Skip to content

Black Feminism Analysis Essay

Black feminism is a school of thought stating that sexism, class oppression, gender identity and racism are inextricably bound together.[1] The way these concepts relate to each other is called intersectionality, a term first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989.[2] In her work, Crenshaw discussed Black feminism, which argues that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black or of being a woman. Instead, each concept should be considered independently while including the interactions that frequently reinforce each other.[3]

Black feminism became popular in the 1960s, as the consequence of the Civil Rights Movement that supposedly excluded women, and the supposed racism of feminist movement. From the 1970s to 1980s, black feminists formed various groups which addressed the role of black women in black nationalism, gay liberation, and second-wave feminism. In the 1990s, the Anita Hill controversy placed black feminism in a mainstream light. Black feminist theories reached a wider audience in the 2010s, as a result of social media advocacy.[4]

Proponents of black feminism argue that black women are positioned within structures of power in fundamentally different ways from white women. The distinction of black feminism has birthed the derisive tag "white feminist", used to criticize feminists who do not acknowledge issues of intersectionality.[5] Critics of black feminism argue that racial divisions weaken the strength of the overall feminist movement.[6]

Among the theories that evolved out of the black feminist movement are Alice Walker's womanism, and historical revisionism with an increased focus on black women.[7][8]Angela Davis, bell hooks, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, and Patricia Hill Collins have emerged as leading academics on black feminism, whereas black celebrities, notably Beyoncé, have encouraged mainstream discussion of black feminism.[9][10]


The black feminist movement grew out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, stemming from groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panthers and other such groups. Organizations like the National Black Feminist Organization, found that many civil rights and Black Power organizations were unwilling to take up causes that were central to the lived experiences of black women (forced sterilization, legal abortion, domestic violence, safe and well-paid job opportunities for black domestics, etc...).Often, many women who later became black feminists, found that sexism was rampant throughout many of the more traditional civil rights organizations, as well as the Black Power organizations.

The place where racial equality and gender equality meet, called intersectionality, is an area often overlooked by many. Activist and cultural critic Angela Davis was one of the first people to articulate a written argument centered on intersectionality, in Women, Race, and Class.[11]Kimberle Crenshaw, a prominent feminist law theorist, gave the idea the name intersectionality in 1986–1987 as part of her work in anti-discrimination law, as part of describing the effects of compound discrimination against black women.[12] Another feminist theorist, Patricia Hill Collins, introduced the sociological theory of matrix of domination; much of her work concerns the politics of black feminist thought and oppression.

Throughout the plight of African Americans, from post slavery oppression until modern inequality disputes, African American women have experienced this intersection of racial and gender inequality. The fight for equality on both fronts has immense historical background, and various intersections throughout this history. What many consider to be a culmination of the fight for racial equality was the Civil Rights Movement, from 1958 to 1972. While this was happening, the fight for gender equality was culminating as well, and certainly not taking a backseat to the civil rights movement. The peak of Second-wave feminism was occurring simultaneously alongside the civil rights movement. Throughout these events, black feminism was the intersection of the two, and the progress made was influential to both racial and gender equality. Despite its relation, black feminism originated and evolved along its own path, separate from mainstream feminism and the early civil rights movement.

Post-slavery period – 1920s[edit]

Beginning in the post slavery period, black female intellectuals that included Frances Ellen Watkins Harper set in motion the principles that would become the basis for black feminism. Harper's ideas, although not necessarily well known, were the beginning of black feminism.

Activists, such as Harper, proposed "some of the most important questions of race, gender, and the work of Reconstruction in the nineteenth century", a very bold action for a black woman at the time.[13] These intellectuals accomplished things that were unheard of for black women, such as giving public lectures, fighting for suffrage, and aiding those in need of help following reconstruction. Suffrage was early evidence of schisms between white and black feminism. According to Harper, white women needed suffrage for education; however, "black women need the vote, not as a form of education, but as a form of protection".[13] The right to vote would not only bring these women closer to the power that men had, it would give black women an influence on the politics which oppressed them. Another difference was the higher importance of heritage for black women and knowing the plight of their ancestors. These ideas were transported through mediums, such as lectures and literature, making it accessible for men and women, whites and blacks alike. Aspects of the work of early leaders such as Harper laid down the basis for black feminism, as these principles would continue to be retained by later iterations and evolutions of black feminism.

1920s to 1960[edit]

Although many wave metaphors of feminist and Civil Rights activism leave out the few decades after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, this was a particularly important moment in the development of black feminist activism.[14] During this period, a few radical black female activists joined the Communist party or focused on union activism. Although they did not all identify as feminists, their theorizing included important works that are the foundation for theories of intersectionality--integrating race, gender, and class. In 1940, for example, Esther V. Cooper (married name Esther Cooper Jackson), for example, wrote a M.A. thesis called "The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism."[15] And in 1949 Claudia Jones wrote "An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman."[16]

Other feminist activism and organizing happened around cases of racial and sexual violence. For example, Esther Cooper and Rosa Parks organized to help Recy Taylor. In 1944, Taylor was the victim of a gang rape; Parks and Cooper attempted to bring the culprits to justice.[17] Black feminist activists focused on other similar cases, such as the 1949 arrest of and then death sentence issued to Rosa Lee Ingram, a victim of sexual violence. Defenders of Ingram included the famous black feminist Mary Church Terrell, who was an octogenarian at the time.[18]

1960s and 1970s[edit]

In the second half of the 20th century, black feminism as a political and social movement grew out of black women's feelings of discontent with both the Civil Rights Movement and the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

One of the foundation texts of black feminism is An Argument for Black Women's Liberation as a Revolutionary Force, authored by Mary Ann Weathers and published in 1969 in Cell 16's radical feminist magazine No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation.[19] Weathers states her belief that "women's liberation should be considered as a strategy for an eventual tie-up with the entire revolutionary movement consisting of women, men, and children", but she posits that "[w]e women must start this thing rolling"[19] because

All women suffer oppression, even white women, particularly poor white women, and especially Indian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Oriental and Black American women whose oppression is tripled by any of the above-mentioned. But we do have females' oppression in common. This means that we can begin to talk to other women with this common factor and start building links with them and thereby build and transform the revolutionary force we are now beginning to amass.[19]

Black women and the Civil Rights Movement[edit]

Not only did the Civil Rights Movement primarily focus on the oppression of black men, but many black women faced severe sexism within civil rights groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A group of women in the SNCC (who were later identified as white allies Mary King and Casey Hayden) openly challenged the way women were treated when they issued the "SNCC Position Paper (Women in the Movement)".[20] The paper listed 11 events in which women were treated as subordinate to men. According to the paper, women in SNCC did not have a chance to become the face of the organization, the top leaders, because they were assigned to clerical and housekeeping duties, whereas men were involved in decision-making.[21]

When Stokely Carmichael was elected Chair of SNCC, he reoriented the path of the organization towards Black Power. Thus, white women lost their influence and power in SNCC; Mary King and Casey Hayden left, to become active in pursuing equality for women.[22] While it is often argued that black women in the SNCC were significantly subjugated during the Carmichael era, Carmichael appointed several women to posts as project directors during his tenure as chairman. By the later half of the 1960s, more women were in charge of SNCC projects than during the first half.[23] Despite these improvements, the SNCC's leadership positions were occupied by men during the entirety of its existence.[24]

The civil rights era was a pivotal time for black feminism, and spurred the evolution and definition of it, as the two movements worked alongside each other. At the same time, the Second Wave feminist movement was in full force. This was the perfect time for black feminism to thrive. The intersectionality of gender and racial equality movements formed black feminism into its own movement and cause. As the black power movement arose Black Power, their principles of the importance of civil rights along with separation from whites had an effect on the black feminist movement, including separation from white feminists. Influence spread to the unofficial symbol of black feminism.

This combination of the raised fist of black power, and the astrological symbol for Venus, denotes an intersection of ideals of the two groups. Ideals were shared, such as a "critique on racial capitalism, starting with slavery". Despite this, black feminism had reasons to become independent of Black Nationalism. Black feminism had been cast "as a negotiation of the sexism and masculinism (and sometimes heterosexism) of Black Nationalism".[25] The racial equality and reverence for their race was retained, while the sexism they carried was rejected. This action allowed black feminism to independently define itself, and more so than merely in relation to Black Nationalism and the Black Power movement.

Second-wave feminism[edit]

The second-wave feminist movement emerged in the 1960s, led by Betty Friedan. Black women were alienated by the main planks of the second-wave feminist movement. For example, earning the power to work outside the home was not an accomplishment for black women. Many black women had to work both inside and outside the home for generations due to poverty.[26] White feminists at the time advocated for the liberation of birth control, but there was little thought given in regard to black women's needs for access to contraception. Angela Davis, for instance, showed that while Afro-American women and white women were subjected to multiple unwilled pregnancies and had to clandestinely abort, Afro-American women were also suffering from compulsory sterilization programs.[27]

Some black feminists who were active in the early second-wave feminism include civil rights lawyer and author Florynce Kennedy, who co-authored one of the first books on abortion, 1971's Abortion Rap; Cellestine Ware, of New York's Stanton-Anthony Brigade; and Patricia Robinson. These women "tried to show the connections between racism and male dominance" in society.[28] Neither feminism nor the civil rights movement confronted the issues that concerned black women specifically. Because of their intersectional position, black women were being systematically ignored by both movements.

As feminism evolved as a whole, so did its demographics. Throughout the 20th century, black feminism evolved quite differently from mainstream feminism. It retained historical principles, while being influenced by new thinkers such as Alice Walker. Walker created a whole new subsect of black feminism, called Womanism, which emphasized the degree of the oppression black women faced when compared to white women. In addition, she retains the importance of heritage in black feminism, through her passionate medium of literature, exemplified in a 2011 interview.


Black women's voices were continuously marginalized but groups were formed that stood up in the face of oppression. In the early 1990s, AWARE (African Woman's Action for Revolutionary Exchange) was formed in New York by Reena Walker and Laura Peoples after an inspiring plenary session on black women's issues held at the Malcolm X Conference at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) entitled Black Women and Black Liberation: Fighting Oppression and Building Unity.[29]

AWARE went on to lead fights against the AMA and unnecessary medical procedures and was central to the anti-war movement during the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Reena Walker was featured regularly on WLIB Gary Byrd's show and WBAI radio, and AWARE forged alliances with Women in Limbo, The Harlem Birth Action Center, as well as various black coalitions and ad hoc groups. AWARE's voice was essential to the representation of black women in the anti-war movement. Reena coined the phrase "Our War is Here Not in The Persian Gulf". AWARE regularly held seminars, forums and panel discussions on black women's issues in Harlem. The panelists included Verniece Miller, Carlotta Joy Walker, Asha Bandele, Ann Tripp and a host of other black women feminists authors, activists and artists to discuss and inform the public about the specific issues black women were dealing with in their communities and how the larger issues affected them on a local level.

In 1991, The Malcolm X Conference was held again at BMCC and the theme that year was "Sisters Remember Malcolm X: A Legacy to be Transformed". It featured plenary sessions, "Sexual Harassment: Race, Gender and Power" and was held in a much larger theater that year. Black women were a central focus and not an aside as they were prior. Speakers included Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, Verniece Miller, Reena Walker, Carol Bullard (Asha Bandele) and Vivian Morrison.[30] In 1991, Reena Walker along with the members of AWARE also worked in coalition with AWIDOO (American Women in Defense of Ourselves), formed by Barbara Ransby, to sign a full-page ad in the New York Times to stand in support of Anita Hill.[31]

In 1995, Reena Walker went on to put out the call to various women and organized the group African Americans Against Violence[32] that effectively stopped a parade that a group of reverends led by Al Sharpton were attempting to hold in Harlem for Mike Tyson.[33] The group, including Eve and Kathe Sandler, Nsia Bandele and Indigo Washington, worked tirelessly and successfully stopped the parade from happening, bringing much needed attention to the struggle of black women and sexism and domestic violence.[34] A supporter of Mike Tyson, social worker Bill Jones, exclaimed "The man has paid his debt" (in regards to Tyson's rape conviction), and joined a large group of other Tyson supporters in heckling the African Americans Against Violence group, accusing them of "catering to white radical feminists".[34] The effort on the part of these women to build a larger and ongoing black grassroots women's movement was minimized by these hecklers.

21st century[edit]

The new century has brought about a shift in thinking away from "traditional" feminism which was generally considered to cater disproportionately to white women while failing to acknowledge the struggles of black women. Third wave feminism highlighted the need for more intersectionality in feminist activism and the inclusion of black women and other women of color. Moreover, the advancement of technology has fostered the development of a new digital feminism. This online activism involves the use of "Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, and other forms of social media to discuss, uplift, and activate gender equality and social justice. According to NOW Toronto, the internet has created a "call-out" culture, in which sexism or misogyny can be called out and challenged immediately with relative ease."[35] The use of technology coupled with an increased focus in the experiences of women of color, disabled women, LGBTQ women, and other marginalized groups of women is considered by some an entirely new wave of feminism altogether, fourth wave feminism.

As an academic response to this shift, many scholars have incorporated queer of color critique into their discussions of feminism and queer theory.[36][37]Queer of color critiques seeks an intersectional approach to disidentifying with the larger themes of "racialized heteronormativity and heteropatriarchy" in order to create a more representative and revolutionary critique of social categories.[38][39][40] An example of queer of color critique can be seen in the Combahee River Collective'sstatement, which addresses the intersectionality of oppressions faced by black lesbians.[41]


The 2010s have seen a revitalization of Black Feminism as a result of "black feminist thought spreading via big and small screens". As more and more influential figures began to identify themselves as feminist, social media saw a rise in young black feminists willing to "push the conversation forward" and bring racist and sexist situations to light.[42] Assistant professor in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, Brittney Cooper, states "I think Black feminism is in one of the strongest moments it has seen in a while; From Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, to Laverne Cox on Orange Is the New Black to Beyoncé ... we have prominent Black women identifying publicly with the term."[43] Social media proves to be an effective medium for young black feminists to express praise or discontent with organizations' representations of black women. For example, the 2015 and 2016 Victoria's Secret Fashion Shows were commended for letting four black models wear their natural hair on the runway. Black feminists on social media celebrated the embrace of the Natural hair movement using the hashtags #melanin and #blackgirlmagic.[44] On the other side of the spectrum, social media has been a useful tool to police companies that are found being racist or sexist. Issues such as appropriation of black culture are quickly brought to light on social media as labeled problematic. For example, a 2015 Vogue Italia photo shoot involving model Gigi Hadid wearing an afro sparked backlash on twitter, instagram, and facebook for the appropriation of black hair. Many users vocalized it was problematic and racist to have a white model wear an afro and a fake tan to give the appearance of blackness when the fashion magazine could have hired a black model instead.[45] One reason why appropriation of black hairstyles on white people has become a particularly touchy subject in black feminism is because of the double standard that when white women wear black hairstyles, they are deemed "trendy" or "edgy" while black women are labelled "ghetto" or "unprofessional".[46]

Black feminists have also voiced the importance of increasing representation of black women in television and movies. According to a 2014 study by the University of Southern California, of the 100 top films of that year "nearly three-quarters of all characters were white," NPR reports, and only 17 of those 100 top movies featured non-white lead or co-lead actors. Of course, that number is even lower if you just look at non-white women leads, considering only one-third of speaking roles were for women, according to the same study.[47] The lack of representation of black men and women was attributed to the misconception that minority lead characters do not appeal to audiences as well as white characters, especially overseas. However, that excuse is consistently debunked when films centered around black characters fare quite well globally, including, but not limited to, the 2011 film, The Help (film), and the 2016 film, Hidden Figures. Both films had multiple black women in lead roles, were lasting box office successes, and were nominated for multiple Academy Awards. Additionally, the idea that minority lead characters do not sell movies fails to acknowledge the fact that movies centered around white characters are just as able to do poorly.[48]

In 2017, Black women rarely have positive role models in the media. Kimberl'e Crenshaw from the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) states, "The widespread coverage of race and gender inequality in Hollywood often excludes black women. The wage gap for black women in the entertainment industry is a symptom of a larger issue: the invisibility and devaluing of black women in media culture as performers, producers, and directors. " Black feminists are not present in modern media. Black Feminists need to make progress in their movement by creating a media platform to help advocate their voices and to inspire others.[49]

Black Lives Matter[edit]

Black Lives Matter, an activist movement that was formed to campaign against racism and police brutality against African Americans, has contributed to a revitalization and re-examining of the Black Feminist movement.[50] The movement itself was started by three black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, and has been viewed as a Black Feminist Movement first, rather than as a part of the larger feminist movement.[51] Black Lives Matter largely accepts the intersectionality of women of color, and how interlocking systems of oppression work against African American women in particular.[52] The movement has also been critical of White Feminism as only focusing on the oppression of white women and not looking at how intersectionalities of class, race, and culture have been harming marginalized groups.[53] According to academic scholar Angela Davis, “Black Women face a triple oppression” of racism, classism, and sexism and Black Lives Matter has been a largely grassroots movement focused on including intersectional voices.[54] Activism of Black Feminists in Black Lives Matter include the protests of political candidates such as Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton and hashtags such as #oscarssowhite, and #sayhername.[55]

Black feminist identity politics and safe spaces[edit]

Black feminist identity politics can be defined as knowing and understanding one's own identity while taking into consideration both personal experience as well as the experiences of those in history to help form a group of like-minded individuals who seek change in the political framework of society.[56] It also can be defined as a rejection of oppressive measures taken against one's group, especially in terms of political injustice.[56]

Black feminist writer Patricia Hill Collins believes that this 'outsider within' seclusion suffered by black women was created through the domestic sphere, where black women were considered separate from the perceived white elite who claimed their dominance over them.[57] They also felt a disconnect between the black men's suffering and oppression.[57] As a result of white feminists excluding black women from their discourse, black feminists expressed their own experiences of marginalization and empowered black consciousness in society.[57] Due to the diverse experiences of black women, it is imperative to Collins to speak for and of personal accounts of black women's oppression.[57]

Identity politics have often implemented race, class, and gender as isolated categories as a means of excluding those who aren't perceived as part of the dominant group.[58] These constructed biases formed from race, class, and gender are what feminist Kimberle Crenshaw believes need to be used, not as a means of degradation, but as a form of empowerment and self-worth.[58] Ignoring these differences only creates more of a divide between social movements and other feminist groups, especially in the case of violence against women where the caliber of violence is correlated with components such as race and class.[58]

Another issue of identity politics is the conflict of group formations and safe spaces for black women.[56] In the 1970s, increased literacy among black women promoted writing and scholarship as an outlet for feminist discourse where they could have their voices heard.[56] As a result, black women sought solace in safe spaces that gave them the freedom to discuss issues of oppression and segregation that ultimately promoted unity as well as a means of achieving social justice.[56]

As the notion of color-blindness advocated for a desegregation in institutions, black women faced new issues of identity politics and looked for a new safe space to express their concerns.[56] This was met with a lot of contention as people saw these black female groups as exclusive and separatist.[56] Dominant groups, especially involved in the political sphere, found these safe spaces threatening because they were away from the public eye and were therefore unable to be regulated by the higher and more powerful political groups.[56]

Despite the growth in feminist discourse regarding black identity politics, some men disagree with the black feminist identity politics movement.[59] Some black novelists, such as Kwame Anthony Appiah, uphold the notion of color-blindness and dismiss identity politics as a proper means of achieving social justice.[59] To him, identity politics is an exclusionary device implemented in black culture and history, like hip hop and jazz, that limit outsider comprehension and access.[59] However, writer Jeffery A. Tucker believes that identity politics serves as a foundation where such color-blindness can finally be achieved in the long run if implemented and understood within society.[59] It can be the beginning of the black feminist movement's growth and hope for change.[59]


Black feminist organizations had to overcome different challenges that no other feminist organization was forced to face. Firstly, these women had to "prove to other black women that feminism was not only for white women".[60] They also had to demand that white women "share power with them and affirm diversity" and "fight the misogynist tendencies of Black Nationalism".[60] With all the challenges these women had to face, many activists referred to black feminists as "war weary warriors".

The short-lived National Black Feminist Organization was founded in 1973 in New York by Margaret Sloan-Hunter and others (The NBFO stopped operating nationally in 1975[61]). This organization of women focused on the interconnectedness of the many prejudices faced by African-American women, such as racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.[62] In 1975, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Cheryl L. Clarke, Akasha Gloria Hull, and other female activists tied to the Civil Rights Movement, Black Nationalism or the Black Panther Party established, as an offshoot of the National Black Feminist Organization, the Combahee River Collective, a radical lesbian feminist group. Their founding text referred to important female figures of the abolitionist movement, such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances E. W. Harper, Ida B. Welles Barnett and Mary Church Terrell, president of the National Association of Colored Women founded in 1896. The Combahee River Collective opposed the practice of lesbian separatism

This essay will discuss feminism and black femininities’ representations through the understanding of a television series I discovered during this course: Scandal. This American political series created, written and produced by Shonda Rhimes, recounts the life and cases that Olivia Pope, a political crisis management expert of Washington, DC, deals with while gravitating towards the White House. Scandal was such a success primarily due to the rare complexity of the main character’s psychology, played by Kerry Washington. In spite of her beauty and incommensurable elegance, we will not discuss her wardrobe but rather how this 30 year-old black woman’s role challenges gender relations of power while also performing certain black femininity stereotypes theorized by Hill Collins.


In order to introduce my topic, I would like to begin with a thought I recently had while watching a documentary called Miss representation (Siebel J. January 21, 2011). One specific sentence really blew my mind “You can’t be what you can’t see”. So I asked myself “how often do you see a powerful woman’s character on TV that could possibly inspire you?” The response was “hardly ever”.

“You can’t be what you can’t see”.

However, Olivia Pope is one of the rare strong female characters I could name. This is why I decided, in this essay, to demonstrate how Scandal is a complex and dualistic series. In other words, to show how in “Scandal’s system” there are two opposite dynamics at work. One positive, which challenges masculine and racial domination representations (even if it is only to a certain extent) and the other one, more negative, which re-enforces old societal patterns of women’s dependence on men; in this case Olivia Pope’s dependence on her lovers.

In line with this approach, I will first explore gender-based relations of power taking place in this series through the second and third wave feminist lens, then in a second part, I will deconstruct black femininity representations taking place in Scandal.

Media Summary

The Media I will investigate is a popular American series called Scandal, which has been created by Shonda Rhimes in 2012. It is classified as a political thriller/drama and has won awards in that category such as an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series and a Golden Globe. In this essay we will not focus on a particular season or episode but study the series as a whole.

Since we will be mostly studying the main character of Scandal, it is important to begin by explaining her portrayal in the TV show. Olivia Pope is a Washington DC crisis management expert. The series focus on her cases that she deals with her associates but also recounts events that take place at the White House since she has an affair with the president of the United States of America. Throughout the series, Olivia Pope is depicted as a strong, independent, educated, upper class black woman that possesses a lot of power and therefore could be described as a strategist.

However her private life is slightly more chaotic. Even if she maintains close relations with her associates that she treats like family and calls “gladiators”, she struggles in her love relationships. As a matter of fact, being engaged in two relationships in the same time (with the president and the chief of CIA) seems to complicate her life so much that she often ends up alone. In sum, Olivia is a thirty years old black single successful and beautiful woman not specially seeking to settle down in order to build a family. As a consequence, we are now able to state that Olivia Pope is not only an unusual TV character because she is a black woman, successful, and educated, but also because her actions and desires can be judged amoral regarding to the puritanical American culture.

To conclude this media summary, we will add that as another way of being atypical, Olivia Pope is not afraid to use the “F word” and declares loud and clear that she defines herself a feminist. The following essay will study on the one hand, as previously stated, to what extent Olivia Pope is a revolutionary character in American TV landscape, and on the other hand how dualistic this character can be perceived since she still perpetuates racial and gender stereotypes.

The masculine domination: gender-based relations of power in Scandal

Many articles argue that Scandal is “the most feminist show on TV[1]”. By using the term “feminist show”, I refer to Oxford dictionary’s definition of feminism, which implies the fact that Scandal would be a series that is in accordance with the “advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social and economical equality to men”. To what extent is Scandal the most feminist show on TV? What would contradict this statement?

First and foremost, it is indisputable that in the American audio-visual landscape, only a few shows are headlined by women and that this phenomenon of leading female roles is still quite recent. In its last study entitled It’s a man’s (celluloid) world, The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Films of San Diego State University, discovered that “in 2011, females remained dramatically under-represented as characters in film when compared to their representation in the U.S population” and that “females accounted for 33% of all characters in the top 100 domestic grossing films”.[2] Therefore, we could claim that choosing a female character as the central role of Scandal can be seen as a conscious feminist decision from Shonda Rhimes, or possibly even an effort to restore gender equality — which would not come as a surprise if we examine the context of Shonda Rhimes’ background and filmography. “Grey’s Anatomy” and “How To Get Away With Murder” are both series led by women. Additionally, the famous screenwriter is well known for her commitment to offer audiences subtle portraits of gender and racial equality. Consequentially, this means that Scandal is in line with a desire of restoring gender equality by choosing lead actress; however, Scandal is definitely not the first series placing a woman on a pedestal, especially regarding to Shonda Rhimes filmography. So what distinguishes Scandal from other female-led programs?

Subjectively, categorizing Scandal as a feminist show depends only partially on the main character of the series but also on the other female characters in the show — regardless of the irrefutable importance of Olivia Pope’s role. However, her part is indisputable since she is repeatedly described by the media as “the strongest female leading character in TV history”, in this case by The New York Post, or even as someone who “tackles crises head on and calls out sexism whenever she sees it” [3]by The Guardian.

Moreover, throughout the seasons of Scandal, she fights for women-kind. For example, in one scene, she argues with her boyfriend (nothing less than the President of the United States of America) because he used sexist terminology while criticising her best friend by calling her “a bitch”. To that, she rebukes “don’t say that. The words used to describe women… If she was a man, you’d say she was formidable, or bold, or right”.

Olivia Pope can also be depicted as an empowered woman in a third wave feminism way — which refers to the feminist movement beginning in the 1990’s and continuing to the present.[4] Claire Snyder, from the University of Chicago, defines third-wavers as “entitled to interact with men as equals, claim sexual pleasure as they desire it (heterosexual or otherwise) and actively play with femininity”. She adds that “girl power, or girlie culture, is a central — yet contested — strand within the third wave”.[5] Indeed post-feminism “has reclaimed beauty practices as enjoyable, self-chosen and skilled feminine pursuits (e.g. Jervis and Zeisler, 2006).[6] As it happens, Olivia is very feminine; her outfits have been analysed in many female magazines. For example, she always wears heels and expensive couture bags. Moreover, she exercises self-determination and is fully aware of her « gender power ». In another episode she says to her father, “you may command dad, but I have weapon at my disposals. Weapons you can’t possibly possess.” Finally she freely satisfies her sexual desires. The study of Olivia’s character through a third wave feminism lens is then the most obvious.

Nevertheless, even if it less flagrant, we could also state that Scandal is a second wave feminist series — a feminist movement that “emerged in the late 1960s and fought for equal rights, better housing, was criticizing male chauvinism and calling for sex equality”[7] — because Olivia Pope, as well as her peers, are more concerned about women-kind than their own success. Consequently it respects “feminist efforts to make the personal political by repeatedly and universally reducing the political to the personal.”[8] For example, in one episode Olivia strongly declares, “I’d fight to the death to stand by any woman who said she was assaulted”. In the same way Melly Grant (another Scandal’s character) stands up for more than 16 hours in front of a Court in order to protect women’s rights on Christmas night.

“To make the personal political”

Yet, if it is true that Scandal’s synopsis isnot fully heteronormative in the way that it challenges “the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders with natural roles in life”[9] by coming up against the fact that “female character are much less likely than males to be portrayed as leader of any kind”[10] by choosing a powerful lead actress. In this case, this is Olivia Pope, the strong and feminist woman we just depicted, that remains to men’s disposal. She loses control every time she is in the President’s presence; her love and sexual attraction for him are described as indisputable and blur her gut, pushing her often to make bad decisions.

Adding to this are several instances throughout the series of men fighting to date Miss Pope, and we can thus say she is being objectified. She is a prize that competitors want to win. Olivia is trying to hold these men back since she cannot make a decision. However, her life during some episodes is totally focused on those two men and how she can seduce them.

In light of this, we could declare to a certain extent that Olivia Pope is a victim of the “Male Gaze” according to Laura Mulvey’s concept[11]. This theory refers to the way “visual arts tend to depict the world and women from a masculine point of view.” Laura Mulveys states “the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form.” Nowadays TV scripts are predominantly caught in phallocentrism. Mainstream culture and its patriarchal order are therefore rarely challenging or reacting to gender assumptions and society obsessions such as man’s superiority or gender roles we are supposed to perform. From then on we can declare that cinema manipulates visual pleasure through patriarchal erotic representations. Therefore, in Scandal, it can be said that Olivia Pope, while being objectified, is controlled by those men in a process called scopophilia that consists on “taking other as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze.”

“Olivia Pope is a victim of the Male Gaze.”

The racial domination: perpetuation of negative racial stereotypes

Previously we argued that Olivia Pope was one of the few strong female characters on contemporary TV and that Scandal could, in a way, be called a “feminist show”. However it is important to notice that Kerry Washington, the woman who embodies Olivia Pope, “became the first African-American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years” according to The New York Times. How revolutionary is that fact? To what extent is this show not perpetuating old redundant black femininity stereotypes?

“Terry Richardson became the first African-American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years.”

Some media refer to Scandal as the “new era of post-racial television, in which cast members are ethnically diverse but are not defined by their race or ethnicity”. After all, the United States of America is supposed to be a color-blind society in which skin’s color has no impact on people’s life and opportunities. As a consequence, referring to an American series with a black lead actress as post-racial television show makes sense. Actually Olivia Pope’s skin color is never mention except for her father who often reminds her that she has to fight and work harder and never forget that she is black and never will be equal to whites. Even so, a lot of government’s members and Olivia Pope associates in Scandal are black or from other ethnicities and are not defined by their skin’s color but rather by their proficiency or personality.

Olivia Pope in Scandal is described as someone who trusts her “gut”, her intuition and called herself a “gladiator” — which is not common nowadays. Women in media are frequently linked to attributes such as emotionalism or even motherhood, which are not connected to notions of leadership or boldness. Indeed most of the time women and specifically black women are depicted as instable people, always too emotional; whereas in Scandal, Olivia is the one taking decisions.

Doctor Brittney Cooper from Rutgers University states that Olivia Pope “is the most complex black female lead we’ve seen in prime time. We are not getting an archetype, you’re not getting a stereotype, you’re getting a fully fledged human being.” However, if Scandal challenges some black femininity stereotypes by notably giving decisional power to Olivia Pope by portraying her as a high-educated lady, it also perpetuates others. Hill Collin’s in her book entitled “Black Feminist Thought: knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment” gives us a list of the main black femininity stereotypes. The “Jezebel” is one of them. Olivia Pope’s character suffers from it. “The Jezebel depiction is equivalent to woman with a ravenous sexual craving and promiscuity” (Ladsin-Billings, 2009). Olivia is depicted as the most sexually active female character of the series. During 4 seasons she is the president’s mistress and sometimes has sex in order to get classified information. To what extent is this a positive and progressive way to portray a black 2016’s woman? Could we still fully believe that Scandal is the “new era of post-racial television?” I tend to disagree because this show, which is viewed by so many African-Americans perpetuates that Jezebel stereotype to millions of people and downplays Olivia’s success. 3 years ago, almost 8.4 million people were viewing this ABC show and it was the highest rated scripted drama among African-Americans with an average of 1.8 million viewers. Yet all those viewers are told that Olivia’s success is due to men and all her work is then reduced by that counterproductive idea that she got it through preforming sexual favours. Finally it seems that once again a strategy of white domination is used in Scandal since power is owned by white men and that the male gaze, through the same mechanism of control, is perpetuated. Sadly Scandal re-enforces the assumption that, as would declare Michel Foucault “power is a system of domination which controls everything and which leaves no room for freedom.”


In conclusion my goal was to understand Scandal’s dualism through the analysis of feminism theories and black femininities representations. This study showed that Scandal’s system was challenging masculine domination but mostly re-enforcing racial domination.

First we wanted to see if Scandal could be called a feminist show since so many media believed so. We studied this series through a second and third wave feminism lens and argued that Scandal was a feminist show since Olivia Pope was depicted as a strong, successful and feminine character and also because Miss Pope and other female characters were fighting in favour of women-kind. However, the limit to that statement was that our subject sometimes lost her mind in men’s presence and was a victim of the male gaze.

Then we stated that the fact that Olivia Pope was the first black female lead character in 40 year was not a strong enough argument to call this show the “new era of post-racial television” since Scandal perpetuates black femininities stereotypes such as “the Jezebel” — stereotypes that diminished Olivia Pope’s success. However Scandal, through those racial and masculine domination representations, is only the reflection of our unequal society.

Clara Duval

[1] Lindsay Putman, « Is Scandal the most feminist show on TV ? », NY Post, 2014.

[2] Martha M. Lauzen PhD. « It’s a man’s (celluloid) world » The Center for the Study of Women in Telivision and Films, 2012

[3] Donahue A. “From House of Cards to Scandal, TV is in a new age of powerful women” The Guardian, March 13, 2014.

[4] Wikipedia definition’s

[5] R. Claire Snyder. « What is third-Wave Feminism ? A new Directions Essay » Vol.24, N1, pp175–196, Signs, The University of Chicago Press, 2008

[6] Michelle M. Lazar. “The Right to be beautiful: Postfeminist Identity and Consumer Beauty Advertising” Palgrave macmillan, 2011

[7] Nancy A. Hewitt. « A Companion to American Women’s History », Blackwell Publishing, 2002

[8] Michelle M. Lazar. “The Right to be beautiful: Postfeminist Identity and Consumer Beauty Advertising” Palgrave macmillan, 2011

[9] Wikipedia’s definition

[10] Martha M. Lauzen PhD. « It’s a man’s (celluloid) world » The Center for the Study of Women in Telivision and Films, 2012

[11] Mulvey L. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen (Oxford Journals),1975