Did Scandal end with the first glimpse at a black female President in America? Shonda Rhimes is keeping tight-lipped about the open-to-interpretation ending of the seven season-long series, but one thing is absolutely certain—television has been irrevocably changed since Olivia Pope first strutted onto ABC and donned her white hat.
The television landscape prior to Scandal was one dominated by white male anti-heroes. A black woman had not led a primetime drama in nearly 40 years, not since Teresa Graves starred in the ABC crime drama Get Christie Love! And there certainly hadn't been any black women anti-heroes. Hell, black women were hardly having their stories told on television at all until Rhimes did the impossible, blending soap, '70s conspiracy thrillers, and political activism into a rollicking, addictive drama.
Speaking to Vulture about creating Olivia Pope, Rhimes said, "If there was [pushback about casting a black woman], I didn’t hear about it. I like to imagine that there was. I like to imagine that I said, 'Olivia Pope is supposed to be black' and they hung up the phone and they were like, 'Oh my god, she’s black!' Honestly, that’s the part about working where I work. Everybody was always like, 'It was so brave, and it was so awesome,' but nobody ever said no. Nobody ever said that this was going to be a problem."
She also pushed early on for Olivia to get as down and dirty as her white male counterparts on television. "I got one phone call, and the phone call was, 'Can you do the entire thing, but can she not be having an affair with the president?' I remember it so clearly. My response was, 'This is a show in which Olivia Pope is going to be having sex in the Oval Office with the president on the desk, somewhere in the first season. If you all aren’t interested in that, then you don’t need to make the show. I’m perfectly fine.' And then nobody said anything more."
If you look at how television has changed since then, Rhimes ushered in a way to tell stories about black people that didn't merely revolve around their blackness. Being black is a given in any situation, after all, so why stake a character's entire story on race? It's how we now have series like Black-ish, Atlanta, Insecure, Queen Sugar, Luke Cage, Power and more that tell black people's stories without always hinging them on how we react to whiteness.
More than that, Rhimes staked her seat in the pantheon of television showrunners who are known for crafting spectacular television dramas. Steven Bochco. Aaron Spelling. David Chase. David Simon. Vince Gilligan. Ryan Murphy. You know Rhimes' name as well as you know her television characters. A black creator with such power in Hollywood was unprecedented until Rhimes created Grey's Anatomy. And then with Scandal, she fucking went for broke.
Looking now to what television looks like post-Scandal—it's interesting that ABC, Scandal's home network, is retreating to the safety of stories they believe will connect with America's "heartland" and white middle-class voters who voted for Trump, when Rhimes earned ABC so much attention for diverse, multi-layered storytelling. It's telling that she has fled for Netflix. Streaming and cable giants are where black stories have been allowed to flourish. Outside of network constraints, black characters can be fully fleshed-out human beings and not either whitewashed characters who never reference their blackness or sidekicks to white characters.
Has television truly changed? I think it has. Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis and Kerry Washington are racking up awards and nominations. Issa Rae just days ago won a Peabody Award for Insecure. According the Peabody Awards site, “Issa Rae delivers a groundbreaking series that captures the lives of everyday young black people in Los Angeles with a fresh and authentic take. Breaking away from tired and familiar representations of 'diversity' on television, this series offers a fun and intimate portrayal of work, relationships, and the ordinary experiences of the two young black women at its center." It sounds a lot like the way the Pulitzer committee described Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. when it awarded the album this week: "[The album is] a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life."
From Lamar to Rae, black creators have now reached a point where they're able to fully embrace telling stories without the interference of a white narrative and that Rhimes is part of that legacy will make Scandal stand the test of time. It had been forty years since Get Christie Love! when Scandal debuted, and now a black woman — Courtney Kemp— is rebooting that series for ABC. Black artists constantly have to prove themselves over and over again within their own industries, but maybe Kemp will follow in Rhimes' footsteps and amass millions of viewers to ABC. They might start rethinking that heartland strategy and remember that Rhimes once showed them, always bet on black.