Notes on a Scandal: Jezebel Identity

Another day, another Scandal post.

I’m working this out of my system. The point of this post is to discuss the brazen usage of the term Jezebel to brand my beloved Olivia Pope. (Yes, I stan for Olivia Pope. Anyone who has the gloss, sheen, and bounce of her hair is number two in my book; for the record, Michelle Obama who must touch the hem of Jesus’ garment with each trip to her hairstylist is numero uno. Anyone who can wear white when cleaning up a murder scene and then hit the White House with no speck of blood on her white jacket has earned my adoration.)

Over on the Facebook, armchair commentators are on fire about Scandal. Either you love it or you hate the show. Either you love Olivia or you don’t.

Those who don’t love Olivia Pope have their reasons, one of which is the whole infidelity thing between Ms. Pope and POTUS.

I get that. As I scanned the comments, I see the variety of names the character is called (kudos to everyone who used the alliterative phrases that roll of the tongue):

  • Horse-faced hussy
  • Home-wrecking hussy
  • Brazen trollop
  • Fast-ass tramp
  • Shameless Jezebel
Ah, Jezebel. I knew that phrase would come up because every woman doing “immoral” things are labeled that word.

The term Jezebel is loaded for Black women. According to Givens (2005), the Jezebel stereotype resisted the feminine ideals of civility, chastity, and sexual restraint. The Jezebel is an insatiable, hypersexual Black woman who exploits men’s weakness. Another explanation of the Jezebel comes from Adams and Fuller (2006):

a loose, sexually aggressive woman. The Jezebel wants and accepts sexual activity in any form from men, and she often uses sex as means to get what she wants from men… (p. 945)

Stephens, Phillips, and Few (2003) also described the Jezebel as

a young, exotic, promiscuous, over-sexed woman who uses sexuality to get attention, love, and material goods (Hill Collins 2000; Morton 1991). Portrayed as having light skin, long hair, and a shapely body, the Jezebel was some- times referred to as a mulatto or half-breed (note the highly animalistic terms). Myths of their insatiable sexual appetite were used to justify the rape of slave women by their masters (Hill Collins 2000; Villarosa 1994). American society accepted the idea that these African American women seduced their masters as they strove to satisfy their own animalistic desires for sex (Hill Collins 2000; Villarosa 1994). These Jezebels were painted as wanting to please men; only by doing this would they achieve both sexual gratification and personal satisfaction. The reality was that the Jezebel was a sexually abused African American woman used to fulfill the masters’ sexual and economic needs.

The Jezebel is the attractive siren who desires and receives male attention, the woman who relishes in her sexual conquests and takes men’s hearts for trophies, the slyph who is the aggressor in sexual situations.  Flip to the Mammy and the Sapphire, the archrivals of the Jezebel in the Black Women’s Stereotypes Hall of Fame. The Mammy is unattractive (bordering on beastly), asexual, obese, and “cantankerous” (Bogle, 1994, p. 9), and the Sapphire is the post-war Mammy who can find no good in black men. These need their own posts, but they had to be mentioned here.

Jezebel is widely studied by media scholars more worth of admiration and perusal. But I bring up the definition because defining the parameters is important and valuable in discussions.

The use of these stereotypes and tropes of Black women’s mediated identity don’t fit Olivia Pope snugly. She exists beyond these ideas. These characteristics that define the stereotype are not what Olivia Pope is.  She is not an opportunist chasing after the president. She is not loose. She isn’t a ho. She isn’t a seductress needing and wanting to please men or being sexually abused by a white master to fulfill his own needs. Olivia is an active co-creator of her life. She is a gladiator who makes “ratchet personal decisions” (quotation from a friend). She is a modern woman who is distinguished in her career and has a coterie of admirers who are colleagues, friends, and associates. She resembles many of the women I know in my inner circle who have their professional lives together but are stumbling and fumbling toward personal happiness.

Maybe it is time for a new discussion on Black women’s images and how these concepts of the Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel bind and shackle us. Maybe it’s time for us to start expanding our mediated views of ourselves to include the real, messy, and complicated reflections of our real (non-mediated, real world) selves. Maybe people should stop trafficking in words and stereotypes when they don’t know what the hell they are talking about. Maybe we should just shut up and enjoy the show. 

Published by tianajohnson90

I am an oil-and-water combination of humor, ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, procrastination, and drive. I am an aspiring romance novelist who writes by the seat of her pants. Waging and sometimes winning a daily battle with procrastination, plots, characters, and the day job.

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