A New Kind Of TV Protagonist
When "Scandal" debuted in 2012, star Kerry Washington knew viewers would be in for something brand new. “I knew that I had never seen a woman like this on television before," she told ABC News. "Somebody who so clearly embodied the extremes of feminine identity. Kind of that modern, workplace woman who has to be fierce to survive in a man’s world, and also would be the romantic, heartbroken woman who longs to be partnered and live a personal life that is fulfilling. I had never seen those two identities combined into one character. And the writing was so elegant. I remember getting to that last scene where she says, ‘Sweet baby,’ and you realize that Olivia and the president had been together, and I threw my script across the room like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ So I was really in. I was a fan. I was a Gladiator from day one.”
When Washington was cast in "Scandal", she was the first black actress to headline a network TV drama since Teresa Graves starred in "Get Christy Love" in the early 1970s. "Now it feels very normal and obvious that women of colour can lead shows, so hopefully that is something that 'Scandal' has done," series creator Shonda Rhimes told reporters during a recent conference call. "Hopefully we've created a world in which we've stopped seeing these characters on television and it's a magical anomaly that they're there and there's an otherness to them.… Hopefully we've made a dent in that."
Was TV Ready?
Launching a show with a black female lead and populated by various minority characters was considered a risky move. “The question was: Are audiences ready to have the stories that we tell on television to be more inclusive?" said Washington. "Are we ready for our protagonists to represent people of all different genders and ethnicities?"
Shonda On Olivia
“I feel like she’s been a very three-dimensional independent woman who was, at a time when female characters really weren’t anti-heroes, an antihero,” Rhimes said of Olivia Pope. “And now it feels very normal and obvious that female characters can be anti-heroes. It feels normal and obvious that women of colour can lead the shows. So hopefully that is something that this show has done.”
Reacting To Reality
"Scandal" won fans' hearts with its over-the-top, heightened take on White House drama. And then came the 2016 election. “As we have created sort of the imaginary world of the impossible in Washington, now that’s happening in the real world," explains Washington, "so we’ve had to up our ante."
“In the first season, it was as if Olivia Pope was raceless," Kerry Washington explained in an interview with Glamour. "There was no denying that Olivia was a black woman, because I’m a black woman playing her in bada$$ white trench coats that call to attention the fact that I’m not looking like anybody else on television. But we didn’t talk about her identity as a black person. [Since then] the writers have become more and more willing to deal with race. When Olivia was kidnapped, it was not lost on me that the fictional president of the United States was willing to go to war to save one black woman at a time when hundreds of black women were missing in Nigeria and we were begging the world to pay attention. Shonda was saying, ‘The life of a black woman matters.’”
"It's always been my contention that the Oval Office, in our show, was a place that corrupted anybody who came near it and the closer you came, the more corrupt it made you and the more damaged it made you," Rhimes told reporters at a recent press conference. "Olivia started out as the character that we knew who has very much believed in how important this particular kind of power was and how moulding it and being a part of it was — and we watched her, like everybody else, become absolutely corrupted by it, and make all the same mistakes that everybody else makes to get what she wants from it."
Going For Broke
Addressing the show's final season, Washington said everyone involved is committed to delivering a satisfying conclusion for the fans who have stuck with the show for all these years. "I know that our writers are going to go for broke," she said. "You know, we’ve been groundbreaking from the beginning and I’m sure we will be until the end. I know that everybody’s excited to go big, and then go home, so people are really, really, really committed to making this season one of our best."
“I really want to see Olivia happy but it’s hard to know in ShondaLand what that means,” Washington said of the final episode during an interview with ABC News. “Shonda has really encouraged all of us to think about the idea that people define happiness in different ways.”