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.

Media Trust, Critical Empathy, And The Black African American Image

(Editor’s note: This is a piece branching off in idea from another piece, entitled,”The Ideal Of Media Trust And The Black African American Image”. Please read that piece first if you have not already.)

In the last piece I discussed a little about “media trust”, and I also mentioned I would discuss “critical empathy” further. Let’s continue firstly with more ideas regarding “media trust”.

In the previous post, we defined “trust”, thusly:

Trust is the dynamic of imagination incrementally allotted based on the fruition and fulfillment of expected, entertained, or sold outcomes. It is our faith that someone or something will do what they or it has a history of doing, what we imagined or hoped they or it would do, or what they or it has communicated that it would do.

What is the primary vision we have of the outcomes of mass communication? Is it solely entertainment? What are the primary outcomes of mass communication? Is it solely entertainment? Please read those queries over, because I did not ask the same things twice.

I want to quote, somewhat at length, these two passages from “The Black Image In The White Mind”:

Racial isolation heightens the importance of the messages Whites receive about Blacks from the mass media, and especially from the most widely consumed source-television. Its constant stream of messages designed to inform, pleasurably distract, and, above all, put targeted audiences in the mood to buy creates two influential roles for television. Along with other media, it is both a barometer of race relations and a potential accelerator either to racial cohesion or to cultural separation and political conflict. Because Whites control mass media organizations, and because Whites’ majority status makes their tastes the most influential in audience maximizing calculations, media productions offer a revealing indicator of the new forms of racial differentiation. Beyond providing a diagnostic tool, a measuring device for the state of race relations, the media also act as a causal agent: they help to shape and reshape the culture.“The Black Image In The White Mind: Media And Race In America”, Robert M. Entman & Andrew Rojecki, pg. 3

 

But, having only limited personal experience with
Blacks, and raised in a culture where race is highly salient and Black persons rest at the bottom of the social hierarchy, Whites may be more likely to remember the negative than the positive in all the unplanned, media-generated impressions. Psychologists have found more generally that people remember negative information most readily. By what they both do and do not convey, the media can stimulate Whites’ tendencies to imagine, exaggerate, and misunderstand group differences. ibid., pg. 8

Once again, I ask, based on our agreed upon definition of “trust”, what is the imagined outcome of US Black media representations? What is the actual outcome? Do US Blacks even have a collective– or enough of a collective and vested interest– plan for the media images that studies have shown impact the perception of US Blacks? Should we not question the creation of content that presents US Blacks to audiences that have no other information about US Blacks but the media presentations? Has leaving the power of US Blacks media presentation in the hands of Whites and money hungry Blacks been a successful venture thus far?

These are just questions. Some you might have answers to, some you might not. My purpose so far is to remind you that you already have a system of media trust in operation, the question is: are you taking conscious advantage of it? Who do you trust with the operation of content creation, production, and dissemination of the US Black Image? Who should you distrust? Do you know?

Moving on…

As I promised I would, I want to begin defining the ideal of “critical empathy”. In Berrys Gaut’s research essay entitled,”Empathy and Identification in Cinema”, the concept of imaginative identification is introduced and defined as such:

In saying that I identify with someone, a target T, what do I mean? As we sometimes say, we “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.” Here one means that one imagines oneself in that person’s situation. Call this imaginative identification.The notion of someone’s situation should be construed broadly so as to include not only her external situation but also all of her properties, including her mental ones—we can talk of imagining believing what she believes, imagining feeling what she feels, and so on. Since there are many aspects of a person’s situation, identification is aspectual: I can identify with a person in respect of her beliefs, her feelings, her perceptions, and so on. To identify with some person, T, epistemically is to imagine believing what she believes; to identify with her affectively is to imagine feeling what she feels; to identify with her perceptually is to imagine seeing what she sees.We can refine this notion. In the case of fictional characters, we need to construe “what she believes” as “what it is fictional that she believes,” and so on. Further, we need to rule out coincidences.– Berys Gaut, “Empathy And Identification In Cinema”

 

Distinct from affective identification is empathic identification or empathy. We can imagine feeling terror at the near-destruction of humanity, but it is also possible actually to feel terror at this merely imagined scenario: We can feel
genuine emotions toward merely imagined or fictional situations– ibid., pg. 3

What I want to deal with here, very quickly, is this notion of identifying and emotionally connecting with people that do not exist outside of written scripts and fictional bodies of work. Some of us lack an ability to resist feelings of connectivity with fictional characters. Even worse, some of us feel more connected to “people” that do not exist than to those that do. This is a lack of critical empathy. At what point do we begin to separate our feelings for a Black Woman that does not actually exist? At what point do we begin to critically assess where and when our empathy should be employed or allowed free emotive expression?

Trust, Sex, Black Media, And Black African American Women

I never think it is wholly wise or critically prudent to assess an entire group by their media presentation. I also do not think it is wholly wise or critically prudent to drink alcoholic beverages while driving, yet it is done. And so is the use of stereotyped media portrayals as guideposts for one’s worldview. I recall being in class, some English literature class I had to take at Ranken, and the subject of race came up.

 

I cannot exactly remember how it came up, just that I felt the need to insert myself into the discussion. Of course, you say. So, the question of racial inferiority arose, and I asked the instructor her thoughts on the topic. Her response was something of the effect that she grew up in an all White town and had little contact with Blacks. Now, before the militant branch of my readership grabs bullets and bottles of explosive fluids loaded into a caravan heading to St. Louis, I do give her credit for being honest. A mildly subtle reflection of White supremacist thought masked in empirical consideration that caused me to literally bite my tongue to keep the “White bytch, what?!” from guaranteeing my expulsion.

 

I attempt to avoid letting one virus carrying mutt infect my thoughts on all mutts, but that can be foolish. It is similar to a trust issue in a romantic engagement. Trust in a relationship, very much like racial animus, is not a polar consideration. It has levels. Every lie is not the same, every betrayal has its portion of impact. Trust cannot be boxed into time constraints because trustworthiness is a dynamic that can be felt and read;some people earn higher levels of trust faster than others because they should. I feel the same way with racial trust.

 

So, Owl has been watching soap operas lately.

 

(Okay, hurry up with your laughter, your condescending “aawws”, and the like…)

 

I only watch the two that are both created by William J. Bell and Lee Phillip Bell for CBS and executive produced by Bradly Bell, namely, “The Bold And The Beautiful” and “Young And The Restless”. Now, once again, Owl would never use any market prepared stereotypical image, especially one contrived for daytime drama, but, levels. I want to consider levels here. Moving on, you have these two story lines involving Black Women and trust. In one, you have the sister who is seeking revenge for the death of her mother, and she is having sex with men to ruin their relationships to get closer to the person she holds most responsible for her mother’s death. In another story line, you have a sister, Maya, that is romantically involved with this well-to-do white guy, Rick Forrester. She allows an acquaintance to spend the night, and her white beau finds out, and he breaks up the relationship by sleeping with is his ex-fiancee.

 

(Yeah, I know, real dramatic and over the top story lines, yes?)

 

Now, granted, once again, any use of imagery from media is going to be labeled a stretch. Whether someone needs to justify why they watch soap operas, or a need to defend television viewing, or just media in general, there tends to be a response of ridicule and insult rather than critical address. And that is fine. These are the images of Black Women on television being transmitted to an audience that does not interact directly with Black women. These images are being transmitted primarily to an audience and through the production efforts of people that should not be trusted with these images. Levels.

 

It is not that I do not think White people cannot critically determine for themselves the range of accuracy a portrayal in a daytime drama should be given, history has shown me that I should not trust them on that level. Throughout media history, Black African American women have been portrayed as sexual animals. When they are not being the Bess, of the Sapphire, they are forged into masculine Sofia’s. It occurs so often, and in such an exploitative manner, that even the most inept Black media analyst is given more credit in my eyes for pointing at it. I do not trust White media producers and transmitters with the images of Black African American women!

 

(Editor’s note: I have not officially decided to make this a series, yet. But I do have a piece that is connected in scope to this piece here entitled,”The Ideal Of Media Trust And The Black African American Image”. Thank you.)