Kerry Washington - TIFF 09'

I’m not a blogger, but if I were, I’d be blogging about the new television show, Scandal.

Bloggers who follow race and popular culture issues are all abuzz about ABC’s new show, a shlocky, visual-chick-lit piece about a Washington “fixer” named Olivia Pope, (loosely based upon real-life Washington crisis manager Judy Smith), who is the former mistress and enduring inanmorata of a fictional president, Republican Fitzgerald Grant.

The back-story, of their adulterous affair, gives Scandal an extra layer of angsty sizzle; if you are a romantic junkie, as I am, you groove on President Fitz (played by actor Tony Goldwyn) making puppy dog eyes at heroine Olivia (played by Kerry Washington) and confessing to chief of staff Cyrus Beene  (played by actor Jeff Perry) that “Liv is the love of my life.”

Because Washington–like the real-life Smith–is African-American, and Goldwyn is white, this is breakthrough television.

Because I have been in an interracial marriage for over twenty-five years (my husband is Jamaican-Chinese; I’m white), I have been really happy about this show.
Scandal, as several bloggers have pointed out, is the first time a black actress has headlined in her own network television show since Teresa Graves lifted eyebrows as a hot African-American lady cop in Get Christy Love (1974).

Yes, folks, it’s taken that long.  And some of us are old enough to remember the big show that had people talking before that, Diahann Carroll’s Julia. (1968-1971).  Scandal moreover scores another winner for series creator Shonda Rhimes, the most powerful female African-American producer currently working in television, who already has the hugely popular Grey’s Anatomy, and its spin-off, Private Practice, to her credit.

What several bloggers have been critical of is the way, well, race isn’t an issue in this story.  It’s Olivia’s brains and brassy integrity that attract Fitz, whose marriage is apparently an icy disaster.

In the episodes and clips I’ve had time to watch (and admittedly, I haven’t had much time for TV the last few years), the closest we’ve ever gotten to a line where Fitz acknowledges the race issue is one point, in a darkened airplane, when he confesses to lacking the courage to have married Olivia.  And so we’ve heard all the reliable tropes: “Is Jungle Fever Changing Hollywood? (; Is Olivia a “Sally Hemmings” to Fitz’s “Thomas Jefferson?” (note And so on.

And meanwhile, Fitz and Olivia have steamy love scenes in which absolutely nothing is made of their racial differences.

Please don’t get annoyed, but that sounds right to me: when my husband I and met in college, our differences never mattered as much to us as our shared love of classical music and dead languages.
Except…there is just one little thing…one teeeny-ensey-weeny thing…that also struck me when Dr. Ellis Grey, the mother of Dr. Meredith Grey, heroine of Grey’s Anatomy, languished as an Alzheimer’s patient while her former African American surgeon-colleague-lover Richard Webber left her to repair the marriage she’d broken; one little thing that irked me when ER‘s black star Eric La Salle insisted that his character, Dr. Peter Benton, break up with his girlfriend, white British surgeon Elizabeth Corday (played by Alex Kingston), because heaven forefend his character should take up with a white woman.  Olivia and Fitz are not a happy couple; they are tragic.  Their love is tormented, opposed.  Race isn’t broached in the show, it’s true, but adultery stands in for race–it’s the reason their love can never be, the reason they suffer.  Their inappropriate love is acceptable because it is being appropriately chastised.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the best evidence I have that we aren’t yet living in a post-racial America.  If Scandal were a situation comedy, about a White Republican President, his African-American working mom First Lady, and, maybe, their three kids (figure the usual complement–a difficult adolescent daughter; a prankster son, and a saccharine cute little baby sister), maybe we would  be seeing breakthrough television.

Because what we’d be seeing, however idealized, would be something closer to the reality for thousands of interracial couples across America, who have, particularly since Richard and Mildred Loving took their case to the Supreme Court, married, raised children, held down jobs, paid college tuition and taxes; faced discrimination in housing, pay, and perhaps even treatment under the law; struggled with what census box to check; how to deal with hostile relatives and neighbors; and, generally, how to model an ethical life for our children as citizens, partners, and parents in a world where race still means a lot more to a lot of people than it arguably should.

Many of us, (apparently, over half, according to this study: who married in the 70s and 80s, have buckled under these strains and divorced–but some of us are still in the trenches together, battling it out.  Am I the only one who is irritated by the constant casting of interracial love in movies and television as tragic, forbidden, doomed, and impossible?    Are all of us really going to have to remain satisfied, in the year of our lord 2013, with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner —or, at best, the intermittently offensive 2005 remake with Ashton Kutcher and the late Bernie Mac–when we want to look for anything that even remotely resembles our lives and experience?

I’m delighted, of course, for Ms. Washington, who is a talented actress.  And I’m still enjoying the show.   But that’s the real scandal.


Emily Sohmer Tai