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Leading The Way With Old Fashioned Views of Race, Women, And Power

April 17, 2013

KERRY WASHINGTON103112-celebs-meagan-good-deception
I’ve been catching up on two dramas I really enjoy Deception and Scandal.  Deception a starring Megan Good as Joanna Locasto an African American police officer who returns to the white, wealthy family she grew up with to investigate the murder of her childhood best friend Vivian. Scandal, the better known of the two, is about a Washington fixer starring Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope.

Both shows have their share of intrigue, family secrets, and power struggles, which make for fun television, but they also share an obsession with its characters being colorblind that’s less endearing. That trait, along with a habit of placing their female leads in the middle of the action without any given them any lasting agency over their larger actions connects the two.

They enjoy a method of storytelling that attempts to talk about race without actually talking about it, which is disappointing given the opportunity that both shows provide for that type of discussion. As the daughter of a maid it’s a question, not an assumption that Joanna would have been completely included in the family or that the thought of her dating their son wouldn’t have been a potential pitfall either because of class or race. The family isn’t racist, but to not assume that those elements are part of the conversation is naïve. Olivia Pope, on the other hand, is a woman in power that simply doesn’t address the potential trials of also being a woman of color.

The two leads both engage in inequitable relationships, Olivia as a former employee and sometimes mistress of the President and Joanna acting undercover as an assistant at the family business of her childhood love and as an FBI asset governed by her current love interest. No matter their actual station in life, at the end of the day, both take orders. Both characters are also driven by writers who seem enamored with a certain type of women, one who act as either super professionals or as property.

In each show both characters are driven by one defying characteristic Joanna by her need to avenge the death of a former friend and Olivia by her gut, but not much else. Though Olivia Pope is often in the very middle of policy debates and news cycles she doesn’t share her own policy opinions and her advice is strictly strategic. She’s not helping decide where we go as nation, just that the people she works for help take us there with the least amount of muss.

Joanna on the other hand isn’t in charge of the case she’s most passionate about. Often she gains evidence not from her skills as a detective, but by straddling the line between her current love interest an FBI agent Will Moreno (Laz Alonso) that involved her in the case and her former childhood love the victim’s brother.

The actions of both shows showcase very old-fashioned views of women—who stand near power, but don’t weld it themselves.  Watching them it’s like seeing a world in which women like Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Elizabeth Warren, aren’t present.

That old fashioned view also takes the hard work of talking about class and race and puts it on the backburner. Both shows, but Scandal in particular, don’t see the place between color-blindness and utter racism—the world where most of us live. Speaking on race and writing about it in a way that’s affecting is hard, as Accidental Racist recently reminded us, but it is necessary. Being uncomfortable discussing race or showcasing more modern views of women minimizes the importance of both in our lives.

Neither story is or should be solely about race or gender—but ignoring the issues and the ways in which being an African American women in a position of power affected how they each got there isn’t responsible storytelling and doesn’t live up to the promise of either show.


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