The “Scandal” EffectThe Rise of Flawed Black Female Protagonists

On Thursday, April 5, 2012, a quiet revolution was born. Led in by the popular Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, the little drama that could, premiered at 10 p.m. on ABC. Over seven episodes, the show steadily accrued popularity through word of mouth and social media buzz, propelling Shonda Rhimes’s brainchild to a second season. The critical chatter even reached Beyoncé: She released her surprise self-titled album just after the third season’s explosive finale. She knew her audience was watching Scandal, and capitalized on the show’s ratings momentum.

By playing political fixer Olivia Pope, Kerry Washington became the first African American actress to lead a primetime network drama in nearly 40 years. In 2013, Washington became the first Black actress to be nominated in a lead Emmy category in 18 years. In 2015, Viola Davis became the first to win. That same year, Regina King and Uzo Aduba also collected trophies while Taraji P. Henson, Queen Latifah, Cicely Tyson, Khandi Alexander, Niecy Nash, Angela Bassett, and Mo’Nique all garnered acting nominations and Dee Rees was nominated in both writing and directing categories. In 2017, Tracee Ellis Ross won a Golden Globe for her role in Black-ish while competing against Issa Rae in the same category. Since 2012, a Black female actress has led a new show every year. While not all of the shows have survived, their existence is a testament to the power of Black audiences.

The strides that were made in representation in that short time frame is a direct result of the Scandal effect—the trend toward diversity that began after the show began dominating Thursday nights. “Though Grey’s Anatomy premiered in spring 2005, and quickly became not only massively popular, but a zeitgeist drama, partly due to its diverse, well-loved cast, it was the success of Scandal that finally convinced executives: Create more scripted shows about and for people of color, you silly fools,” BuzzFeed writer Kate Arthur noted in a 2014 piece. “While it doesn’t work when the show is bad… the payoff can be huge.” Scandal’s influence has also been felt throughout the entertainment industry, affecting everything from the quality of roles for Black women to making networks less hesitant to invest in programming by and for other minority groups. Everyone wants a piece of the Scandal pie, and as the juggernaut takes its final bow to make room for the peak TV content that has sprung up in its wake, it’s clear that desire for more diverse stories has not abated.

Viola Davis, Uzo Aduba, and Taraji P. Henson winning awards

Photo credit: Getty Images and Reuters

From left to right: Viola Davis, Uzo Aduba, and Taraji P. Henson (Photo credit: Getty Images and Reuters)

One of the most beneficial outcomes of the Scandal effect is the increased diversity of representation of Black women in media. Free from the burdens of representation, the experiences of Black women have been examined in greater detail. From astronauts to music moguls, to sugar barons, to baseball players, to nail technicians, to morning show hosts, Black women finally exist as more than the sassy best friend to the white female lead. Mary Jane Paul (Gabrielle Union), Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge), and Charley Bordelon West (Dawn Lyen-Gardner) couldn’t exist without Olivia. Her presence made room for Black women characters to be prime-time news anchors, stewards of the Apocalypse, and crusaders fighting against the shame of family secrets. Olivia’s bankability proved that Black female characters were a sound investment because Black women are a reliable audience who deliver major ratings. A 2015 study found that African Americans watch more television, and are more likely to be active on multiple screens.

In other words, Black women don’t just come with eager eyes (that could be served more ads), but are also dependable evangelists for the content they love. Black women told other Black women to watch their favorite shows, and they listened.

It’s a phenomenon that networks like FOX and UPN have exploited time and time again. They built their cache on the reliability of Black audiences, and then pivoted content to cater to white audiences. It is public record that Friends would not exist without Living Single. But even early onscreen depictions of Black women are still as cherished as those popular today. Where would we be without the women of Girlfriends? Or The Cosby Show’s Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad), who may have single-handedly shaped a generation’s understanding of Black feminism? Each of these shows (along with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Martin, Sister Sister, Smart Guy, Moesha, All of Us, One on One, and The Hughleys, among others) moved us closer to the current Black woman boom that has permitted Black female characters to exist outside the historical binary of the Jezebel or Mammy.

Nicole Beharie, Gabrielle Union, and Viola Davis

Photo credit: FOX, BET, and ABC

Nicole Beharie in Sleepy Hollow, Gabrielle Union in Being Mary Jane, and Viola Davis in How To Get Away With Murder (Photo credit: FOX, BET, and ABC)

Some might say that this progress started long ago with Tiffany “New York” Pollard of Flavor of Love fame. Introduced as a potential suitor for Flavor Flav on the VH1 show, New York was a tough girl who never code-switched and never apologized for being herself. “Often watching her was my release to be the person I wish I could be without auctioning off my safety in my work and social spaces,” Myles E. Johnson wrote in OkayPlayer. “She said what I have thought countless times when being asked to perform remorse for white people’s comfort.” Without the veil of respectability, we’re allowed to have both the messy personal life of Being Mary Jane’s Mary Jane Paul and the crime-tinged pursuits of Claws’ Desna Simms (Niecy Nash). Pollard’s over the top responses remain a reaction gif staple on social media for good reason; she gives voice to the inner monologues so many of us have learned to silence. Her trailblazing authenticity proved that a Black woman could hold an audience. Arthur notes that “reality television on cable has for years reflected the fact that Black casts…attract large, younger audiences who are more likely to watch the shows live (and therefore watch commercials).”

But these shows had problems that wouldn’t be overlooked in 2017. Ambitious and accomplished as she was, the central conceit of Maxine Shaw’s (Erika Alexander) characterization on Living Single is that she’s framed mannish and undesirable. Girlfriends’ Maya Wilkes (Golden Brooks) is “ghetto” and “unrefined.” Today’s depictions are a course correction: a recognition that these women exist and they are more multidimensional. Not only does every Black woman have an avatar for her own life, but non-Black women have also been given a more meaningful view into the lives we lead and the plurality of our humanity. A decade later, Scandal was able to capitalize on an audience who had been underserved for years.

Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji in Insecure

Photo credit: Justina Mintz/courtesy of HBO

Issa Rae as Issa and Yvonne Orji as Molly in Insecure (Photo credit: Justina Mintz/courtesy of HBO)

But Scandal’s success didn’t just help Black women. ABC in particular took the success of Shondaland as proof of a changing tide and doubled down on its programming, ordering show after show with not just diverse leads, but diverse casts. The following years saw the additions of Resurrection, Mistresses, Agents of SHIELD, Black-ish, Quantico, Dr. Ken, Fresh off the Boat, Cristela, Uncle Buck, How to Get Away With Murder, and The Mayor, among others. Other networks greenlit shows like Brooklyn Nine Nine, Shades of Blue, The Carmichael Show, Empire, The Good Place, Insecure, Superstore, Jane The Virgin, and Elementary. Even Netflix produced the critically acclaimed and award-winning shows Master of None and Orange is the New Black.

Many of these shows found meaningful ways to either include people of color in lead roles or as supporting characters in ways that would have been a pipe dream in 2007. Rather than including a token Black best friend, television shows reflect the diversity that most of us experience in our everyday lives. It’s a watershed moment for diversity onscreen, so much so that CBS (the one network that seems most resistant to this change) has been taking heat year after year for not addressing the obvious whiteness of its lineup. That’s the new status quo: not only is diversity the new normal, but a lack of diversity is something the networks have to explain and account for. It may be too generous to connect the existence of Dear White People (which contains its own Scandal parody), Brown Girls, or Atlanta to the tiny little show about a woman having an affair with the president, but it’s clear that Scandal was the beginning of something massive. It’s popularity showed that not only are Black women a force to be reckoned with, but there are other minority communities hungry for representation, and it is worth it to invest in their stories and their lives.

When the second season of Jessica Jones premieres on Netflix in 2018, it will do so with episodes directed exclusively by women. That doesn’t happen without Ava DuVernay setting the example with OWN’s Queen Sugar. Queen Sugar doesn’t happen without “Vermont Is For Lovers, Too,” an episode of Scandal that DuVernay was invited to direct. Ava Duvernay is now one of six women to direct a film with a budget over $100 million, and all of it can be traced back to a tiny show that opened with a seven-episode freshman season that almost cast Connie Britton as the lead. Scandal may be ending, but the reverberations of its impact on pop culture will be felt for years. The wealth of characters who have been birthed in her wake give us deeper references for the kinds of Black women we can be and identify with, and they reflect the plurality of the Black female experience. One can only hope that in the coming years, we’ll continue to follow the blueprint set out by D.C.’s best fixer.

Cate Young, a dark-skinned Black woman with long, multicolored braids and glasses, smiles at the camera
by Cate Young
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Cate Young is a freelance film and culture critic. Her writing has appeared in Jezebel, NPR Music, Vulture, The Cut, and Paper. Cate was the 2016 Bitch Media Writing Fellow for Pop Culture Criticism and currently works as an audio producer in Los Angeles.

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