Previously published in The Washington Post.
Well, did you sleep with the President or not? I did not ask the obvious question, the question burning on so many minds, bubbling up in conversations around the room as we previewed two episodes of “Scandal,” the new TV series. Created by Shonda Rhimes, the provocative brain behind “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Practice,” “Scandal,” is a series based on a African-American-woman-owned public relations crisis management firm in Washington. It is insightful and riveting. It is penetrating. The disclaimer offered at the opening of the screening did little to squash the realism perceived by so many Washington workers in the audience. “This is Hollywood,” we were told. “Everything’s taken up a few notches.”
But, people who work in Washington – in Congress, at City Hall, formerly in The White House – laughed knowingly at some of the dialogue. It is authentic. The ruggedness of Washington work hit home. “There’s no crying – in politics!” somebody said, looking up at a scene of a young woman crying in the bathroom. “Scandal” promises to be as entertaining and stimulating as TV gets. It’s as much about relationships as it is about how Washington really works.
There were ten “Scandal” screenings in the Washington area and the star of the series, Judy Smith, portrayed by Kerry Washington, has done many interviews with local media. At the Wednesday night screening at Lima Restaurant she was greeted with hugs. One young woman introduced herself to Smith as a lifelong fan.
“I have admired you since I was a little girl watching the Monica Lewinski case,” gushed the young woman, who is now a communications director for one of the few Washington politicians NOT in the midst of a scandal. “I was eight years old watching the news with my mother, and I would ask, ‘Mommy, who’s that brown lady in the background?’ I have watched your work over the years,” she said. Smith was the fixer for Clinton, Marion Barry, Michael Vick, Clarence Thomas, and BP Oil – slick guys and what?
Watching “Scandal”, I was delighted at another depiction of a tough, smart, strategic, successful African American woman on TV. I thought about Donna Brazile and Gwen Ifill. “Why do we always have to be portrayed as bitchy?” someone in the audience asked. “It’s a necessary toughness,” I said. I was reminded of real-life tough Black women in the Washington area, too. They are tough, yes, but equally compassionate and, above all else, deeply faithful.
Theses are Washington area tough Black women, who held their own and helped their communities from powerful positions in media and government. I’m thinking of former Prince George’s County Councilwoman Dorothy Bailey, WRC’s long-time executive Aisha Karimah, former D.C. Council woman Sandy Allen to name a few. They are powerful, empowering, and deeply faithful. Their faith has yet to be depicted in a TV series.
On TV we see struggling Black women praying, but never powerful ones. We see Black women in conflict with men. We don’t see their connection to their spiritual beliefs. It’s easier to throw in sexual twists than spiritual ones. I remember my favorite TV character, Claire Huxtable, enjoying romantic evenings with her husband. But I don’t recall any memorable scenes about her faith in a God or her religious practices.
Most of the women I know are faithful. Even if they are not church-connected, they have strong spiritual beliefs or rich philosophies they draw on in tough times. We are redefining Black women in the media, thank goodness. Books like the one by Sophia Nelson; newspaper series, like the one by The Washington Post help. The First Lady attending church with her husband and children drive home the image, as well.
When I worked on The Hill, I joined a group of Black women on weekly conference calls where we held “corporate prayer.” We prayed for our bosses, prayed for leaders in both chambers of Congress. We were of different religions, but we all believed in the power of prayer. We reserved a room for prayer service during the healthcare reform. Congressional chiefs of staff, communications directors, and administrative aides prayed collectively on occasion. I hope at least one episode of “Scandal” will depict Washington workers with faith.
At the end of the screening I did not ask Smith the extent of her relationship with The President – nor did I ask her about her faith. I was not there as a reporter. A friend, a fellow former journalist, invited me. Tough questions aside, I did what the other guests did. I enjoyed the evening and sided up for pictures with the star afterwards. I later found the answer to the burning question answered in a Washington Post feature on Smith (http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/tv/dc-insider-judy-smith-is-basis-for-abc-drama-scandal/2012/03/29/gIQAbT8JlS_story.html). She absolutely did not kiss The President..