The Popes and the White Patriarchy in Shonda Rhimes’ ‘Scandal’



This guest post by Jackson Adler previously appeared at his blog, The Windowsill, and appears as part of our theme week on Black Families. Cross-posted with permission.

Shonda Rhimes’ TV series Scandal is a political thriller about “fixer” Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington), who gets scandals in Washington, DC “handled.” All of the characters in the show have terrible flaws, do terrible things, question what is right, and whether the ends truly do justify the means. While the show is not overt, at its core the story is about race and gender relations. Race- and gender-specific language is often omitted from the dialogue, yet the meaning is there. Rhimes takes the white patriarchy of America and individualizes its contributors so that neither (most of) the characters nor the audience realizes that they are contributing to harmful white patriarchal norms and internalizing them until the rare moments when they take a step back from the action. Some of the characters claim to be colorblind, while others experience the effects of race in their everyday lives the way Black families across the country experience it.

Neither Olivia, nor her parents, nor the people she loves are free from this. The central relationship of the show is between Olivia Pope and U.S. President Fitzgerald (Fitz) Grant, with whom she has an ongoing affair. When Olivia, whose influence and position as a powerful African-American woman has often been challenged, confronts him about whether or not he is using her and in a position to control her (“I’m feeling very Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemmings about this”), he skeptically responds, “You’re playing the race card on the fact that I’m in love with you?” and says that a comment like that “belittle(s)” their relationship and is “insulting and beneath [her].” “We’re in this together,” he says. However, he is in a more powerful position than she is, and he uses it. When he wants to speak with her and she doesn’t want to see him, he sends a private jet and secret service to collect her and bring her to him. He seems to claim to be colorblind in how he sees their relationship, and that he thinks of himself as just “a man,” but in other scenes proclaims himself as “the Leader of the Free World” in order to privately intimidate others and get his way. He says he would “give up” his position and influence to prove his love for her and start their life together, but each time it comes down to it, he chooses power – he chooses to be president instead of a loving and loyal husband to her.

[caption id="attachment_18050" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Rowan (Joe Morton) confronts Olivia (Kerry Washington) Rowan (Joe Morton) confronts Olivia (Kerry Washington)[/caption]


Olivia’s father, Rowan, is often the one to point out these problems in their relationship. Rowan calls Fitz a “spoiled, entitled, ungrateful little brat,” to his face, and says that he is not “a man” but “a boy.” Rowan reminds Olivia that “[white] power got [Fitz] elected” in the first place, and that Fitz will always choose his white male power over her well-being. Fitz’s words and actions are highly reminiscent of white #AllLivesMatter hashtaggers who are stubbornly ignorant about the dangers of being Black in America, and of members of the GOP who say that Obama supporters use “the race card” (thereby attempting to silence the argument) when they treat Obama worse compared to how they would treat a white president. Olivia’s parents call out Fitz’s behavior, but while Rowan mostly verbally attacks it, her mother Maya physically attacks it.

[caption id="attachment_18051" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Maya Lewis (Khandi Alexander) Maya Lewis (Khandi Alexander)[/caption]


Olivia’s father, Rowan Pope, achieved a powerful position in the government as Command of a CIA subdivision called B613, through sheer ruthlessness and brain power. Olivia calls her father and his position “the thing that goes bump in the night” – he is someone who does all the behind the scenes dirty work (including assassinations) for the government. He was the first in his family to go to college, and got his daughter into “the best schools” through his own hard work. He regretted not spending more quality time with her when she was younger, but – in Rhimes’ riff on the narrative of the absent Black father – he was not very present in her life because he was so protective of her. He kept her from seeing the terrible things he did as a part of his work and his attempts to gain influence, and ended up sending her to the same boarding schools as “the children of kings” because of it. One of the main reasons Olivia achieved her powerful place in DC is because of him, and he never lets her forget it. While Rowan technically works for the government, unseen but literally calling shots, Olivia’s mother, Maya Lewis, is a terrorist mercenary whose main goal is to take out the patriarchy/white male presidency of the United States. While Rowan pushed Olivia to participate in/assimilate into the government/patriarchy in order to further herself and gain influence of her own, Maya wishes Olivia was not involved in it at all, and says she wished “better for [her].” In one scene, Maya only refrains from blowing up the president and his family because Olivia puts herself in the way. Though Rowan and Maya have very different approaches in how to deal with the government/white patriarchy, they each remind their daughter that being colorblind will only lead to her getting hurt before she even realizes what has happened – “Whose victory do you think they will fight for [when it comes down to it]? Whose body do you think they will bury?”

Olivia’s relationship with her parents is beyond dysfunctional, but her parents still love her very much and make their love known. Rowan alternatively helps Fitz and her other love interest, Jake Ballard, due to Olivia’s affection for them. However, Olivia believes her parents are dangerous and cannot always trust them, let alone support them in their violence. When Olivia teams up with Fitz and Jake, two white and powerful men, to assassinate Rowan, he gives her the benefit of the doubt. He provides her with a gun and the chance to kill him in order to test her loyalty to family, as well as race. The gun turns out to be bullet-less, so Olivia does not succeed in killing Rowan. However, the pain in his face and entire body is evident in the scene as he says, “Are you kidding me?!” He is angry and deeply hurt that his own daughter would have killed him were the gun loaded. For the first time, he tells her “Now you’re on your own.” Olivia turns away from Black patriarchy, but her actions benefit white patriarchy.

[caption id="attachment_18053" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Jake Ballard (Scott Foley), Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), and President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) Jake Ballard (Scott Foley), Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), and President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn)[/caption]


Olivia is constantly asked to choose and re-choose sides, and race is not something she can or even is allowed to ignore in those decisions. Her father particularly challenges her to think in terms of race and familial loyalty in his numerous aggressive monologues. Meanwhile, her mother does what she wants regardless of what anyone thinks – even shooting and killing her white male lover when forced to choose him or give up her goals. Olivia despises the aggression of her parents, and loves the white men in her life who continually hurt and use her. Her dream is to go to Vermont with Fitz, settle down and “make jam” in their perfect home in a small town, but she has come to realize that her dream of Vermont might never become a reality. Fitz is drawn to the presidency/power, and Olivia is compelled to continue being the powerful “fixer” that she is – firmly establishing herself as an African-American woman in control of her own destiny. The Pope family loves each other, but their different approaches to white patriarchy turn them against each other. Whether or not Olivia will “fix” the white patriarchy, or continue to inadvertently contribute to and be crushed by it, remains to be seen – though I’m certainly hoping for and excited to see the manifestation of the former. Scandal challenges the members of its audience to think of institutionalized and internalized patriarchal norms, and how best to face them – and to what lengths they will go to do so.


Jackson Adler is a transmasculine aromantic bi/pansexual skinny white middle class dude with an Auditory Processing Disorder and a Weak Working Memory who enjoys cartoons, musical theatre, and vegan boba drinks. Jackson has a BA in Theater, and is a writer, activist, performer, director, teacher, and dramaturge.