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.

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Don't bet on James Brokenshire saving devolution in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's decision to extend talks makes a settlement less, not more, likely. 

The deadline for the parties at Stormont to form a new executive has passed without an agreement. Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire has – as was inevitable – taken the least difficult option and opened a “short window of opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”.

Talks have been extended for a “short few weeks” – Brokenshire’s interpretation of the “reasonable period” allowed after the initial three weeks after the election elapsed. Despite his earlier warnings, there will be no snap election (for which he conceded there was “no appetite”).

Unhelpful though the tortured semantics of “a short few weeks” are, we can assume that new negotiations may well as last as long as the impending Commons recess, which begins on Thursday and ends on April 11th – after which, Brokenshire said, he will bring forward legislation to set regional rates in the absence of an executive. This, though not quite direct rule, would be the first step in that direction.  

So what changes now? Politically speaking and in the immediate term, not a great deal. For all the excited and frankly wishful chatter about the two parties approaching the final talks afresh after Martin McGuinness’ funeral last week, Sinn Fein and the DUP remain poles apart.  

The former declared talks to have failed a full day before the deadline, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has since said there has been “no substantive progress” on the key issues at hand – particularly the DUP’s “minimalist” approach on the Irish language and marriage equality. Seemingly unassailable differences remain on a new Bill of Rights and measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. As such, both Adams and Sinn Fein's new leader Michelle O’Neill continue to stress their election lines: equality, respect, integrity, and, perhaps most tellingly, “no return to the status quo”.

Brokenshire clearly recognises that there will be no new executive without some movement on these issues: yesterday he referred to the talks to come as an “opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”. He is right to do so: Sinn Fein’s demands are, for the most part, as yet unimplemented provisions from the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements of 2014 and 2015. 

But will the DUP budge? It appears unlikely at first glance. Sinn Fein’s approach to negotiations has only heightened tensions between the would-be coalition partners, whose relationship has regressed to the openly adversarial (DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday expressly blamed Sinn Fein for the collapse in talks).

There looks to be little appetite for compromise on Sinn Fein’s headline demands. The DUP’s opposition to historical prosecutions of Troubles veterans is well-publicised, and appears to be aligned with UK government thinking.

Nor does there appear to have been any real shift in the party’s position on legal recognition for the Irish language. Speaking on the BBC’s World at One yesterday afternoon, Ian Paisley Jr stressed in pretty woolly terms to the DUP’s commitment to “promoting minority languages”, which, however true, is not the commitment to an Irish language act that Sinn Fein are asking for. That the spirit of Paisley’s remarks was essentially the same as his leader’s contrarian take on the issue – she said, provocatively, that there was much a need for a Polish language act as an Irish language act – is not a promising sign.

The continuing fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that triggered last month’s election also complicates matters. Though the London press have already relegated this public spending scandal to the footnotes, the full ramifications are yet to be seen. A full list of claimants was last week published by the Belfast News Letter, and the longer the process of negotiation and renegotiation drags on, the clearer the answer to the question of who exactly benefited from the scheme’s mismanagement becomes. Though, Foster's penance in the wake of the DUP’s calamitous election performance has gone some way to rehabilitating her public image, the taint of corruption could retoxify the brand. It isn’t difficult to see why veteran Stormont horse-traders like Reg Empey, the former leader of the UUP, believe an executive may well be unachievable until the inquiry into "cash for ash" delivers its ruling – a process which could take a year.

The political impasse, then, looks as insoluble as ever. Leaders of smaller parties such as the non-sectarian Alliance have blamed Brokenshire for the startling fact that there were no roundtable talks at any point during the past three weeks. The Northern Ireland secretary’s decision to extend talks for another fortnight could bury power-sharing as we know it for good. From Wednesday, the civil service will take control of the province’s budget, as per Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act. The permanent secretary of the Department for Finance will immediately have access to just 75 per cent of available funds, and, if the situation persists, 95 per cent.

In the worst case scenario, this means cuts could well come hard and fast. All the better for Sinn Fein - as I wrote earlier this month, the imposition of austerity and Brexit from London offers an opportunity to parlay short-term pain into long-term political gain. Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis has admitted that Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU in the event of a border poll. The path to a united Ireland via direct rule looks clearer than ever before.

Unionists are not blind to this existential risk – and here Brokenshire’s bizarre insistence that he was ready to call Northern Ireland’s third election in twelve months exposes his political naivety. He maintains there is “little public appetite” for a new poll. He might be right here, but that doesn’t mean a revanchist DUP would refuse the opportunity, if it arose, to go back to a unionist electorate it believes have taken frit at Sinn Fein’s post-election manoeuvring. Some in the party are keen to do so, if only to put to bed what they deem to be premature and melodramatic talk of imminent Irish unity.

Another election would suit Sinn Fein’s long game. The more dysfunctional and unworkable devolved politics in the North, the stronger the logic for a quick transition to a united Ireland in the EU. Much of the Northern Irish political establishment deem Brokenshire a lightweight - as do many in his own party. That he seems not to have realised that threatening a new election wasn’t much of a threat at all – or foreseen this avoidable mess - does nothing to dispel that notion. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.