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.


  • Sammi Luester
    Posted January 27, 2015 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    This is slightly off topic with this post, but how come there hasn’t been a post written on the future theme weeks for 2015? You all usually do that at the beginning of the year. I (and I’m sure many others) would love to see the future theme weeks you all have planned all of the way until December. 😀

  • howwedoit
    Posted January 27, 2015 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    Wow! Great Write UP…I never looked at it from a Patriarchal stand point…I also do not see race in the show except when Rowan reminds us..All in All, Shonda is Brilliant at what she does.

  • Posted January 28, 2015 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    There’s one big huge hole that blows this entire post up. FITZ is still president BECAUSE OLIVIA MAKES HIM GO BACK TO BEING PRESIDENT! FOUR TIMES the man has attempted to leave the White House (what he calls the crown jewel of the American prison system) and EACH & EVERY time it’s OLIVIA that makes him go back. She either emotionally blackmails him herself, or sends Mellie or to an extent CYRUS to do it. He knows Olivia LOVES him enough to have nearly home to federal prison to fix an election for him, so despite the fact that he hates being POTUS, because SHE BELIEVES, BECAUSE SHE SAYS, HE STAYS. Oh & are we forgetting Rowan sent an emotionally deficient & violent man to sleep with his daughter to try & break her & Fitz up?!?! Or that he even WATCHED the video of his daughter with Joke & released it to CYRUS to emotionally blackmail Fitz into staying POTUS AND staying away from the love of his life?!?! THAT’S the Rowan you believe ‘loves’ his daughter?!?! Uggggh keep drinking the Shondaland Kool-Aid. DISGUSTING.

    • LeeS99
      Posted January 28, 2015 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

      Thank you! Fitz would give up being president to be with Olivia in a NY minute. He is not powerful hungry like all the other characters. Olivia is the one manipulating him to stay in office because she is afraid of commitment (understandable based on her parents and what she has seen in her professional position).

      Rowan does not love his daughter. He calls her the Thing he created which is a lie since he only paid for her boarding school education and Olivia paid for college and law school using school loans. Rowan only wants to control Olivia since he could not control his evil wife who played him and made him look foolish. He resents Fitz because of class and race and Olivia’s love for Fitz.

      Hell, Rowan even tried to kill Olivia’s BLACK fiance, Senator Edison Davis in order to control her. He forced Olivia to break the engagement if she wanted Edison to live. Such a nice daddy.

      Rowan is a very bitter hateful evil man. Mama Pope is just as hateful and murderous and only loves money not Olivia.

      Olivia Pope has the worst parents ever and would be better off if they were dead. Being Black does not excuse her parents from being awful people.

      • Posted January 28, 2015 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

        Omg I forgot about Rowan threatening to kill Edison. I think that’s tied with Rowan sending Joke to sleep with Olivia & then WATCHING THE FOOTAGE so he would know what to say to get CYRUS to emotional blackmail & break Fitz. (AGAIN) What about you?!?!

    • Posted January 28, 2015 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      Not quite? Fitz is afraid to fail. He goes back to the Presidency because it’s what he knows. Liv steers him back in that direction because she knows that he’s a petulant child who refuses to try in case he fails. She attempts to make him try. That’s about it.

      • Posted January 28, 2015 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

        There’s so much wrong with what you’re saying that I don’t even know how to begin to counter it, EXCEPT, that Olivia & Fitz had such similar upbringings that Olivia knows how broken FITZ (you must be NEW here because Big Gerry broké Fitz & left him broken long after his death just like Rowan broke Olivia by abandoning her-in other words, you CAN’T sit with us!) was before he met her. She knows because she was-is just as broken too. He needed people to SUPPORT HIM WITHOUT any endgame or what’s in it for them. Olivia up until she started demanding that he rescue Joke etc, was the only person to ever love him for him & believe in the great man she KNOWS him to be. The man SHE BELIEVES in her heart is best stuck in the hell known as the presidency because he’s what’s best for the country, for the world. What she’s failed to realise is that she can have it ALL, that she & FITZ can have it ALL TOGETHER.

        • Posted January 28, 2015 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

          Yeah…. all of this sounds like Fitz apologia, and that’s my cue to tap out. If the person that you have sympathy for in this equation is Fitz, hell if you think they can or should be together, this is not a conversation that I need to be part of.

          If it was just a matter of wanting to be with her, he could have done that. Instead he strings her along, abuses her, controls her and take advantage of her. And Liv is so sprung, and so genuinely believes in him as a POTUS that she tolerates it. There’s a reason that Mellie was the one running the WH even though it was FITZ that Liv stole the Republic for. He was too chicken shit to it himself. He was afraid of his dead father’s shadow and took it out on everyone around him, all while making excuses for his incompetence.

          Fitz can’t be with Olivia because he chooses not to compromise his own power and public image to do so. He has always been free to resign and go make jam in Vermont. Instead he asks Olivia to wait for him while he abuses both her and his actual wife and pitches fits when either of them dare to go looking for someone better.

          • Posted January 28, 2015 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

            Oh so it’s Fitz who gave Olivia a concussion from pushing her down on broken glass & begged Olivia NOT to tell Fitz?!?! Oh & Fitz is ALSO the one who choked Olivia because she didn’t do what he wanted her to & then threatened to kill her in front of his team?!?! And it’s Fitz who collaborated with Olivia to have a child NO ONE WANTED to continue to allow him to stay POTUS, even after the 20 or so times he’s made it clear he does not even WANT to be?!?! Oh & it’s also Fitz who was sexually assaulted & used that assault to blackmail Big Gerry into helping Fitz eventually get into the whitehouse? How about when Fitz made sex face at the VERY SAME Big Gerry & embarrassed his husband in front of everyone? What show are you watching again?!?! It most certainly IS NOT Scandal so yeah, the conversation is over. Olivia & Fitz BELONG TOGETHER. There’s no doubt about that in any rational mind. You keep over-indulging the Shondaland kool-aid while the rest of us actually have an intelligent discussion about the show Scandal USED to be. It’s obvious, with folks like you watching, it’s pure unadulterated TRASH now.

          • Posted January 28, 2015 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

            Whoa. Literally speechless that anyone could watch this show and come to the conclusion that Fitz and Olivia belong together.


          • Posted January 28, 2015 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

            You have nothing. You ARE nothing. The Defence rest. Ask yourself this last question, why is Scandal now such trash that BOTH How To Get Away With Murder are eclipsing it both is ratings AND awards/accolades?!?!

            One hint, this past season & a half, too much time was spent whom Olivia was sleeping with TODAY or B613 or Melliie sleeping with Fitz’s childhood friend Andrew, or about Rowan & Maya & their continued systemic abuse of Olivia or UGGGH-Joke the most useless character to EVER be put in pretty much ANY SHOW, INSTEAD of being about Olivia & Fitz, THE REASON SCANDAL EVEN EXISTS IN THE FIRST PLACE.?!?!

            No worries, I won’t wait. The lift not going all the way up to the top floor in that seeping grey matter of yours HAS GOT TO BE ANNOYING.

          • Posted January 28, 2015 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

            Here you go light bright. How about we let the man who so phenomally PLAYS FITZ on TV, about Olivia & Fitz?!?!

            PS: Do you personally think Fitz is worthy of Olivia?
TG: Yeah I do, absolutely. Pretty much all of the mistakes that Fitz has made are due to his blindness about Olivia. And vice versa with Olivia; that’s true both ways. If they could cut through all the garbage that stands in their way in terms of their baggage and the circumstances of their lives, they could have an incredibly healthy, productive, powerful relationship. They are the best versions of themselves when they’re with each other. They’re both flawed human beings — well, Fitz definitely is — but he’s demonstrated that he’s willing to give up everything for her.

          • Shazza
            Posted February 3, 2015 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

            Yeah I’m with you, saw all these people cheering for Olitz on FB and I was like WTF? I guess damn near raping her in a closet was romantic too. These folks probably love 50 Shades & Twilight too.

          • LeeS99
            Posted January 28, 2015 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

            When has Mellie ever ran the White House unless it is getting chicken from the kitchen? Are you sure you are watching Scandal? She is despised by the staff in the White House who all avoid her. Mellie can clear a White House room faster than a skunk.

            Poor Lauren is treated by Mellie like an idiot – asking Lauren if she can read and saying reading is fundamental – not funny and not cool treating the brown secretary in that manner.

            The two most whiny people on Scandal are Mellie and Jake.

            Jake is constantly whining to Olivia about save me, run away with me, stand in the sun with me. Let’s play make believe and just have sex, drink beer and eat burgers not act like grown ass folks. STFU
            man up and find a woman who is in love with you and will go live on some tropical island with you and not have a career. Stop clinging to Olivia like a life raft.

            Mellie is constantly whining about being bored as First Lady and about her brilliant Ivy League education. STFU woman and go get your life. Take some action and start your political career and find a man who wants you. Stop clinging to Fitz like a life raft.

            Fitz wants a divorce but Mellie is afraid to stand on her own without a powerful man. So she stays with a man she despises and denigrates so she can be unhappy. What a weak willed moron. Mellie is rich
            attractive and educated privileged white woman but likes acting the victim – mourning as if she was close to her son and ever maternal and ignoring her other kids as usual and telling Cyrus that losing James was not as painful to him. WTF

            Mellie is a caricature now with her constant whining. In season 1, Mellie was interesting because she went her own way. Then after season
            one she became a clingy whiny political wife – boring. Mellie talks a lot and does NOTHING. She runs her mouth and causes problems which Cyrus, Olivia and Fitz have to fix to make her not look like a complete idiot.

            Sometimes, I wonder what show some fans are watching. As Fitz said to Mellie when she said she would handle the Karen sex scandal (how?),
            delusional fans want to re-write the history of the show to make Mellie into Mother Teresa.

            Fitz’s problem is that he is not evil like the people in his life – Cyrus, Mellie, Jake and even Olivia. He is too idealist and romantic. If Fitz acted like Frank Underwood, then more people would root for him.

  • Romantic Placebo
    Posted February 1, 2015 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Dunno how you can say Rowan loves his daughter. His absentee-ness is one thing, but blackmailing her into loving him is classic abuse. He’s more like an overbearing father taken to extremes, and all the things he’s helped her with can’t make up for that.

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