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!)
In 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.
My 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.
One 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