– Co-written by Antonia
Critically-acclaimed actress Kerry Washington has been on the silver screen since the age of 22 but she seems to be making her most powerful statement as Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal, and statement not in the way that you’d expect.
Born in New York City, Washington left public school around the sixth grade to attend the prestigious Spence School for Girls in Manhattan, honing her craft in theater. Although she later earned her degree in sociology and anthropology at George Washington University in D.C., she continued to study acting on the side during her college years, eventually helping to start a support group for people of color in the arts called Shades of the Fine Arts.
After graduation, she flew to India for three months to immerse herself in a foreign culture. Once she returned to the States at the age of 22, Washington landed her first role in the feature film Our Song, a coming of age story where Washington played Lanisha a good student who wants more out of life than what she sees in her Crown Heights neighborhood. As Lanisha a young Kerry wore her hair in a classic teenager ‘do: half-up-half-down, and sometimes you’d see her natural curls make an appearance.
Kerry on the Big Screen
In the years that would follow, Washington would land more profound and visible roles in movies like the 2001 fan-fave, Save the Last Dance, Ray (2004), The Fantastic Four (2005) and Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005).
As she racked up more film credits we would see her hair, which has never been relaxed, oscillate from gentle curls to not-a-hair-out-of-place straight looks.
One of Washington’s most notable roles was that of Broomhilda, Django’s estranged wife, in Quentin Tarantino’s smash-hit movie Django, Unchained (2012). A house-slave waiting for her husband to help set her free, Washington was adamant about playing the role as authentically as possible, with reports surfacing that she requested to actually be hit with a (albeit fake) whip.
Interestingly enough, Broomhilda’s hair (when it wasn’t braided into intricate buns) was worn in a way that likely wouldn’t have been allowed at the time–it was left to hang in all its natural glory.
2012 would allow fans to see the accomplished starlet go from post-civil war southern house maid to DC mover-and-shaker Olivia Pope in the hit ABC show Scandal, a role that would bring her to the masses.
Olivia Pope, a Style Star
A crisis manager with her own firm, Olivia Pope & Associates, Pope is tasked with finding solutions to personal or professional problems for prominent clients who find themselves in sticky situations. Most dramatic about the show is Pope’s on-again-off-again love affair with the – unhappily married – president of the United States, Fitzgerald Grant.
The show’s loyal viewers have made it one of the most tweeted about shows ever. As it grew in popularity, magazines like Vanity Fair named Olivia Pope as one of The Top Ten Best-Dressed TV Characters in 2013. The show’s costume designer, Lyn Paolo, explained that audiences are fascinated with what Olivia Pope wears because of a “…combination of Kerry Washington being so amazing, so stunning, and this idea of having [her character] wear such soft, feminine colors in a man’s world… That really resonates with women.”
Pope’s popularity resulted in a collaboration between Lyn Paolo and Kerry Washington herself, with clothing brand The Limited for a Scandal Collection.”
The Politics of Olivia’s Hair
Despite the current significance of Kerry Washington being a Black actress playing a lead role, race is rarely directly addressed in Scandal. On occasion viewers will be lucky to witness powerful scenes, like one in the season three premiere where ‘papa Pope,’ infuriated that Olivia has been outed as the president’s mistress, asked her to repeat the accepted notion of Blacks needing to be twice as good to get half of what ‘they’ have, which apparently hit home for many African-Americans. Viewers also occasionally get an episode like “The Lawn Chair,” which tackled police brutality head on.
However, more interesting, is the indirect way Scandal addresses race. We see Olivia Pope handle herself among the nation’s most elite power players despite being Black, despite being a woman. She’s in and out of the White House with the utmost ease, bossing around the president and whomever crosses her path, BUT even though she’s ‘allowed’ in those spaces, her HAIR isn’t. Her natural hair only comes out when she’s at home and has taken a shower, or is on a desert island or is trapped in a fake prison, which begs one to ask: why can’t Olivia’s natural hair be seen at work? Why can it only be seen when there’s little to no people around?
This is one of the biggest statements on race Scandal has been making from the beginning, and the show has been doing it subtly, which makes the statement effective because it reflects one of those almost imperceptible hurdles Black women still have to jump when it comes to race. Olivia’s straight hair isn’t presented as a choice that’s not her own; she’s not being forced to wear it straight. It’s presented as an internalized choice that even she’s susceptible to because it’s a norm—professional = straight and ‘neat’ hair. So if someone like Olivia Pope, in all her competence, accomplishments and connections, can’t bring herself to get past that norm, if natural hair can’t be seen in the White House, what does that say to Black professional women everywhere else?
If natural hair can’t be seen in the White House, what does that say to Black professional women everywhere else?
In a recent interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Washington emphasized that Olivia Pope should not be misconstrued as a role model. Although she does have lots of redeeming qualities, Washington reminds us that she’s a nuanced and multi-dimensional person, not meant to be perfect and that Shonda Rhimes purposely created these complicated characters to ensure that there would be no good guys and no bad guys.
So what exactly does Kerry Washington find admirable about her character? “She’s an entrepreneur, she’s very smart, she has an amazing closet.”