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Feminspire | April 17, 2014

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What Makes ABC’s “Scandal” Such a Great Show for Women?

What Makes ABC’s “Scandal” Such a Great Show for Women?

I am finally, after many weeks of sitting in my bed drinking wine and eating chocolate, caught up on Scandal. I had heard a lot of buzz about Shonda Rhimes’ new primetime television show with an African American leading lady, and being a devout fan of Grey’s Anatomy, I was more than willing to give the show a chance. I was not disappointed.

The casting is absolutely amazing. Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope, a political “fixer” who has a talent for making scandals disappear while always trusting her gut, which is apparently never wrong. Additionally, Washington’s strong female character doesn’t fit into any of the tropes that black women are often type casted into – the promiscuous Jezebel, the angry black woman known as Sapphire, or the devoted mother figure Mammy. Olivia Pope is written with the same thought and intent for a deeply complex character as all of the white male characters we see on TV. She has multiple facets to her personality rather than one, just like a real woman!

Olivia Pope is fiercely professional, demanding absolute perfection from her staff. She commands everyone around her, District Attorneys and the President’s Chief of Staff alike. It takes awhile for us to really get a glimpse into her personal life, but when we do we learn that as tough as she is at work, she is deeply flawed in her personal relationships. She has an on again/off again affair with the President of the United States. The relationship is highly passionate and deeply dysfunctional. While Pope seems to recognize this fact, she continues to return to it. As much as this frustrates me to no end, it also is a part of her personality that is perhaps the most relatable. It is refreshing to see that a woman, especially a black woman, can be sexual without having to also being infallible. Olivia isn’t perfect — she tries to be, but she’s not. And her relationships are just as complicated as ours sitting at home.

Olivia is a badass professional woman, perfect by almost any standard, and yet she is human. I really appreciate that she is allowed to be a strong female leader, while still being allowed to have human flaws. (Spoiler warnings ahead for season two!)

Fitz-and-OliviaIn the second season, after she stops seeing the President (however briefly) and picks up an old romance with Senator Edison Davis, she suddenly breaks up with him, because she is still in love with the President. To Edison she says that she wants a “painful, difficult, devastating, life-changing, extraordinary love.” I may have possibly hated Olivia more in that moment than at any other time is the show’s history. Of course that kind of love gets your blood flowing, but that’s mostly because it’s toxic. Here is this strong, intelligent, beautiful woman giving up a wonderful man to be the mistress of a semi-man-child — who, by the way, sets up surveillance on her apartment after they stop seeing each other.

But, that made her more human to me, too. The show wasn’t commending her choice necessarily, Olivia isn’t meant to be a perfect role model any more than most white male characters are. Love, life, and sex are complicated, and nothing is ever as easy or simple as we wish it were — that is pretty much what her relationship with the President conveys. Nothing is black or white. Love and sex don’t always make us feel great, sometimes they drag us through the dirt. Despite this dysfunctional relationship, Olivia remains strong in the other aspects of her life. She is, if anything, an expert at compartmentalizing.

Olivia loves deeply, not just President Grant, but her staff as well. Pope is the leader of a truly devoted team with complex histories that unfold as the show progresses. We learn that most of them have dark pasts from which they were all in some way saved by Pope. As much as her staff would do anything for her, Olivia is just as likely to put her life on the line for them.

Pope’s staff, like the casts of many of Rhimes’ shows, is diverse in personality as well as gender and ethnicity. Unlike many television shows with strong female leads, (The Closer, The Killing, etc.) Pope isn’t the only “Smurfette” in a boy’s club of Smurfs. Olivia Pope is surrounded by other woman just as complex as she is.

scandal mellie fitzMy favorite character on the show next to Olivia herself is First Lady Mellie Grant, played by Bellamy Young. Yes, she is devious, but she is also fiercely intelligent and devoted to her husband. The show has no problem letting its audience know that Mellie is the leader behind the leader of the free world. Mellie puts both her husband’s and her own future political careers before everything else. This often puts her in difficult situations, as choosing to insure her husbands presidency means looking the other way in regards to his infidelity, putting strains on her marriage, and often putting up with so much crap from her husband that I honestly was surprised in the second season to find out that she wasn’t the one behind the assassination attempt on his life. Mellie is the one who makes the tough calls that no one else on the show wants to make. At one point her husband says, “The woman can’t handle a diaper change, but bombing a village? No problem.” Even the President is impressed by his wife’s ability to make tough calls.

Mellie may be kind of evil at times, but she is evil in a complex way which often only men are written as. Rather than being portrayed simply as a bitch, she is written as a woman who makes hard choices and then deals with the emotional ramifications of those decisions. She struggles with balancing her relationship with her husband while also managing his career. I may not always like Mellie, but I respect the hell out her.

jeff perry cyrus beene scandalOne final character that I love to hate is Cyrus Beene, the White House Chief of Staff. Cyrus is possibly just as ambitious and calculating as Mellie. In the first season we find out that he is behind the murder of a White House intern who slept with the President and then threatened to blackmail him. Cyrus does some shady shit, but he also struggles to keep his personal and professional life balanced. Cyrus is the Chief of Staff to a Republican President. Cyrus is also gay. He is married to a White House correspondent, a relationship that get’s exceedingly messy as the story of the century which could make his husband’s career would also put Cyrus behind bars.

None of the characters are perfect, but they all make some extremely tough choices while trying to balance their personal and professional lives.

Do you watch ABC’s Scandal? What do you think of Olivia Pope and the latest season? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Written by Kelsey Bain

  • mycomment

    I’d respect Mellie more if she’d divorce Fitz and get on with her own career since her marriage is merely a plot point in her career plans. Plenty of D.C. women say she the character is no longer believable–she doesn’t need Fitz to achieve her potential. Also, her character is growing increasingly creepy with each action the writers create for her. YES, I love the depth of the Mellie character and think she is one of the best TV roles an actor could land today. NO, I no longer like her for the Scandal story. The story is growing too depressing to watch.

  • Debbi

    Love the chemistry between Liv and Fitz. Undeniable. Mellie as the girls in my office call her a ride or die chick. A force to reckon with. Cyrus, ruthless! I can go on and on. Between the White House, the Gladiators (love them all) Harrison is a Doll Baby, and the complex problems Olivia fixes. This show gets 5 Stars. It’s a WINNER!!!!!

    • Bria Williams

      I actually have great respect for Mellie, she is my favorite character! She to me represent what women like our mothers and grandmothers went through even when they had a cheating husband they stood behind them no matter what . Some may say that’s a sign of weakness but to endure that pain is in some way shows strength not to also say she has made great sacrifices for fitz . Olivia is the only one I’m over

  • Joyce Ford

    I love Scandal it’s my addiction and want no cure for it. Liv and Fitz chemistry is off the chain, it’s hot and just hot and i love it. I love to hate Mellie she’s like JR Ewing…I love cyrus. I love it when him and Mellie square off.

  • Eddie

    Scandal’s been an awesome show I enjoy watching with
    my wife, who got me hooked after an episode. I enjoy watching primetime once I
    get out from working at DISH. It used to be hard to record all of them
    with my timer conflicts and multiple recordings and it made me frustrated. This
    had been my problem for years and multiple DVRs in my home, but I was able to
    solve this problem with the DISH Hopper DVR. I can get all of my shows recorded
    with PrimeTime Anytime feature which records the 4 major networks during
    primetime hours nightly once enabled. I can enjoy more primetime than I ever
    thought and I don’t have to fight my timers.

  • Dhyatt25

    Scandal cast are great actors. Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn chemistry on the show, makes you wants to know what will happen in the next episode. Great show ont tv.

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  • Anonlee

    Actually, I find Melle to be rather pathetic. She does nothing on the show but try to act tough and her decisions/actions are usually disastrous. Then who fixes the problems caused by Mellie, her husband’s lover Olivia – rather ironic.

    A strong woman would have left her philandering husband and moved on to
    start a career. Mellie masquerades as a tough woman but she is really terrified of being on her own and not having aman to prop her up. She is the opposite of Olivia who could have Fitz but keep sending him back to his wife. Olivia can survive on her own with her career and associates. Yes she loves Fitz and fixes his problems but she is not dependent on him like Mellie.

    It baffles me what folks find admirable about Mellie and her meaningless scheming.