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Olivia Pope: Breaking the Spell of the “Magic Negro”

Fri, Sep 25, 7:00 to 9:00pm, Sheraton Atlanta Hotel, Conference Room 123

Abstract

In Season One Episode One of Scandal, Olivia Pope utters the words, “I’m not normal.” This simple sentence sets the foundation of the entire series. Pope is not normal – she is magical. She enters inconceivably difficult situations and effortlessly saves the day. Yet, her magic is not of princesses and fairytales; she is the “Magic Negro .” Her “gut” leads and guides her while acting as the shibboleth for Pope and Associates – determining who to represent and who not to represent. Even as Pope appears to embody the stock characteristics of the Magic Negro, she usurps that representation by not serving in a supporting role. Scandal is the Olivia Pope Show.

Scandal is praised for bringing a Black woman to the lead role on network TV for the first time in more than 30 years; however, in her role of fixer, Pope embodies both the Mammy and the Jezebel as the leader of her gladiators and as mistress to her president. Yet, one must ask whether this new role and representation of Black womanhood is just a repackaging of merged Black female stereotypes, albeit in finely tailored and structured outfits. Pope is baffling because she possesses many of the stereotypes of Black womanhood, yet she looks so good and talks so well that it is easy to forget that she is just another version of “the strong Black woman.” Pope walks the fine line of both embodying and negating the common stereotypes about Black women. The issue with stereotypes is that it prevents an individual from manifesting her humanity. Yet, it is Pope’s very humanity that draws viewers in week after week; she is human with faults and strengths. In creating a strong, yet flawed character, Shonda Rhimes has taken the concept of the Magic Negro and has broken its spell.

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