Loving a Good Scandal: A New Look at Race, Gender and Power

Shonda Rimes has done it again. I was a big fan of Grey’s Anatomy when it first started but soon lost interest. So when I heard she created a new series about political shenanigans, I didn’t bother watching. But then I decided to watch an episode or two just to see what it was like and….BOOM! I was hooked. I breezed through all 29 episodes of Scandal in about two weeks. If you want to know how I did that while working and mothering full time, all I can say is that sleep was lost.

One of the first things I noticed about Scandal is that the show revolves around Olivia Pope, an African-American woman. A Black Scandalfemale lead is pretty rare (try practically non-existent) but the novelty does not stop there. Not only is Olivia a woman of color but she is brilliant, single, powerful, and sexual. In direct contrast to my complaints about the depiction of women on a show like The Newsroom, Olivia is extremely competent, demands respect, and has adult (please note that I did not say mature or healthy, just adult) relationships. In other words, she gets to be just as complex and fully realized as any male character.

But it’s not just Olivia. Scandal is heavily populated with strong women, people of color and complex gay characters as well. And the best part about it is that it’s not a big deal! The show doesn’t make a huge point of the diversity in its characters, so each week the audience isn’t saying things like, “Oh, look! There’s a snarky female law student AND she’s Asian!” because there are so many other people of color on the show that we’d be saying it in practically every scene. Thus, the substantial presence of people we don’t generally see in prime time television enables us to focus more on character than appearance. This matter-of-factness in the portrayal of race and ethnicity is very refreshing. Other shows should take note.

As simple entertainment (it’s not trying to be a documentary, thank goodness), Scandal receives quite a bit of criticism for its superficial plots and lack of realism. However, I think the show is actually quite clever in how it depicts race, gender, power and relationships. For example, instead of making race an individual difference, it is dealt with on more of a cultural level. The show makes it clear that Olivia’s race does not define her but it does affect how others treat her. One of her clients assumes that Abby, Olivia’s white employee, is the boss. Abby looks awkward and Olivia shrugs it off but you know it has to rankle. Similarly, several characters point out how Olivia’s “hue” makes her potential union with the white President (Fitz) an issue for his political party. However, Olivia comes up with a plan in which her future partnership with Fitz will be a gift for Republicans eager to become more inclusive.

Then there was the time when she voiced her concern about the Sally Hemmings/Thomas Jefferson nature of her relationship with Fitz when she was working in the White House. Lesser shows might have let this conversation devolve into a serious exploration of slavery and white masters (not that this would be bad per se but it would drag down the fun) but instead, Fitz expresses his utter disregard for that analogy and they moved on. Thus, without preaching directly about equality and racial differences, Scandal demonstrates that race is only an issue for those small-minded individuals who allow it to be.

Gender is handled in a similar fashion. As a show that centers on politics, Scandal makes certain that there are allusions to gendered issues like domestic violence, abortion, and pay inequality without being too heavy-handed about it. But the real blow to gender stereotypes comes from the many powerful women characters who defy expectations. Perhaps this is because there are a lot of strong women running the show but I digress.

The White House is full of women politicians who buck the odds by having differing public and private personas. The Vice President is a Southern woman who speaks pleasantly but takes no prisoners (the less said about where she found herself at the end of Season 3, the better). She almost stole the Presidency out from under Fitz by virtue of her wits and aggressive tactics. Mellie, the First Lady, also comes across as sweet and domestic in public but is clearly manipulative when the cameras are off. In stark contrast to the stereotype of mothers as selfless and warm, Mellie is depicted as extremely ambitious and uninterested in the daily grind of childcare. Instead, it is Fitz who wants to feed and play with their young son and visit with their other children. Yet Mellie is not portrayed as evil. Viewers clearly feel for her situation and understand that she is trying to create the best possible situation for herself and her family and that she has suffered for politics. In other words, she too gets to be complex.

Olivia’s firm also has women who have to endure the slings and arrows of sexism. Olivia is a powerful woman who can affect change because of her intelligence, persistence and mental toughness but even she must put up with the patronizing “sweethearts” from men as well as the assumption that she got to where she is because of sex. Abby, a former political wife and victim of domestic violence, went from baking pastries to being Olivia’s dangerous and cynical investigator who does not hesitate to satisfy her sexual urges. Then there is Quinn, a seemingly weak character, who ended up working for Olivia because of love and betrayal yet it is her transformation that truly shatters all preconceived notions. Quinn was a quivering mess initially but soon broke out of her shell in a big way. In an effort to dismiss her, a low level security employee mistakenly called Quinn “darling.” Instead of launching into a tirade about sexist behavior (or worse, leaving), Quinn used her intelligence, training and ruthlessness and took the word back by letting him know that “darling” was going to run right over him should he be so unwise as to get in her way. It was subtle but that scene telegraphed that, despite her small stature and feminine appearance, Quinn was a force to be reckoned with. And she continues to be.

Scandal also has a lot to say about power. There is the surface level portrayal of power – people who have money, hold political influence and run around trying to make the world bend to their will – but if that was all that Scandal showed, it would be boring. We’ve seen that before. Instead, the show provides perfect demonstrations of how power corrupts. We get to view the ways in which people do bad things because they have convinced themselves that it is right and no character escapes unscathed. Even Olivia, the original “white hat,” rigged an election because she was convinced that it would help the country and the man she loves. A Supreme Court justice gave the name of an innocent man to Homeland Security because she wanted to stay in power, no matter the cost to others. There have been several examples of what marriage into a political dynasty can mean – the sacrifice of privacy, the loveless relationships and how your life may depend on the rolling tide of public approval. And, in the story of Olivia’s computer genius and former CIA operative Huck, we see how someone can become so addicted to hurting others (for a “good” cause) that having such power can actually provide a rush.

Some people complain that these stories are simplistic and this may be a fair analysis. However, the general themes seem true. They explain why long-time politicians appear willing to do whatever it takes in order to get what they want regardless of how good it is for their constituents. They explain why there has not been more of an outcry from the people whose job it is to torture prisoners at Guantanamo and other “wet” sites. They explain why political unions often seem so sterile. In other words, even if what Scandal gives us is just a taste of the psychology behind power, it’s still something we need to consider.

And then there are the relationships on the show. Scandal starts with somewhat of a unique premise in that the main couple we’re supposed to be rooting for is not married to each other. The President is married and has three children with his wife but the show takes great pains to depict the marital relationship as unhappy and destructive. In fact, I actively dislike Fitz whenever he is with Mellie because he is cold and sometimes cruel to her. I really only like him when he’s with Olivia because she brings out the best in him but it’s a weird feeling to want the cheaters to be together.

That’s kind of the beauty of the show. In subverting our desire for which couple we’d like to see be together (usually the married one), Scandal is portraying the disdain it has for the public’s emphasis on sex scandals. In case after case, we see the stupidity of ruining people’s careers because of who they love: the potential Supreme Court nominee who had to withdraw because his wife used to be a prostitute, the American military hero who almost went to jail for a crime he didn’t commit because he didn’t want to admit to being gay, and the probable fall of a presidency if the public knew he committed adultery.

Let’s be honest: Scandal nails the American public to a wall on this one! They got it exactly right. We are the people who impeached a president over adultery but basically ignored another president getting us into a war under false pretenses. We practically lose our minds over a politician sexting while shrugging at civil rights violations and voter suppression. It is why Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs got more headlines than chemical weapons being used in Syria. The Health Department could cure cancer and we would only care if they got caught with their pants down. Thus, through the guise of fiction, Scandal points out that there are a lot of reasons to be angry with our government officials but their sexual proclivities are the least of them.

So yes, watching two seasons worth of Scandal was worth the hours of sleep I lost. The show is entertaining but it also has a lot to say about the world in which we live.

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  1. Thank you for this wonderful blog! I too am a fan of Scandal and lost some sleep watching back-to-back episodes of Season 1 and 2 on Netflix. I agree with what you’ve said. However, I think that while Olivia Pope is portrayed with flaws, beauty certainly is not one of them. She can save the president from a scandal and ensure a dead body is removed from a room with no one knowing and without a hair out of place. In season two, when Olivia starts swimming to relieve stress, the camera focuses on her “perfect” body under water. At the end of season two, Olivia goes for a run in her snug, White, Lululemon outfit and a sleek pony tail. I could only wish I looked that good when I work out! You’ll find me in a t-shirt, ball cap and shorts. All the women in Olivia’s firm are quite attractive and none are overweight. These characters don’t have body shapes representative of the majority of the female population in U.S., then again, most Hollywood doesn’t either. In the meantime, I will patiently wait for Season 3 find its way to Netflix, so I can have another Scandalaothon!

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