A different kind of pioneer

Each week, Symposium’s blog highlights comments about the week’s featured article. This week’s piece is “The Rebirth of Viewing Pleasure.”

Prof. Jill Dolan, guest blogger

When the 2013 Emmy Award nominations were announced last week, Kerry Washington got a nod for her performance as Olivia Pope on ABC’s “Scandal.” Remarkably, she is the first African-American woman to be nominated as best actress in a television drama since Cicely Tyson in 1995, almost 20 years ago.

Washington, whom I interviewed when “Scandal” premiered two years ago on my blog, The Feminist Spectator, continues to pioneer in the entertainment industry — as a woman, an African American woman, and as an artist who’s smart, politically acute, and articulate about the importance of her work. She appears on the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair, posed in a swimming pool, shot from above, and wearing a fashionable white bathing suit.

But for all the body-baiting cheesecake of the cover, Washington’s interview rigorously describes the importance of popular culture in shaping perceptions of gender, race, and sexuality in the U.S. and around the globe (as an example, see her remarks that women in South Africa are responding enthusiastically to the show).

Washington came to speak at Princeton a few years ago, before her break-through television role but after her screen appearances in Ray, The Last King of Scotland, Lift, and Save the Last Dance. My colleagues and I see her as a role model for students who are intellectually as well as artistically talented, because she demonstrates that actors can be thoughtful and politically committed about their work while winning accolades for their performances. Washington also serves on President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, where she works on arts education and cultural diplomacy initiatives for the administration.

As always, with women in the arts and entertainment, the story of “firsts” gets tiresome, as the historical cycle of women who break through the dismal percentages continues to repeat itself over time – whether it’s women playwrights produced on Broadway, women directors on Broadway and in Hollywood, or women of color in leading roles in films and television shows. The industry seems to prefer the fairytale stories of “firsts” over promoting consistently equal opportunities for women and people of color. Here’s hoping that Kerry Washington’s work as an artist, an advocate, and an intellectual blazes a trail that sticks.

Share This