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.

Photo: National Theatre
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I hate musicals. Apart from Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, Follies – oh, wait

Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling.

I always thought I hated musicals. Showy, flamboyant, and minutely choreographed, they seemed to be the antithesis of the minimalist indie scene I grew up in, where a ramshackle DIY ethos prevailed, where it wasn’t cool to be too professional, too slick, too stagey. My immersion in that world coincided with the heady days of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s triumphs in the West End – Evita in 1978, Cats in 1981 – neither of which I saw, being full of scorn for such shows.

From then on I convinced myself that musicals were not for me, conveniently forgetting my childhood love of West Side Story (for which I’d bought the piano music, bashing out “I Feel Pretty” over and over again in the privacy of the dining room, on the small upright that was wedged in behind the door).

I was also conveniently forgetting Meet Me In St Louis and A Star is Born, as well as An American in Paris, which I’d been to see with a boy I was actually in a band with – he somehow finding it possible to combine a love of The Clash with a love of Gene Kelly. And I was pretending that Saturday Night Fever wasn’t really a musical, and neither was Cabaret – because that would mean my two favourite films of all time were musicals, and I didn’t like musicals.

Maybe what I meant was stage musicals? Yes, that was probably it. They were awful. I mean, not Funny Girl obviously. When people ask “If you could go back in time, what gig would you most like to have attended?” two of my answers are: “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, and Barbra Streisand in the original 1964 Broadway production of Funny Girl.” I would, of course, also make an exception for Guys and Dolls, and South Pacific, and My Fair Lady, and… oh God, what was I talking about? I’d always loved musicals, I just stopped remembering.

Then one of our teens took me to see Les Misérables. She’d become obsessed with it, loving the show so much she then went and read the Victor Hugo book – and loving that so much, she then re-read it in the original French. I know! Never tell me today’s young people are lazy and lacking in commitment. So I went with her to see the long-running stage version with my sceptical face on, one eyebrow fully arched, and by the time of Éponine’s death and “A Little Fall of Rain” I had practically wept both raised eyebrows off my face. Call me converted. Call me reminded.

I was late to Sondheim because of those years of prejudice, and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since, keeping my eyes open for London productions. Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory was stunning, and Imelda Staunton in Gypsy (yes, I know he only wrote the lyrics) was a revelation. Here she is again tonight in Follies at the National Theatre, the show that is in part a homage to the era of the Ziegfeld Follies, that period between the wars that some think of as the Golden Age of Musicals.

Although, as Sondheim writes in his extraordinary book, Finishing The Hat, (which contains his lyrics plus his comments on them and on everything else): “There are others who think of the Golden Age of Musicals as the 1950s, but then every generation thinks the Golden Age was the previous one.” How I would have loved to have seen those shows in the 1970s, when they were new and startling.

They still are, of course, and this production of Follies is a delight from start to finish. A masterclass in lyrics – Sondheim’s skill in writing for older women is unmatched – it is also sumptuously beautiful, full of emotion and sardonic wit, switching between the two in the blink of an eye, in a way that appears effortless.

And I realise that what I love about musicals is their utter commitment to the audience’s pleasure. Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling, and my mascara has somehow become smudged from having something in my eye, and I have already booked tickets to go again. So sue me.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left