Why ‘Scandal’ Is Obama’s ‘24’

People take critiques of their favorite media presentations personally.

I suppose that is a good enough short version of the idea that extends itself from the notions of why media trust and critical empathy are necessary. However, it definitely does not make the job of writing about people’s internalized preoccupation with a particular media presentation any easier! What I have noticed is that some people have a tendency to form– and more importantly announce passionately– opinions about fictional characters than actual personalities that appear in the media that might deserve more critical resources. It is at that point that I make strong effort to remind myself what is something that deserves my empathy, and what is something that is pulling on my heart strings.

It does not do well for me to pretend I am showing loyalty to a media production without self-critique.

It does not sit well for me to self-critique and then lie to myself about my continued engagement with the media production through whatever justifications my academic training or reading has provided to me.

The Boondocks is my favorite satirical cartoon of all-time. Even with that being said, I have written at length about certain problems I have with particular episodes(here, and oh, yeah, here). I can enjoy a Black African American media production without turning off my filter(I did not spend all these decades developing that filter just to turn it off when most useful). I can support Black African American media productions without turning off my filter(I did not spend all these decades developing that filter just to turn it off when most useful). Joe Budden is still one of my favorite rap acts. That favoritism does not negotiate any space for compromise when it comes to me critiquing the racial politics of the Slaughter House album, nor my thoughts on his sexual political behavior outside of the studio.

Alright, disclaimer over.

I watched the first episode of season three of Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal”. Now, I have been following this show produced for ABC since season one, and my empathy for certain characters has oscillated much like the stomach of one riding a very fast and twisting roller coaster. This is not to say that the ride I imagine would not be exhilarating, just one that causes mixed feelings. Much of the initial emotional appeal that I brought with my initial viewing stemmed from knowing that Shonda Rhimes, the show’s creator and executive producer, was a Black African American Woman. The euphoria from that detail waned about as fast as the euphoria of having a not totally White president in the White House.

For those who do not watch the show, the speed of the show and its plot twist put you in the mind of Fox Networks’ ’24’. In fact, if I were so blessed to have a space to speak without losing much(Oh look, my very own Asylum!!!), I would write that ‘Scandal’ is to the Obama administration what ’24’ was to the Bush administration. As with ’24’, ‘Scandal’ is billed as a political thriller drama, with a plot line, like ’24’, of Olivia Carolyn Pope(Kerry Washington) having to protect Washington, DC elites, including the president, at all cost. The office politics between the core staff surrounding Olivia Pope–her own crisis management firm, Olivia Pope and Associates– is much similar to the staff surrounding Jack Bauer, the US based Counter Terrorist Unit. The differences tend to be nuanced with the exception of sexual politics, and yet, the nuanced differences including the sexual politics is what make the two shows that more similar.

That is to say, where ’24’ is an exposé, a fictional exercise in the justifications for extreme military oversight in domestic and foreign affairs, ‘Scandal’ is a fictional exercise in the justification for extreme military and media manipulation in domestic governmental presentations. Where ’24’ took very lenient measures with the racial identities of the terrorists and US combatants, ‘Scandal’ presents romantic imagery between two men and an interracial coupling. Where ’24’ feels to be designed for the White Male conservative audience during the Bush era after the events of September 11, 2001, ‘Scandal’ feels to be designed for the Black professional or academic Woman with “progressive” leanings during the Obama era.

Now, I do not want to do a full fledged content analysis here. We do not have the space or the time, but I will revisit that process in a book in the near future(for those who have not been blessed with my prior content analysis of Black American media, please check out my book, “The Green DJHTY”). My purpose here is much more in the context of a designer or media communicator studying the techniques used in a financially successful and popular work. As most students of design and propaganda will explain, the heart of great emotionally appealing work is story.

At the point of critical empathy, as well as media trust, is this story of a socially acceptable definition of the standard of high success in the body of a US Black African American Woman. And this storyline compels, in part, because, okay, she is a US Black African American Woman with a very adorable upbringing class-wise in a position of power. In the same way that ’24’ legitimizes the US system and style of White Male aggression, ‘Scandal’ legitimizes the often difficult road of assimilation. Both shows work to give an intoxicating storyline to realities that are extremely painful debates in settings where emotions are considered puerile or naive.

Which is the beauty of storytelling that allows it to exist in the realm of art. Yet, as I have stated elsewhere, art can also be design. And as sexy as both of these shows are to me in their own spaces and for my own reasons of being attracted to them, these shows are both by design. It is very difficult for me to entertain the story of Jack Bauer taking US hostages and appropriating an entire convenience store in error for the sake of national security. It is very difficult for me to accept a scene where Olivia Pope is being called a “whore” by a white Woman in the presence of a White Man that the story suggests is suppose to on one hand love, and on the other hand consider that the White Woman, his wife, might be correct in some definitions.

Once again, for the intentions and purposes of the Asylum to date, I am not as concerned about the storyline, as written, as I am about why the storyline works given what the story line presents. In a discussion about Black African American media trust and Black African American Women in media images, why as the Black man I am, not be appalled by a scene such as this? In a discussion about Black African American media trust and Black African American Women in media images, why as the Black media analyst I am, would I not compare this scene of a US Black African American Woman being “justifiably” referred to as a “whore” to the most recent installation of the Jezebel caricature? This is not Owl navigating into respectability politics or slut-shaming. The storyline already did that to enormous impact. Where is the entry point for an oppositional gaze when the storyline is constructed with the purpose of alluding critical empathy?

The storyline justifies us seeing an image of a US African American Black Women being called a “whore” while in a White House in a room alone with a White man and his White wife. The storyline compels the audience to split along lines of empathetic affiliation with the White wife or the Black mistress. The storyline compels us to justify the White Woman’s anger with the Black Woman in the same manner that the storyline justifies us seeing images of a White man torturing foreign nationals with outlawed methods. The storyline compels us to justify the Black Woman’s action with rebuttals regarding the White Woman’s “manipulative” ways in the same manner that the storyline presents justifications for this paranoid White man’s brutality under the banner of “national security”.

And because the storyline compels so much, I am compelled to study why the audience reacts with such obedience, and why the storyteller needs to tell the story.