'Mistresses' vs. 'Scandal': A Difference?

Mistresses; Scandal (ABC Network)
Mistresses; Scandal (ABC Network)

(The Root) — When I heard that ABC was launching an American version of the BBC drama Mistresses, which follows the trials and tribulations of four women who behave as mistresses by choice and sometimes by happenstance, I was intrigued. I immediately wondered if ABC's new show, which has the same title, could match the high production value, superb writing and measured performances of the four lead actresses in the original, who convincingly demonstrate the complexity of the definition of a mistress. For those who have not seen the BBC version, the definition is sometimes symbolic (a woman who comes second to her husband's job — job is the wife; wife is the mistress), not literal (a home-wrecking harlot).


I was wondering what would get lost in translation, as is often the case with shows that make their way across the pond in either direction (such as The Office and Law & Order: UK). What I was not expecting was the hoopla in the blogosphere over the ABC version, which supposedly makes a mockery of the institution of marriage and holds up mistresses as something to celebrate.

Come again? Call me crazy, but one of the most popular shows on television — Scandal, another ABC program — centers on Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), a political fixer who is also a mistress. In fact, evidence of the strong writing on the show can often be found in scenes about President Fitzgerald Grant's (Tony Goldwyn) ongoing affair with Pope. I find it interesting and quite hypocritical that some of the same folks who are up in arms over Mistresses are die-hard Scandal fans.


Now, I know that Scandal is right up there with President Obama and the Williams sisters on the list of subjects that black people are not supposed to critique without expecting a visceral backlash, regardless of how valid or rational the critique may be, but pointing the finger at Mistresses — which stars a multiracial cast of women, led by Alyssa Milano — while raising the roof over Scandal is a comedy of all kinds of errors.

I've had people ask me, "Why are you trying to bring down a show made by a black woman and featuring the first black female lead in a drama since Get Christie Love?" for merely discussing the story arc of Scandal this past season (which, in my humble opinion, took the character of Pope from a juggernaut to a Jezebel). I know, I know — I must have been trying to bring down black women (show creator Shonda Rhimes and star Washington), because of course I have nothing else to do. In all seriousness, I was merely trying to raise the issue of how Pope's character was morphing into a raging stereotype. Shame on me.

Which brings me back to my original point: Why are the same people excited about a black woman playing a mistress each week and bemoaning the fact that the show is on hiatus (cue the "OMG what am I going to do without Scandal this week?" Facebook status updates) disgusted by ABC's Mistresses?

Is it because we stereotype black women as licentious in pretty much every medium (art, literature, film, television, music video), so we turn off our sense of morality when a black female character is a mistress? Do we engage in a suspension of disbelief in the same way that some women who I know have been mistresses in real life scoff at a television show about mistresses?


Why are we OK with watching Olivia Pope as a mistress each week — particularly when the real-life black woman upon whom the character is based is a family woman — but not OK with a show featuring a multicultural cast of mistresses based on fictional characters? By the way: The BBC is on cable outlets in the U.S., so where was this outcry when the BBC version of the show premiered in 2008?

There was none, because truth be told, Americans are obsessed with mistresses (see Angelina Jolie, Rachel Uchitel, Alicia Keys, Reille Hunter, Kristen Stewart, Kim Zolciak, Maria Belen Chapur, LeAnn Rimes) and are all too willing to embrace and celebrate black women as Jezebels. There's a reason that Scandal is a ratings darling and Mistresses' debut beat NBC's Revolution finale.


The hypocrisy of Mistresses' reception versus the way Scandal is received is befuddling in a world where mistresses are as American as apple pie. Do we or don't we like mistresses as a culture? If not, then how do we pick and choose when to celebrate them or revile them in popular culture? Why is it that Mistresses stirs such disdain in many hearts and minds, while Scandal makes many hearts soar? I suspect the answer has more to do with us as a culture than with the influence on society of any one of these ABC television shows.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large at The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.


Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.

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