Arts

How Scandal changed my world — and opened doors for Black women everywhere

Amanda Parris memorializes the series Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington and Judy Smith gifted to her.

Amanda Parris memorializes the series Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington and Judy Smith gifted to her

Kerry Washington in Scandal. (ABC)

I began writing for the theatre because that was the place where I saw Black women telling their dramatic stories in public. Playwrights such as Trey Anthony, d'bi young and Djanet Sears were crafting layered, complex and moving narratives that not only affirmed my existence but captured my imagination. Richly textured Black female characters were rarely found on my television screen and when they did appear, it was typically in the world of comedy.

I didn't know it at the time, but some of my favourite comedies of the 1990s had Black women working behind the scenes as their creative masterminds: Living Single — the sitcom that gave me all my adulting goals — was created by Yvette Lee Bowser; Girlfriends — the show that gave me friendship goals — was created by Mara Brock Akil, who also created its spinoff The Game; and the powerhouse duo Sara Finney Johnson and Vida Spears created one of my favourite coming-of-age comedies with Moesha and its spinoff The Parkers. But the world of drama was still a gaping vacuum for Black female representation.

That all changed on April 5th, 2012.

I was aimlessly channel surfing (remember that old tradition in the days before streaming?) and stumbled on a promofor a new TV show airing that night that left my jaw dropped and my hand scrambling for my Blackberry (remember those?) to send a BBM (yeah, I'm really bringing it back) to my homegirl group chat. I believe my message said something along the lines of: "HOLY SHIT. There's a new TV show starring a Black woman, created by a Black woman and inspired by the real life of a Black woman called Scandal that looks AMAZING!!!! We have to watch it!!!"

The Black women in question were Kerry Washington (the star), Shonda Rhimes (the creator and showrunner) and Judy Smith (the real-life inspiration and executive producer). They made up a groundbreaking creative trinity that network television had never before seen and together brought us the adventures of Olivia Pope, a brilliant high-profile D.C. fixer with a penchant for stylish trench coats, powerful struts and dramatic speeches.

When Scandal premiered in 2012, Kerry Washington was the first Black woman to lead a prime time network drama in almost 40 years (the first was Teresa Graves in a show called Get Christie Love!  which premiered in 1974 and only aired for one season). The aptly titled political thriller Scandal did not receive a similar fate, airing for seven seasons that culminated in a finale last night.

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - APRIL 01: Shonda Rhimes receives the Shot Caller award during the Black Girls Rock! 2016 show at New Jersey Performing Arts Center on April 1, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. (Brian Killian/Getty Images)
 

In the early seasons of Scandal, each episode was event television, binding together an audience across the continent of North America. We all gathered in our living rooms, poured our glasses of wine and kept our cell phones handy with thumbs ready to participate in the new cultural tradition popularized by the show: live-tweeting. Each week the writers delivered epic twists and turns that kept Twitter fingers busy as an online community gasped, yelled and memed their way through the ups and downs of Olivia Pope.

But Scandal didn't just invite a digital community. For three seasons straight, I hosted Shondaland Thursdays, a weekly session where 8-10 women would come to my house with fruit platters, popcorn and wine and we would all gather in front of the TV to watch Scandal (and later How to Get Away with Murder). For a mid-season finale, one of the women brought a bottle of rum and a new drinking game: take one shot if Huck uses a computer to find a clue, two shots if the #Olitz music comes on and three if Olivia's mom kills someone. Once the episode was over we would all (drunkenly) debrief, gossip and laugh until our stomachs hurt. During a time in our lives where we were each branching off into different fields of work, becoming busier and more separate, this groundbreaking television show gave us a worthy excuse to connect for a few hours each week.

During a time in our lives where we were each branching off into different fields of work, becoming busier and more separate, this groundbreaking television show gave us a worthy excuse to connect for a few hours each week.- Amanda Parris

In the midst of eyebrow-raising plot turns and soap opera-level romances, Scandal produced some of TV's most prescient and scathing analysis of what it means to be a Black woman today, from Olivia referring to herself as the Sally Hemings to Fitz' Thomas Jefferson to Papa Pope reminding Olivia that as a Black woman she had to work twice as hard to get half of what "they" had. And of course there was the historic crossover episode with How to Get Away with Murder that aired earlier this season which saw another complicated Black female lead — Viola Davis' Annalise Keating — join Olivia and declare to her that with mass incarceration the U.S. is in crisis and will need to be saved by two Black women united in purpose. Each of those moments reminded me that although the audience for this show was wide and diverse, there was a specificity to Olivia Pope that was purposeful and incisive.

Watching Scandal on that first night, I recall a feeling of discovery coming over me; a door was opening that I had not even realized was closed. Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington and Judy Smith helped me to realize that television could be a place for my stories, an idea that had apparently been so outside my realm of possibility it had never before been considered. In the absence of Black female dramatic creators and characters on the small screen, I had turned to theatre — but Scandal helped me to realize that the stage need not be my only platform. Since its premiere Rhimes' Olivia Pope has been joined on the small screen by several other leading Black female characters created by Black women: Being Mary Jane (created by Mara Brock Akil), Queen Sugar (created by Ava Duvernay) and How to Get Away with Murder (created by Peter Nowalk and produced by Shondaland) all put complicated Black female protagonists front and centre.

Kerry Washington in Scandal. (ABC)

I stopped watching Scandal around its fifth season, but I tuned in for the final episode last night with my mum. There were no wine or drinking games, but the episode written by Rhimes still had us gasping and I was still live-tweeting. I also literally fell off my seat during the especially epic final Papa Pope monologue. (Seriously, how can you maintain composure when the brilliant Joe Morton delivers lines like: "I want to see with my own eyes the face of every white, complacent, privileged man who believes that he is in a position of power when he hears the news that a Black man has been running this country for the past 30 years — that he only yields his power because my Black power allows him to.")

In the final scene, the series came to a close with two little girls walking with a determined pace through the National Portrait Gallery. When they finally stop, the last shot of the series shows us what they are gazing at: a large portrait of Olivia Pope wearing red, white and blue and rocking big natural hair — a style that she only sported in the series when she had found her peace standing "in the sun." Beyond leaving viewers with the resounding question of whether Olivia became the first Black female president, the scene is all the more poignant when you realize that one of the young girls is Shonda Rhimes's daughter Harper. In that moment I realized that in creating Scandal, Rhimes has helped to craft a new normal for a generation that has grown up always seeing Black women as complex, flawed and nuanced characters front and centre on their television screens who can be anything — even the president of the United States.

Today I am writing ideas for the small screen, and although Canada has yet to produce a dramatic TV series with a Black female lead, I believe my ideas can still find success because of Scandal. So I tip my hat and salute the creative trinity of Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington and Judy Smith for changing the television world forever.

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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