn’t continuing her relationship with him in part as a way to guarantee that her children will be freed later.

But there is still a power imbalance between them: Olivia seems unable to resist him or break away from him entirely, he views his relationship with her as kind of a reward for his goodness in other areas (an awfully Clintonian justification for sexual misconduct), and as it turns out, his wife condones the relationship at least to a limited extent. When the president gets insomnia, she makes sure Olivia will show up at a state dinner so he can get his fix, and go back to the work of running the country. I tend to appreciate Shonda Rhimes’ race-neutral casting and mixed-race relationships, but there’s something weird about not acknowledging that this is a case where a white president in love with a black woman would have particular repercussions. The country’s behaved insanely enough in response to the election of a black president. Something like this—or, god forbid, the revelation that Obama had an affair with a white woman—would expose a whole other level of ugly, and I think that’s worth acknowledging in some way. It’s one thing to have race-neutral writing in situations that aren’t inflected by race. It’s another to have race-neutral casting in situations that would necessarily be racially inflected.

One of the reasons the Obamas are so compelling to the country, I think, is that they’re a tonic to the sexual anxiety and humiliation of the Clinton years, a good-looking couple who to all outward appearances are just nuts about each other. It’s a situation that lets us acknowledge the sexual appeal of the presidency without attaching a whiff of scandal or disgust to that acknowledge. With Scandal, Rhimes brought us back to a moment of national confusion and embarrassment, and injected an interracial relationship into the mix. What she intends to do with that brew seems considerably up in the air. But in the interim, the results are enjoyably trashy.