Scandal is a new show on ABC about a Washington crisis manager named Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) who, as a black woman, has an affair with the white president. Scandal! The show, one television writer claims, is now
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 [show creator] 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.
IMAGE: Olivia and her POTUS