Re-Confirming the ‘Scandal’ of TV’s White Protagonist Monopoly

Re-Confirming the 'Scandal' of TV's White Protagonist MonopolyHow Kerry Washington’s new role is an exception that proves the rule

Kerry Washington’s front-and-center status in the new drama created by Shonda Rhimes, Scandal, is a blast of bitter and sweet–serving as both a jubilant reminder of how much black women are desperately needed in leading roles, as well as a sobering reminder of how much black women are desperately needed in leading roles. The fact that Washington is so easy to celebrate as an outlier comes with some uncomfortable context: there are no other leading black characters on network television. Shonda Rhimes’ own Grey’s Anatomy comes with a healthy dose of diversity, but if there’s a lead on the show, it’s of course its titular white protagonist. Otherwise, the world of network TV is woefully bereft of black women as leads.

While black women do exist on network television in some capacity, they tend to show up among ensemble casts or as supporting characters. Yvette Nicole Brown is hilarious on Community, Retta is charismatic on Parks and Recreation, etc., but their roles are the stuff of shared or slivered spotlight. Kerry Washington’s show–about a woman who cleans up PR disasters for the elite who can’t afford them–has a hefty load of supporting characters, but ones whose decisions and actions revolve definitively around Washington’s. Fortunately and unfortunately, a black female lead makes Scandal something of a new pioneer.

And that’s not even to speak of other women of color on scripted network TV. Maggie Q’s Nikita is doing well enough on The CW, but like Scandal, the show is an island in a sea of white norm. To widen the net, men of color aren’t doing considerably better, either. To find people of color in leading roles, cable television seems to be the place for a few more drops in the bucket.

For now, Scandal will have to do. And since Washington’s character on the show is one of only two people of color among eight core cast members, it looks like Rhimes wanted to make sure this series wasn’t perceived as a “black show,” but one that appeals to a wider (white) audience. Maybe that was a deft move; given network TV’s track record with non-white leads, this series might need all the help it can get to keep the whites-centric status quo from snapping back into place.

Photo courtesy of ABC.

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