Why is it still groundbreaking for a TV show like Scandal to have a black female star?

Kerry Washington, star of <em>Scandal</em>, is the first black woman to be starring in a US primetime network show since the 1970s.

Blanche and Dorothy and Rose and Sophia. Donatello and Leonardo and Michelangelo and Raphael. Max and Khadijah and Synclaire and Regine. Samantha and Carrie and Charlotte and Miranda. The Power of Four (those foursomes were from The Golden Girls, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Living Single and Sex and the City, respectively) is a well worn television trope. For one thing, it makes it incredibly easy for TV writers to format “Which X Show Character Are YOU?” quizzes, and for another, it’s the perfect number for audiences to latch onto and identify with. It allows for interesting mixes - each relationship reveals further insight into the characters, and allows for more nuanced inferences to be written for, and understood by audiences. It’s a magic TV number.

Whatever permutations the four take on, there is always a "hub person" ie the character around whom the others revolve. The three are mere satellites - interesting and worthy of study, sure - but all working around the main event, the fully formed planet that brings them all together. So that’s why Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw was the only one who “couldn’t help but wonder”. It’s why Sarah Jessica Parker won the Golden Globe for Best Actress, while the others were nominated in the "Supporting Actress" category (only Kim Cattrall ever won). And even when all four of the leads won Emmys in the "Lead Actress" category, as with The Golden Girls, you knew in your gut that Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) was the show’s centre, just as Khadijah James (Queen Latifah) was the glue that kept the the girls together in Living Single.

The hub person that I am most excited by at the moment is on Some Girls, a teen show on BBC Three. Holli, Saz and Amber all revolve around their hub person, Viva, who is smart and wise and fun and pretty, and as complicated as a 16 year-old girl on telly can be. She is also black (where her satellites are white and Asian). If you can’t tell why that is worth noting, then you must not watch a lot of television. Even more thrillingly, Viva is a hub person in the same era as one of television’s Great Black Girl Moments™; she exists in the time of Scandal, and the character of Olivia Pope, who, with apologies to Charles Spencer, is sheer televisual viagra. Scandal is a phenomenon, not that you would guess this from its buried-away little slot on More4 on British telly.

Its star, Kerry Washington - all quivering lips and conflicted Bambi eyes - made history when she was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of the Washington DC fixer who isn’t quite as immaculate as the sharply tailored white suits she favours. Washington was the first black woman nominated in the category of Lead Actress in a Drama since Cicely Tyson in 1995; no black actress has ever won it, not once in the Emmys’ 64-year history. Scandal is one of the highest rated dramas on television at the moment, and Olivia Pope is not only the hub person on her show, she’s almost a hub person for prime time television as a whole. It is exciting, but we’ve been excited before, like when Halle Berry became the first black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar in 2001, and we all braced ourselves for a veritable rainbow revolution in the world of casting. In reality, only three black women have been nominated in that category since then (Gabourey Sidibe in 2009, for Precious; Viola Davis for The Help in 2011 and Quvenzhane Wallis last year, for Beasts of the Southern Wild) and none of them won. Break out the champagne. . .

But back to Scandal, which is impressive while still carrying the mantle of startling "firsts" for a television show being broadcast in the 2010s. Here are the facts of it: it was created by a black woman, based on the life of a black woman, and stars a black woman in the lead role. Washington is the first black woman to be starring in a US primetime network show since the 1970s. For the show’s eighth episode of the current (third) series, creator Shonda Rhimes has enlisted the talent of Sundance-winning Best Director Ava DuVernay (in turn, she was the first African-American winner of that prize). Ebony magazine tells us it “will be the first time a Black woman directs a primetime network TV drama created by a Black woman and starring a Black woman.” It is 2013.

Scandal is not problem-free, of course. It has been clumsy and cringingly awkward when it comes to race. There was a Sally Hemings' line shoehorned into season two with all the finesse of a tripping hippo, and a near total lack of acknowledgement of Pope’s achievement in shadow of American history and reality (you should watch Jessica Pearson - played by Gina Torres - in another US import, Suits, for that). It succeeds when it looks like it’s not trying too hard, when it just seems to be stating bald facts - the moment in season 2 episode 16 when the client reaches out to shake the hand of "Olivia Pope" and automatically approaches her junior colleague, a white redhead. It nails it even more powerfully in the season three opener, when Pope’s father (Joe Morton) asks her, “How many times have I told you, you have to be what?” And Olivia replies on a whisper, “Twice as good. . .” “To get half of what they have!” he completes with a bellow. It’s a pretty perfect scene, telling the story of one person, but also an entire race in a matter of seconds. It is an almost always impossible ask; what is often being asked of black people is something more than human: infallibility. And with the DNA of Scandal being what it is, the request has come to the show’s door - it has to be twice as good.

Thankfully, it usually is.

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

Getty
Show Hide image

Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.