Shondaland has created a fantasy world full of Gladiators, beloved doctors, and justice crusaders. Sadly, a TGIT favorite ended Thursday with the series finale of Scandal. For seven seasons, the political drama captivated millions of viewers, but the show did much more than occupying America’s Thursday nights. From catchphrases to fashion statements to a new era in televised diversity, Scandal is leaving behind a legacy of pioneering inclusion.
When Scandal premiered in 2012, Kerry Washington was the first black woman to lead a primetime network drama in 4 decades. The original black TV queen was Diahann Carrol, who starred in Julia from 1968 to ’71. Julia was followed briefly by Get Christie Love! in 1974 about a black female police detective, but the drama only lasted one season on ABC. In between the seventy’s and 2012, plenty black actresses have played “the best friend”, “the maid”, “the ex-girlfriend”, but none of the big four networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox) had an independently-successful African-American female star.
The very fictional Olivia Pope was based off a very real Judy Smith, a lawyer and crisis manager who was instrumental to former president George Bush during his administration. Her presence in the White House created a buzz about the power of hidden figures in politics. Similarly, the image of Kerry Washington at the helm of ABC’s Thursday nights sparked a conversation and an awareness that the world wanted to see a black woman leading a show that wasn’t all about her tribulations.
Scandal’s success led to other networks opening their racial lens to include more women of color in prominent and uplifting roles. As Scandal remained at the top, shows like Insecure, Black-ish, Being Mary Jane and How to Get Away with Murder were born. Essentially, Olivia Pope knocked down doors of media diversity so that characters like Issa Dee and Zoey Johnson could walk through with a slight knock. However, the difference between the Olivia’s and the Issa’s of the television world is that the latter has a tribe of black female friends to fall back on. Olivia did not. Outside of her Gladiators at OPA, Olivia hardly had anyone to rely on or share some wine with. She was missing an essential part of black womanhood: her tribe. But in Shondaland, there are not mistakes; perhaps this absence was meant to show the solitude of succeeding while black.
Shonda Rhimes has celebrated diversity in all her shows, but Scandal created a new dialogue about interracial relationships, power dynamics, political conspiracies, and how people respond to black women with power. The fact that Olivia Pope was a complex and often messy character definitely hit a soft spot with many sisters, but it was also the perfect depiction of how multi-dimensional black women are in reality. Every week, we cheered as she “handled” a new case, rolled our eyes while she slept between Jake and Fitz and munched on popcorn and wine as Liv walked down the hall with a new Prada bag.
Scandal gave television the “okay” to promote black women as stylish, intelligent, flawed, and wildly successful at the same time. We’ll definitely miss Miss Pope, but fingers crossed that her successors will give us the same level of wig-snatching, snap-worthy, black girl magic moments.