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Published on November 26th, 2013 | by jonathanmbutler

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Black Men are Not Created Equally on ‘Scandal’

BlackMenofScandalBy Jonathan M. Butler, Vyne Contributor

I have been fascinated with the TV Series “Scandal,” starring Kerry Washington, since the first episode, however I am beginning to ask myself whether the entertainment value alone is enough to continue tuning in.  As a black man, I wanted to support a black heroine starring as the lead actress in a major network television drama series.  I also wanted to support the programming of Shonda Rhimes, the black TV show creator, and I love the real life story of Judy Smith, the talented attorney and professional crisis manager who serves as the inspiration for Olivia Pope, Kerry Washington’s character.  To watch the show in the beginning, was to be drawn in by the fast-paced dialogue and the intensity of the characters as they addressed issues that used to toe the line between morality, reasonableness, and sensibility in the first episodes.  Tip toeing these lines was once compelling, but now, there are no lines.  Now, the show is filled with crime and gratuitous sex, and as the plots have changed from their emphasis on solving the problems of CEO’s and prominent public figures to glamorizing the personal lives and flaws of the main characters, black men are not at all created equally when it comes to sex and crime on Scandal.

We have been introduced to three black men on the show:  “Harrison,” played by Columbus Short is Olivia’s second-in-command, “Edison” the Senator who dated Olivia Pope briefly, and “Eli,” Olivia’s father.   None of these black men have graced the screen in any elicit sexual interactions.  We have only seen Harrison awake in his underwear after a night with a minor character in the most recent episode, and a few unnatural moments of lukewarm kisses between Olivia and Edison.  With all of the hyper-sexualizing of the black heroine and the large volume of gratuitous sex scenes featuring many of the characters both gay and straight, are we unwilling to accept that black men can also be seen on network television in extended sexual encounters in the same way as the other characters are?  Because of the historical hyper-sexual stereotyping of black men, the lack of black male sexuality on the show could be intentional.  I don’t know if the writers of the show have even considered that there is a lack of sexual equity for black men on the show.  I don’t know if it is fair for me to expect balance in the depictions of black male characters on a TV show.  And although I am uneasy about the choice to make Olivia Pope so highly sexually objectified as a black woman, particularly when I think of the historic challenges of race and sex stereotyping in our culture, I am equally as troubled by the choice to make her so sexual in sex scenes with her white male partners and leave her one black romantic love interest with so limited physical and emotional intimacy.  It is also worth noting that Edison was the only one of Olivia Pope’s love interests to propose marriage to her and yet we still did not witness the two of them in any extended sexual onscreen encounter.  Even Huck, the sociopathic computer guru and trained killer, has appeared in more sexually charged and intimate scenes than any of the black men.

It is also disturbing that with all of the criminal activity of the main characters, from murder, election fraud, obstruction of justice, and tampering with witnesses and evidence just to name a few examples, arguably the most notorious indiscriminant murderer of them all is Olivia’s father Eli, who just so happens to be a black man; and the only character on the show who has served time in prison for an actual crime is Harrison, who also just so happens to be a black man.  I know that I am not the only person, of any race, troubled by these facts.

The violence perpetrated by the characters that we were supposed to be rooting for is bad enough.  The hyper-sexualizing, gratuitous sex scenes and the glorification of status as a means to force us to accept the relationship between power and sex is exaggerated enough.  But as a black man watching this show, the most disturbing part is that amidst all this sex and violence, black men are still the only convicted criminals and are not afforded the courtesy of being shown as full people, which includes showing their sexual relationships.

Despite my objections, I do still support the show.  I appreciate the diversity of the cast, the complexity of the characters, and the willingness to put black actors and actresses in leading roles and in positions of power on a hit TV drama series.  I do think the show is courageous in some ways.  I think the show challenges traditional roles and characterizations of gender, power, sex, and race, but as a black man I am troubled by the lack of courage afforded to the depictions of black men on the show and the degree to which black men are still marred by conventional stereotypes.

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About the Author

Jonathan Butler is a private attorney, writer, and professional writing and communications consultant in Atlanta, GA.



40 Responses to Black Men are Not Created Equally on ‘Scandal’

  1. Derek Lindsey says:

    I wonder why black women viewers don’t defend the black male characters! They act as if they don’t see the irony in her father being the big bad wolf etc…I feel like the networks are doing the same thing they did to black males in the nineties! The music industry tricked us into compromising our morality in the name of gangster culture! The outcome has been a lost of respect for alpha males! I believe the same is happening for corporate black women! Pop culture tv has changed the way we view college educated black women! Twerking housewives that sleep with married men! Excuse me married white men!

  2. Carmen says:

    Jonathan, I can appreciate your perspective, though I must admit that I disagree with your ideas about how the characters should be depicted. I can appreciate that the black male characters are not overly sexualized. I get sick of that in so many media representations of black men. I also appreciate that the black men in this show are educated, articulate, highly intelligent, and accomplished. I see all of the characters as interesting and well-developed (or well-developing). Rather than be critical of the existing male characters, it might be good for them to include other black male characters so that a more comprehensive representation of black men might be present on the show. Sometimes I think the problem with images of African-Americans in media is not necessarily that the current images are always flawed or inaccurate representations of SOME, but that they are put out as representative of ALL. We just need more images that reflect the diversity of who we are:-)

  3. Jackie H. says:

    I’ve only been watching the show since this season started, but I wish I would have tuned in the since the beginning…What you have noted is troubling, but I will continue to watch to see how it all unfolds…hopefully, Shonda will develop Harrison and other black male characters this season…

  4. Bird says:

    Jonathan, your observations and critique of this show are insightful. The show is filled with cliches and stereotypes.

  5. Tam says:

    The white men on Scandal are getting more booty than any of the black men are, so I don’t think they are hypersexualized.

  6. henry says:

    [NOTE: This comment was edited by the Administrator for explicit language only]

    Very simple! that dumb show is written by Whites for white masses… I am appalled because of course the smart black woman has to be a mistress with low morals, [having sex with] a married man. She has to be a white man whore instead of a black man treasure else the show would not have as much success, like in the old days when rich white French men in New Orleans had black mistresses in the old “Placage” way, the story unveils once again, just that it is modern day America and the black is the mistress you [have sex with] in the dark, who wears weave and is quick to drop her morals to service some white man, pathetic. It is a white supremacist thing, yes she is black but she is a black woman who is only offering herself to a white man, not a black man, to blacks she is “untouchable”. The day any of those black men slept with her, that show will go to the tube, mark my words, because Olivia would simply lose her importance,in the mind of the many ” white supremacist”. White Americans can’t conceive in their mind that a black and white man can share the same woman at the same time, it is degrading to them, so the white man has to leave thus expressing that the black woman become worthless. The president pretty adds up to her blackness by sleeping with her, making her superior to her own kind. ( you would notice that we have a black president, yet they went back to showing a white man, as to say this is the way it is suppose to be, and you [people] watching that dumb show can’t even see it) that is why the writer had not incorporate black men. The white men and black women watching this show will soon lose interest, Olivia become a casual negro girl and no longer the fantasy thang of many white man who secretly want to sex a black girl and white enarmored black women who secretely dream to [have sex with] a rich powerful white man!!! the sad truth. But as bad luck would, they will introduce either some black on black gay character, or some downlow negro, to make it impossible for Olivia to be attracted to that black man. So pathetic this country, everything has to cater to the whites and their comfort zone. It You blacks watching that show, you are still slaves in your mind, you need to stop supporting show that promote adultery, promiscuity, infidelity, homosexuality , waywardness and the objectification of the black woman!!! smh

  7. Dee says:

    I wonder if Shonda (the creator) intentionally made the relationship between Olivia and Edison lukewarm. Yes he wanted to marry her, but their relationship lacked the passion she sought elsewhere. It happens in real life. You meet an amazing man that should be perfect for you, but the passion just isn’t there. So, do you settle and accept or remain single and keep looking?

  8. Kendall Holden says:

    I find it interesting that the OP is complaining about the lack of sexual action amongst the black men in Scandal. You seem to have ignored the fact that we have a black man in Eli Pope who is more powerful than the president, yet you’re mad because we don’t see him having sex? We have a good looking, articulate, quick-witted young man who did about three days in jail for insider-trading (rather than you know, doing crack-cocaine or killing somebody) and your biggest gripe is that he hasn’t had sex yet?

    We have another black man who was the senate majority leader, a role that would be typically filled by a white guy, and all you care about is his lack of sexual antics with Olivia? Really?

    Let me run this down for you very quickly. Olivia and Fitz are the main coupling on the show, which means that whenever they get together, it’s an event for the fans of the couple. This means that you won’t necessarily get fade-to-black sex, like you would for most of the other couplings. This also means that whenever a rival comes along, they won’t get the same billing, from a sexual point of view, as Fitz and Olivia do. Also, the showrunner knows that fans don’t necessarily want to see Olivia having sex with anybody other than Fitz. Look at the outcry when Olivia had sex with Jake. The majority of hardcore fans went crazy, because they hate anybody getting in between Fitz and Olivia, regardless of whether he’s black or white. We haven’t seen a sex scene between those two since. Thank God.

    With regards to the Edison thing, aesthetically, nobody wanted to see that guy have sex with Olivia, because he looked like a younger version of Bill Cosby, and there is nothing sexy about that. Had they cast Olivia’s ex better, they wouldn’t have needed to fade-to-black as much. Nobody wanted to see Kerry Washington simulating sex with Bill Cosby. Sorry.

    Also, you’ve obviously never seen how cable handles sexual scenes if you think that what goes on with Fitz and Olivia is gratuitous. The sex scenes are filmed very cleverly, but gratuitous they are not.

    Also, in case you missed it, Fitz and Olivia haven’t had as much sex as you seem to think they have. The first time we saw them having sex in the present was in episode 214, when he pulled her into the closet. The last time they’d had sex if you follow the time line of the show was three years previously. Prior to that, the only sexual encounters we’d seen between them had occurred in flashbacks. In season one, they only had one sexual encounter. In season two including flashbacks, they had just five episodes out of twenty two where they had sex. So far this season, they’ve had one sexual encounter. I think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.

    So ultimately, there isn’t as much sex happening even between the president and Olivia, as you seem to think. Harrison’s turn will come, but it needs to fit with the rest of the story arc.

    And as a woman, I think it’s great that Olivia has sexual agency, because let’s face it, that’s something that is usually denied to black women on TV. So stop griping, because the fact is you don’t see many black women on network TV having sex, period.

  9. Marlynn says:

    I have a number of issues with this show. Although I want to support it because of the diversity and I appreciate how black males and females are being depicted as powerful, educated, articulate, classy, well dressed and well established in this TV show, I think the show is too sadistic and too graphic at least for me. I mean all the blood and guts is over the top. Just the fact that people who have a passion to kill is even being glamorized in this show is disturbing to me. I think that clearly sends the wrong message. What are we doing now, raising little killers and Huck and his sidekick is their inspiration? Really! Not only that but they even gave the serial killing psycho path Huck a passionate on screen love affair before showing any of the black males actually having some passion on the screen. Then they had the black woman, ‘Zombie’ eating her own wrist thing recently and we had to watch the blood dripping from her mouth and arm and what does she say when she see’s pictures of Olivia afterwards? ” Oh she’s so cute you could just eat her.” Totally ridiculous. This show is getting more sick and sadistic than it is sexy in my opinion.

    Aside from Olivia, the only people in the show having ‘Passionate’ sex are the white folks. Hasn’t that been TV for years now? The white women being the only women any man wants to get in bed with? The only women in the group everyone wants. The only women getting all the attention? same stereotypes are being played out here. Then when they finally show Harrison, one of the main black characters in the show with anyone, It’s with a minor white girl. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for interracial relationships but the inequality aspect of it where it’s predominately black men with white women vs black men with black women or white men with black women is also still being played out here as it has been in the media for years. And finally is it only me that notices that not only have they made Olivia out to be the whore that America loves to call the black woman anyway but now they got her sleeping with two white men and also depicting her as nothing other than a sophisticated drunk who can’t control herself around either of these men. It’s all too much for me. Maybe the positive roles we think we’re getting as African American aren’t so positive after-all.

  10. g says:

    I must say this is somewhat a ridiculous position to take. If it were the other way around people would be up in arms about the hypersexualization of the black men in the show. If you’re going to be upset about something in scandal, be upset by what they portray a “strong” black woman. A woman who is constantly on the verge of a nervous break-down and never really handles situations with much poise or confidence….they just keep saying that she does, they don’t actually show her doing so. In any event, this is one of those no-win situations for the writers. If they portray Harrison and Edison in explicit sex scenes people would be up in arms about that, if they don’t people like you get up in arms about that.

    I think that if you look at it, side characters don’t get sex scenes, main characters do. Meaning, that almost all of the sex scenes are with olivia, with someone going through a scandal, and the recent gay scene. And that’s really it. If I’ve missed some, sorry. I don’t tune in for the sex.

  11. Quineka says:

    Wait…. The concern is that black men aren’t getting booty in Primetime? Are we supposed to be offended that Scandal’s writers aren’t perpetuating ALL BLACK stereotypes? And as for, “the most notorious indiscriminant murderer of them all is Olivia’s father Eli, who just so happens to be a black man” Well… He IS the father of a character played by a black woman. There has not been any lesbian sex scenes on the show, should lesbians be offended? Why can’t he just celebrate this great moment in tv instead of finding imaginary problems?

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  18. Abay says:

    I have not watched it because even though s Black woman wrote this a grays anatomy ~ she does not seem to have any control or interest in advancing images of Blacks in her creations!

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  20. Kendall Holden says:

    So Marlynn, the only portrayal that you want to see about black people are positive ones? You don’t want to see fully fleshed out characters, you just want to see the quintessential magical negro/negress?

    You ma’am are part of the problem. I strongly suggest that you take your politics of respectability and go and watch nothing but re-runs of The Cosby show.

    Oh, and Olivia isn’t a whore, she’s a single woman who has sexual agency. If she decided to sleep with ten men it still wouldn’t make her a whore, because nobody’s paying her to sleep with them.

    I watch Homeland, and I find it interesting that nobody calls Carrie Matthison a whore for sleeping with a married man or sleeping with multiple men, not black people, and not white people. Yet look on any forum discussing Scandal, and you’ll see butthurt black men labelling Olivia a negro bed wench and black women like yourself calling her a whore. White people who watch this show aren’t the ones calling Olivia Pope a whore.

    The show is called Scandal. The title is pretty self-explanatory one would have thought. If you’re easily offended, switch over to NBC’s Parenthood, or Elementary.

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  23. Leon Morgan says:

    Great piece of work Mr Butler, make U go Ummm.

  24. Kendall Holden says:

    @Henry You are truly ignorant.

    Shonda Rhimes the creator of the show is black. She’s a black woman. On Thursday, they created history by having a show created by a black woman, directed by a black woman, with a black woman as the lead actor. This may not soothe your internalised misogyny, but it’s something to be proud of.

    Also, the reason why the president is a white Republican is precisely because the current president is black. Shonda Rhimes knows better than you the connotations of having a show featuring a philandering black president, and if you would get out of your own way, you too would understand the absolute need to keep such stories away from the real president.

    I have been fascinated by the reaction of black men to this show. So many of you absolutely hate the fact that this beautiful black woman is being portrayed as being in love with a white man. We all know that’s what is at the heart of conversations like these. I guarantee that none of you would have a problem if Olivia was having sex with every black man under the sun. The women who complain about Olivia being a whore are obviously bothered by our portrayal under the white faze. Respectability politics at work people.

    Black women have had to put up with men who have no problems impregnating multiple women at the same time, men who cheat and lie, men who won’t marry the mothers of their children, men who put the white woman on a pedestal over and above the black woman, and you want to talk about morality? I invite you to take a look at the stats with regards to the rate of infidelity amongst black men, as it pertains to black women, then come at me with your tales of morality.

    Black women have had to put up with black men who tell us that we’re too angry to love or too much like hard work, which is why they prefer our white counterparts, yet the moment a black woman is portrayed as desirable to a white man, you all lose your damned minds. It’s truly pitiful.

    Henry, you are the typical Youtube person who’s happy to call Olivia Pope a negro bed wench, and that makes you nothing but a paternalistic, misogynistic d-bag.

  25. Pinc Gator says:

    It’s called programming for a reason. Showing “successful” blacks on tv is an illusion folks. They are still working for somebody. Who actually owns something? I’m talking about real power and control. They all take orders. When u find time please turn the tv off. As Huey Newton said “I can’t expect the media to show positive images of black people”. I don’t even watch the show but it seems like that’s all folks talk about on FB on Thursday. Yes it’s a black writer, I get that but we can do better. This ain’t a bash. Rise up to wise up.

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  27. Kendall Holden says:

    @Pinc Gator, you lost me at “I don’t even watch the show”.

    As for “We can do better”? You better be the change that you seek sir, because the only way that we can do better is by having every type of black person portrayed on TV, not just the ones who are deemed ‘acceptable’ by people preaching respectability politics.

    Black people can be professional, they can be layabouts, they can be highly academic, they can be criminals, they can be good, they can be faithful, they can be unfaithful, they can be angry, they can be happy, they can be sober, they can be sad, they can feel pain, they can have daddy issues, they can have great grounding. In other words, black people are humans too, and in order to truly move forward, people like you can’t be afraid of being portrayed in all our humanity.

  28. Mickie says:

    Can anyone just be happy with the story line? There’s no disrespect. Question, do you believe the show is realistic with the characters involved? Or is this article once again attacking black women indirectly like so many other times. Example: Color Purple. Colored Girls. Precious, and many others? What’s the real problem here!!??

  29. We have to stop spending our time on things and people who will not benefit our future. Ok a married man is having sex with another women, its wrong, turn the channel. We have to get back to the basics and live to be in and stay in THE WILL of GOD, everything else is worthless. Tomorrow is not promised and we will all have to give an account on our actions and words.

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  31. Shannan says:

    Although I appreciate your opinion, I must say that you have to allow art to be art. If someone would like to tell a story let them tell the story the way they are inspired to, and let the listeners get from it what they will. It’s unfair to make one person (black or not) responsible for the depiction of an entire group of people. As a black women can I just say this, There are good, bad, crazy, beautiful, ugly smart, stupid, evil, kind, fat, skinny, lazy, hardworking, sneaky, honest, lying, loving, jealous, spiritual, atheist, gay, straight, giving, poor, rich, pompous, humble Black People. No one person should get to choose which story is told. Our stories and characters are not just relevant when they are positive… They are just relevant.

  32. For REAL says:

    Really? Wait. Really? All this criticism because the black men are not having sex on he show? Thats is the least we should be worried about in the show. We should celebrate that the black men on the show are being portrayed as intelligent Strong men. Although Olivia’s father is the antagonist in the show, he is still a very intelligent black man. We should be happy that the characters do not fit into a typical stereotype. I don’t understand why it is that a story can’t be a good story if the black men aren’t having sex or creating some scandal all the time. Im glad its not us this time.

  33. ELAINE says:

    wow, interesting article. so well written and so insightful. i hope it makes its way to the writers of the show because it will definately give them something to think about!

  34. Jdouvel says:

    I too find these comments insightful and I am sure it provides the writers some food for thought.
    As an African American male who has watched 95% of the shows my only real concern is that I am not sure that in the “REAL” world, an African American power broker like Olivia would put so much of her emotional feeling for her love interest out there in such a sexual way.

    With many years of behind the scene activities in Washington Dc and high level clearances I think she would have lost 99% of her access to the major players by now.

    In the real world, most of us have our sexual desires/needs, it would be nice to have seen that at least include an African American male.

    Having said that, there a classy sex scenes and then there are the “boothy” calls that seem to be taking place . She should be presented with more class than that.

  35. Ondedline says:

    I had intended to go in on this post, but then I say that Kendall Holden had handled it I am just going to co-sign on everything that Kendell wrote here and get busy enjoying my Sunday,

  36. Leon says:

    I have watched three episodes and I don’t take the same position as the author – I could care less about who is having sex. I dislike the show because of the horrible overacting and the double standard. If the President were depicted as black and having an affair with a white woman, many– not all– of the black women who like the show would be losing their mind.

  37. Sarah Lee says:

    If it’s not one thing its the next, and people will choose to view whatever, in their own way. In many ways to say, their stories, negative might I add, NEVER change. Jesus could come back tomorrow and someone will ask why? smh Just as the POTUS isn’t the savior to all problems African-Americans face, neither is Shonda the savior of depicting how African-Americans are viewed on television. Every single episode and season PREACHES against judgement, and people continuously MISS that. She does a heck of a job exemplifying the problems and sacrifices thereof, that people who lead and serve face. Whether its through GLBT, race, religion, and other things. As I know and recently seen, most people aren’t as deeply in-tuned as I am, however Shonda will serve as Shonda creates–its the reason the show is so damn good. I guess this really boils down to how and what you are watching the sitcom for. Harrison’s story is soon to be revealed. Stay tuned.

  38. Kam. O says:

    The type of sex that happens on Scandal, the situations that come about, I don’t know but it’s not something to be proud about lol. Lots of rape and murder and it’s nice to see the black men have minds and power. Albeit some of them (i.e Eli) has power that isn’t to savory but to know that they are capable of handling things (Harrison) on their very own and have held high offices (Edison) when it seems that they are the only few in the White House, it is something to be proud of. Sex is the least of the issues.

  39. Taurean says:

    So you may stop watching because you want to see more black men on the show have sex?

  40. Sue says:

    This is a classic case of you’re damned if you do and your damned if you don’t. You can be the sweetest, most luscious, most flawless peach in the world, but there will still be people who just don’t like peaches.

    Let’s keep things in perspective. This is a nighttime soap, with characters who are all flawed in one way or another. The characters were developed that way so that the audience continues to be engaged and viewership remains high. Quit complaining and enjoy the show for what it is – ENTERTAINMENT.

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