Scandal’s Olivia Pope and the Rise of the Female Antihero

Kerry Washington plays powerful Olivia Pope on Scandal

Television has come a long way since the stiff stereotypes and cheerful family sitcoms of the 1950s and 60s. There has been a huge shift in focus over the past few decades, towards more academic and complex television content that mirrors cinematic style. Audiences no longer wish only to be entertained, but also challenged. This shift is due in part to subscription cable networks like HBO whose economic model of distribution focused less on pleasing advertisers and more on creating edgy content for an intelligent audience. HBO’s new and challenging programming proved incredibly successful and the network expanded on their initial success, continuing to create characters which pushed social boundaries and deviated from the popular mainstream content of the time.

Tony Soprano
Tony Soprano: the perfect troubled protagonist for postmodern audiences

One of the most important trends that came out of HBO’s quest for edgier and more cinematic content was the antihero in television. Antiheroes are main characters in literature, film, or television that lack the admirable and enviable traits of a traditional hero. Essentially they fill the function of protagonist in a story’s format but cannot be considered heroes due to their ample moral failings. Amanda Lotz, who has studied antiheroes on subscription networks in her book, Cable Guys, characterizes antiheroes as “relatable versions of a good self that has gone bad.” Tony Soprano is often cited as the first postmodern antihero on television. His show, The Sopranos ran for six seasons from 1999 to 2007 and produced over 86 episodes. Tony was easy to empathize with while being morally reprehensible and a legal criminal. He was the perfect emblem of postmodern America, where economic crisis led to extreme measures and where the social restructuring of American culture made even the most powerful individuals question their agency.

As HBO was perfecting their brand of elite and edgy content by replicating Soprano-esque antiheroes throughout their programming, other networks were beginning to take notice. Other subscription networks like Showtime began cultivating more morally ambiguous content and crafting their own iconic antiheroes. Soon this archetype was playing out all over primetime TV, and today the antihero is almost the norm. Tony Soprano is still the king. But he is now joined by Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire, Jax Teller on Sons of Anarchy, Don Draper on Mad Men, Dexter Morgan on Dexter, Hank Moody on Califorication, Jimmy Mcnulty on The Wire, Ray Drecker , Vic Mackey, Gregory House, Tommy Gavin, Chuck Bass, and basically every character on Game of Thrones. Not to mention the most recent reigning king of the television criminal, Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, whose downfall became a must-watch television event. Clearly the antihero has permeated across all television networks. And, clearly he is here to stay.

Where Are the Women?

One character that is markedly absent from this list is Olivia Pope on ABC’s Shonda Rhimes blockbuster, Scandal. In fact women are almost entirely absent from this decade’s surplus of television antiheroes. It seems that edgy, complicated characters who stray from the path of morality, are incredibly popular, as long as they embody stereotypes of patriarchal masculinity. Despite the overwhelming popularity of male antiheroes, female antiheroes are still few and far between. Representations of women in television are still catching up. Like the learning curve required when these male antiheroes were migrating to mainstream networks, complex and corrupt female leads are just starting to gain traction in American television production. Yet, gaging from Scandal’s obvious success, (the show will return January 29th to complete its fourth season), it seems clear that popular audiences are ready for female antiheroes…as long as we don’t refer to them as such.

Olivia Pope
Is Olivia Pope a role model or a criminal?

Olivia Pope’s character has been lauded as a huge step forward in terms of representation of women and minorities on the small screen. She is a strong independent woman of color who wields influence on a popular television show, so naturally the existence of a character like Olivia is a point of pride for many women and African Americans. She is perceived as powerful, smart, articulate, beautiful, compassionate, and powerful; traits which are all too rare in popular female characters. However, while Olivia Pope is all of these things, she is also a criminal, a manipulator, a conspirator, and an adulterer, often falling on the wrong side of what is ethical and just. Many audiences and critics are so eager to enshrine Olivia Pope as the ultimate in minority representations that they fail to acknowledge her flaws. She is hailed as a role model to be emulated and as the new standard in expectations for strong female characters. But this was not the creator’s intention. Rhimes states in an interview for entertainment site, Zap2it that she thinks, “Olivia has always been an antihero,” going on to say, “I don’t think any of the characters on our show have ever been just good people doing good things for good reasons.” Olivia Pope’s character is progressive. However, it is not because she is a role model. Olivia Pope’s character is progressive in that she is one of the first female antiheroes to grace primetime television.

How Olivia Pope Embodies the Antihero Archetype

Olivia embodies many of the key aspects of an archetypal antihero and exemplifies this character type to great success. Antiheroes must be both morally repugnant and yet still moderately likable. They usually possess an unusual amount of power and enact this power unethically. However, antiheroes are often less in control than they believe themselves to be and this helps to make the characters sympathetic. The antihero has often been framed in terms of pursuing lost masculinity and some scholars have used this common theme to discredit the possibly of ever creating an effective female antihero. However, Olivia Pope enacts these same struggles with loss of control, corruption of morality, and struggle with her fate at the hands of a patriarchal authority, establishing herself among the ranks of Walter White and Tony Soprano.

Like any effective antihero, Olivia Pope is both likable and unethical. This is likely due to Olivia’s motivations for her immoral behavior. It is partially her own determination to do good which leads Olivia to unforgivable transgressions, making those crimes easier for audiences to swallow. Olivia Pope struggles constantly with her own sense of right and wrong, wanting desperately to do what is ethical, but more often than not failing in this quest. This is discussed within the context of the show as “wearing the white hat,” a phrase Olivia uses to assert that she is on the side fighting for good instead of evil. She uses this phrase to justify her illegal and unethical manipulation of situations and of people. However, her insistence becomes harder to accept as the series progresses and audiences are confronted with Olivia’s many moral offenses. It comes out that Olivia was complicit in rigging the national presidential election, implicating her in a number of subsequent cover-ups and murders. Additionally, Olivia often makes snap judgments about who to trust and then goes to extreme and extralegal lengths to carry out the wishes of those she deems worthy. Unfortunately, despite her claims to being an excellent judge of character, she often choses wrong. Shonda Rhimes articulates how these moral justifications become less and less believable, saying that “we get to a point where we talk a lot about — she says the white hat is starting to feel like it doesn’t fit my head anymore. I think that’s very true.” As the series progresses, Olivia seems to grasp desperately to this white hat in an attempt to rationalize the atrocities she has committed.

Olivia Pope
Olivia Pope: The Manipulative Mavin of Primetime Television

The other essential factor which established Olivia Pope as an antihero is that she has an immense amount of power. She has access and influence within the American government, tremendous clout within the media industry, and a team of highly specialized “gladiators” who make clients’ problems disappear. Olivia fits in with the archetype of the masculine antihero so well because she is situated within a position of power and privilege usually reserved for men. Olivia learns to master the cutthroat world of Washington DC and to exert her authority over some of the most powerful men in the world. It is Olivia’s power that enables her to occupy the antihero narrative which couples authority with loss of agency. She, like Tony Soprano, maintains a privileged position, while still feeling trapped within her role, often resorting to criminal behavior because she feels backed into a corner.

In the fall finale episode (which aired November 15th), Olivia attempts to kill her father, a man who runs a mysterious spy agency and with whom Olivia has a fraught relationship. The audience recognizes the horrific implications of Olivia’s decision to pull the trigger and obviously cannot condone patricide as a legitimate solution to her problems. However, a part of them also recognizes and empathizes with Olivia’s dilemma. Through their connection to Olivia Pope as a character, audience members are forced to confront their own moral ideologies and must renegotiate their understanding of murder and violence. It is this type of internal conflict that make television antiheroes so successful and that situate Olivia Pope as a character firmly within this archetype.

How Olivia Pope is Changing Primetime TV

The antihero is a character much more complex then those we’ve seen in previous generations of popular television. It is an important departure from less dimensional tropes, and one that audiences have been responding to in a new and positive way. These increasingly morally ambiguous characters and narratives create a much more engaged relationship between viewers and the world of the show. These new antihero dramas force critical thinking and extend beyond the confines of popular entertainment. Olivia Pope’s dilemmas within Scandal, while rather dramatized and increasingly outrageous, serve to question existing perceptions of how to maintain power within a postmodern society.

This function of Olivia Pope’s character is a radical departure from the simplistic stereotyped roles that still dominate female representation in media. While Olivia is by no means a role model for young women, she is much more nuanced, complex, and three dimensional than most black female characters that have risen to her level of popularity. Scandal’s success is a testament to the fact that female characters can be imperfect and still be popular. In fact, imperfect characters are much better vessels for representation. Audiences are ready for female characters that evoke contradictory emotions and encourage critical reflection. Additionally, Olivia’s reprehensible qualities, those which the audience is justified in condemning her for, also depart from stereotypes of televised femininity. She is not the sexualized temptress that often exemplifies female moral failing. Instead she is a powerful and brilliant woman whose own scheming ambitions get the better of her. This narrative is one not normally applied to women, particularly those of a racial minority who appear on popular primetime dramas. Olivia Pope is a deeply flawed character. However, her flaws manifest in traditionally masculine tendencies. It is her flaws that captivate audiences and keep them watching season after season, one outrageous plot twist after another. Olivia Pope is an incredibly progressive step forward for contemporary television and she deviates from existing representations in a number of crucial ways, appealing to a number of different demographics on multiple levels. The widespread popularity of Scandal proves that these types of complex antiheroes previously reserved for men, can be effective as female characters, opening new doors for more variety and depth for female characters.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Studying Critical Media Theory and Art History in Southern California. I like throwing elaborately themed dinner parties and following celebrity meltdowns on Twitter.

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  1. Jacque Venus Tobias

    Meghan, very well written article. I enjoyed reading your analysis on the antihero archtype for this particular program. I have not seen any episodes and your article may change that for me.
    Great Job!

  2. At some point, all of the Scandal characters are bad, victims or somewhat good. It is not just Olivia. Second, her misfit team are loyal because Olivia saved them from being the worst type victim.

  3. Perhaps Scandal has the first Female African American Anti-Hero?

  4. No one in Scandal is free of accusations of immorality.

  5. Scandal is a Television show like any other television show, created to entertain the masses as the masses see fit.

  6. It would be great to see Black women with healthy relationships, with a career without sacrificing family or work life balance.

  7. This is a BRILLIANT article. Right on point.

  8. Marcelina Jarvis

    Patty Hewes over Olivia Pope any day, week, year its not even close….Glenn Close!

  9. Olivia Pope is despicable: amoral, dishonest, hypocritical, machiavellian and mercenary. Face it fans, Olivia Pope is nothing more than a fictional character fitted up with the mindset of familiar political villains like: Karl Rove, David Petraeus, James Carville, Mary Matalin, Ann Coulter, MIchelle Bachmann and Michelle Malkin.

  10. I love hte show.

  11. LaurenCarr

    Wow, I haven’t even thought of the rare antihero woman (and I’m a woman, shame on me!). Great article!

  12. Well written article! I’ve never watched Scandal myself but I’m always for antiheroes particularly female ones. Thank you!

  13. Good article. The likeability issue is a double bind in life as well as on TV. Be likeable, and be allowed in the room but not taken seriously. Be strong and firm, and never make it into the room. The things that make men heroes make women invisible. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told to modify my behaviour to accommodate a man who is, let’s be blunt, a prick, or to “tone it down” when I state my honest opinion.

  14. One part drama, one part comedy. And wickedly fun!

  15. Morgan R. Muller

    Very interesting analysis! I love Olivia Pope though and am obsessed with the show!

  16. Shandra Beals

    To me she represents much of what is wrong with my perception of society. Sexual peccadillos aside, the mere fact that her firm specializes in “spin”, regardless of nasty things like facts and truth complete the picture.

  17. Yuki Katz

    A drama that focuses on characters that are only good would make for poor and inferior drama. It would also represent only a small facet of humanity. It is the contradictions in a human being that make for dynamic interesting characters. Neither are human beings static when it comes to personal development, people can make mistakes and later learn how to avoid them.

  18. What about Patti Hewes? Glenn Close created a female antihero over 5 years ago that more than matches any male antihero. Damages began well before Scandal.

  19. Fascinating analysis! Never looked at it that way!

  20. To me this article does justice for the characterization of Olivia Pope. Olivia is the modernized woman in today’s society, from demanding power from various acquaintances and having a “no prisoner” attitude, Olivia is a woman of color who gives life to the modern woman who has been silenced for so long.

  21. I agree with this article. Olivia Pope is a great antihero. She is fun to watch, and is not necessarily justified in everything she does. I have read that one of the rules of cinema is to make your protagonist so likable that the audience sort of roots for him or her even when he or she does terrible things. That cinematic rule can also be applied to television, of course. Viewers like Olivia, and they feel sort of loyal to her even when she does wrong things.

  22. Katie Walder

    Fascinating article! We were just discussing the conventions of the antihero archetype in the YA class I’m currently taking. However, all the examples we discussed were male, so it’s great to see an analysis of a female antihero.

  23. Great article, Meghan! I love the character of Olivia Pope and feel like I am constantly defending her to ignorant viewers. Not only is it progressive to have a female antihero on such a popular show, but Olivia Pope also branches away from pitfalls of the typical “strong female character.” Too many female characters who are defined as merely “strong” are just women embodying masculine values onscreen. I look forward to next season of Scandal.

  24. Stephanie

    Extremely well written with a great sense of who this character is meant and not meant to be!

  25. Padrica Norfleet

    Great article! I never saw Olivia as a role model, however very likeable and even loveable. She’s extremely slick and has a team of cold blooded killers around her… All in the name of “good”? Well let’s think about this for a moment—both parents are narcissists, killers and sociopaths. Her team was created to clean up scandals, drama and to hide secrets. To do so required lies, killings, deceit, manipulation and the list goes on. They rigged the presidency of the great US of A and oh…her affair with the president the swept us off our feet–well–that just happened naturally…

    Anyway…Hats of to Shonda for being so brilliant…id love to be in her head if only for a day to see it think 💕

    Speaking of hats, I know the white hat Olivia speaks of is a metaphor but Shonda objectifies this hat in a scene and zoomed in on it!! It was when she was a prisoner for Fitz in the Whitehouse…this hat was part of her new wardrobe picked by the President. She had to truly be tha Saint! She had to walk the walk and talk the talk now that she was held captive living in the whitehouse.

    She lost her freedom to come and go as she pleased, to work with her team and could not even pick the clothes she wanted to wear. She was miserable. She looks up and there is the white hat…could this be because she knows her truth???

    She’s never been bout that life?? She’s never been that “Saint” just fooling the world to get where she wants to go. How can you have an inner struggle against good and bad when all that you do is suspect, suspect, and well…suspect?

    That’s the contradiction and the captivation of the anti sheroe. Getting the audience to believe there was good in the first place. Shonda Rhimes is the most fascinating and brilliant writer for being the first to do it and so eloquently. I apologize for any typos. Padrica

  26. Jos

    Thanks for your article, Meghan. The prospect of ‘new doors opening’, which your conclusion indicates, is heartening and exciting to me. My imagination teems with writing ideas for female antiheroes!

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