Actress Kerry Washington, left, plays a character based on Judy Smith, right, on ABC's 'Scandal'.

By Sarah Springer, CNN

(CNN) – Olivia Pope is smart, runs a successful business and is the center of attention when she enters a room.

She’s the kind of woman who magazines say every woman can be, and the type that others love to hate.

There’s just one thing: She is also black.

After a successful first season, viewers know that Pope, the lead character on ABC’s “Scandal,” is African-American.

But they might not realize the significance of her race.

Pope, played by Kerry Washington, is the first African-American female lead on a major network show in 38 years.

“Like any human being, [Pope] is someone who happened to be born female and black and those elements add to who she is as a human being,” Washington said. “So do I think that another person of another race could play her? Yes. Do I think it would change the story a little bit, do I think it would change the character a little bit? Yes.”

Portrayals of black women have come a long way from the blaxploitation-inspired characters like Teresa Graves, the last black actress to play a lead on network television, in “Get Christie Love!”

While blaxploitation was based on exaggeration, Olive Pope was based on Judy Smith, a real-life crisis management specialist for the George W. Bush administration.

“I hope that Olivia Pope being a lead of a television series and being smart and vulnerable and the most desirable woman in any room that she walks into changes something for someone in the way they perceive women of color,” said Shonda Rhimes, creator of “Scandal.” “But I also hope that people watch it and find it to be good entertainment.”

An average of 7.3 million people watched the finale, according to Nielsen, and 1.8 million African-American viewers viewed the season finale that day. It was the No. 1 show among African-Americans for the week of May 14-May 20, 2012.

“Having the African-American lead really does make a difference,” said Rick Kissell, prime time ratings reporter for Variety magazine. “It is something that the networks can count on knowing that they have a built-in audience that maybe wouldn’t watch their other shows.”

Since the show has aired, Washington notes that viewers of all races have commented on how happy they are to see a smart and sophisticated woman portrayed on television.

“It’s the truth of her humanity that’s the hook,” Washington said. “The most important thing is that you believe her humanity and if you can do that, then lots of people can relate to her in lots of different ways.”