1) Do I believe that Rhimes’s and Washington’s onscreen and narrative representations of African American women are damaging and unhealthy: yes! I also acknowledge that the representations of black women in America are overdetermined.
2) Do I believe that the children of the post-Civil Rights era are schizophrenic and confused, and need to figure out who they are: yes!
an American screenwriter, director and producer. She was born January 13, 1970. Rhimes is best known as the creator, head writer, and executive producer of the medical drama television series Grey's Anatomy and its spin-off Private Practice. In May 2007, Rhimes was named one of Time magazine's 100 people who help shape the world. Rhimes was an executive producer for the medical drama series Off the Map, and developed the ABC drama series Scandal, which debuted as a mid-season replacement on April 5, 2012. (Wiki)
I’m a black woman every day, and I’m not confused about that. I’m not worried about that. I don’t need to have a discussion with you about how I feel as a black woman, because I don’t feel disempowered as a black woman. (James)
When discussing the topic of race and its historic portrayal on the screen within mainstream Hollywood, Rhimes has suggested that,
when people who aren’t of color create a show and they have one character of color on their show, that character spends all their time talking about the world as ‘I’m a black man blah, blah, blah’… That’s not how the world works. (James)
So, that brings us to Scandal. According to Rhimes, “Scandal’s D.C. is a post-racial fantasia where color is a non-issue” (qtd. in Parham). Scandal’s D.C. is an utopian setting, where problems and problematic occurrences exist, just not with relation to race. It is a place where people – good people, bad people, indifferent people, jump-off people – can just be people. Perhaps that why Kerry Washington, who does not
want to ignore [her] Blackness [and] just want[s] to get to the point where [her] racial identity is simply a part of what makes [her] unique in the way being from the Bronx makes [her] unique, or being an Aquarius, or being born in 1977 and having hip-hop be a part of [her] heartbeat [makes her unique],
Now, Washington is a good actress; she has mastered her craft and has been, I would imagine, handsomely compensated for her labor. However, I think we all would have to admit that most of Washington’s character portrayals, on the small screen and the big screen, have reflected the “tragic mulatta.” Yes, I said it: Kerry Washington has allowed herself to become type-casted as a twenty-first century tragic mulatta! Consider her characters Nikki Tru and Broomhilda von Shaft, from I Think I Love My Wife and D’jango Unchained, and of course Olivia Pope from Scandal.
the novel explores slavery's destructive effects on African-American families, the difficult lives of American mulattoes or mixed-race people, and the “degraded and immoral condition of the relation of master and slave in the United States of America.” It is a tragic mulatto story about a woman named Currer and her daughters Althesa and Clotel, fathered by Thomas Jefferson; their relatively comfortable lives end after Jefferson's death. (Wiki)
the tragic mulatto is a stereotypical fictional character that appeared in American literature during the 19th and 20th centuries, from the 1840s. The tragic mulatto is an archetypical mixed-race person (a "mulatto"), who is assumed to be sad, or even suicidal, because they fail to completely fit in the white world or the black world. As such, the “tragic mulatto” is depicted as the victim of the society they live in, a society divided by race. They cannot be classified as one who is completely black or white.
The female "tragic octoroon" was a stock character of abolitionist literature: a light-skinned woman raised as if a white woman in her father's household, until his bankruptcy or death has her reduced to a menial position and sold. She may even be unaware of her status before being so reduced. This character allowed abolitionists to draw attention to the sexual exploitation in slavery. (Pilgrim)
an encounter with an attractive old friend, Nikki (Kerry Washington), suddenly casts doubt over [Richard’s] typically resilient self-control. At first she claims to just want to be his friend, but she begins to show up consistently at his Manhattan financial office just to talk or have lunch, which causes his boss, secretaries and peers to view him with varying degrees of contempt. When Nikki begins to deliberately seduce Richard, he does not know what to do. Against his better judgment, he flies with her out of town for one day on an errand, where he is beaten by her boyfriend, and returns too late to make a sales presentation at an important business meeting, causing the loss of a lucrative contract. Later, when she and her fiancé are about to move to Los Angeles, Nikki asks Richard to come to her apartment later to say a “proper goodbye.” When he gets to Nikki's apartment, he finds her in her underwear in her bathroom. In the moments before it seems Richard will consummate his attraction to Nikki, he realizes how grave the loss of his wife and children would be, so he walks out on Nikki. Richard returns home, surprising his wife, and for the first time in the film, they begin to rebuild a genuine rapport, with a possible promise of good things to come. (imdb.com)
[Olivia Pope] is a fully realized woman…[Kerry Washington] is not just in this role because she is African-American. [Kerry Washington represents] a new moment for our culture. (Winfrey)
While Washington’s role should be celebrated for the powerful reflection of black womanhood that it illustrates, the trace and specter of America’s racial past haunt Pope’s characterization, especially with regards to her relationship with Fitz. I mean, here is a woman that can do anything that she wants – including win the election for Fitz – but she cannot find herself an unmarried man? Perhaps, we are to understand that what this powerful, smart, ambitious, feared African American political operative wants is a married white man.
On the one hand, Broomhilda is overdetermined as a sexual object and chattel property by Calvin Candie; he wishes to keep her enslaved and do with her as he pleases, for she is his property. And a proper Southern gentleman – a man reared on middle-class patriarchal masculinity – should have the power and strength to do with his property as he pleases. On the other hand, Broomhilda is overdetermined by D’jango as the helpless, pitied feminist presence that must been hoisted upon a mantle and protected within the cult of domesticity. So, in actuality, what we have is an ideological struggle between the enslaved black man and the free white man over the role, purpose and function of a black woman(…I’m sorry, a woman for whom her blackness is but one component of her being). Does Broomhilda have a say? Not in the movie. The audience is privy to no words – neither in English nor German – which reflect Broomhilda’s perspective on the matter. We get that she does not wish to be the concubine of Candie, but are we to understand that she wishes to be caged away by D’jango. I do not think Olivia Pope would go for that. Broomhilda is definitely a victim of society. And, the audience is afforded an understanding of the desires of both white men and black men regarding Broomhilda (consider the opinions of D’jango and Candie and Dr. Schultz and Stephen), but we rarely hear from Broomhilda herself. By the end of the movie, she simply rides away with D’jango. I guess it is up to the former slave, with his tenuous grip on concepts of middle-class patriarchal masculinity, to provide the protective space in which Broomhilda, the mulatta slave too delicate to work in the fields, can be established within America’s cult of domesticity.
Before D'jango was even completed, the screenplay and the trailer received criticism from black people who objected to the treatment of slavery, suggesting it is not serious. It is a spaghetti western not a heavy drama like, say, Roots or The Color Purple. Were you prepared for this type of scrutiny?
This [D’jango Unchained] is not a doc. This is a Quentin Tarantino film. But I remember there was this one moment in the script where Jamie's character was put in an awful crazy medieval metal mask. I said, ‘‘That's some sick thing Quentin thought up.” And when I went to the production office to meet about my wardrobe, I saw into the research office. Twenty photos of real masks like that. It made me sad. I realized as much as my degrees and everything I've read on slave narratives [should have informed me], I didn't even know that they wore masks like that, that people did that to us. It took a Tarantino movie for me to know that that's not some crazy thing out of his imagination. That's how it went down.
Both Rhimes and Washington are children of the post-Civil Rights era, born in 1970 and 1977, respectively. I believe that the children of the post-Civil Rights era are schizophrenic; they have driven themselves crazy by trying to have their cake and eat it too. On this topic, I too agree with Kenneth Warren (and I hate to agree with him on anything). In the effort to continue the legacies of Truth, King and Jordan and live out their ambitions as Americans, children of the post-Civil Rights era have lost sight of their history and at times their humanity. God bless ‘em! They are, collectively, an underdeveloped bunch with the weight and promise of an entire race on their shoulders. And, perhaps I am bias because I too am one of these souls. But I live a conflicted existence and one must find blame or cause for the disillusionment now being so thoroughly enjoyed. I live somewhere between the demands of the Black Panther Party, the unfulfilled promises of Operation Push and the exploitation of one's race and skills as exhibited by Justice Clarence Thomas. Am I an “American,” African American, or a black man ignorant of his lineage trapped in America? Am I to add to the recipe of what makes this country what it is, for good or bad, or am I to figure out a way to rip it asunder and put it together again? Should one utilize one's skills and talents for personal and material gain or for the promotion of some “just cause” to the benefit of some larger group of brethren? Or, maybe, just maybe, I should say fuck it, take some Oxy or thorazine and live in the post-racial fantasia that is the America of Rhimes and Washington.
Arceneaux, Michael. “Jamie Foxx & Kerry Washington Open Up About Race.”
Good, Karen. “Kerry Washington on “Race” and “Colored Girls.” Essence.
James, Kendra. “Quoted: Shonda Rhimes on TV Diversity.”
Parham, Jason. “Why Does “Scandal” Keep Avoiding the Race Question?”
Winfrey, Oprah. Oprah’s Next Chapter. Episode nine. Oprah Winfrey Network, 2012.
Pilgrim, David. “The Tragic Mulatto Myth.” Jim Crow: Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Ferris
State University, 2000.