If I told you that a TV show about murder, lies, and political scheming was actually one of the most pro-feminism shows on air right now, would you believe me? Well, you should. The series Scandal is a masterpiece of modern television, showcasing strong female characters tackling common problems of today’s society. Instead of just placing females in lead roles, creator Shonda Rhimes gives them active roles that shape the plot, and develop as characters.
The show centers around a lawyer and self described, public relations “fixer,” Olivia Pope. Pope worked on the current president’s campaign and used to be a White House aide. Time magazine ranked Pope number two on their list of eleven most influential fictional characters of 2013.
Pope stands up for underdogs and outcasts, as well as Washington DC’s elite. “I’d fight to the death to stand by any woman who says she was assaulted. Women don’t lie about that. There is overwhelming evidence that women do not lie about being sexually assaulted,” Pope tells the victim of sexual assault. The girl was assaulted by a long-time senator with serious pull on the Hill. When she believes someone to be telling the truth, Olivia will not rest until they are safe. She often cares when no one else will. In season four episode four, the president’s daughter is found at a party, intoxicated. She had sex with two boys, and her father’s immediate assumption was that she was raped.
“Dad, I cut class. I ran away from the Secret Service goons. I helped some girl I barely know hack her dad’s private jet so I could go to a party. I got drunk, I smoked weed, I shot up something awesome, and yet you think the only way that I could have sex with two guys is if I were raped? How lame are you?” Karen yelled at her father. How could she have made such a decision? She must have been forced to, been taken advantage of. This is just one assumption women face when they make their own decisions about their body. If Olivia had not cared about Karen’s well-being, and her safety, Karen would have been stuck at that party and created a public relations nightmare for the First Family.
One of my favorite Olivia Pope moments is when she tears President Grant a new one for calling the press secretary a bitch. “So, Abby’s kind of a bitch,” he comments nonchalantly. Olivia immediately commented back: “If she was a man you’d say she was ‘formidable’ or ‘bold’ or ‘right.'” During my time in, and personal experience with the male dominated percussion role, I was called a bitch more times than I could count. Olivia’s comment really resonates with me. If I was a man, the leadership I show would be considered bold and formidable, not bossy and bitchy.
However, my all time favorite moment on Scandal does not even involve Olivia Pope. She is supported by a number of kick-ass women, like Abby Whelan. Not only is Abby a redhead, like myself, she is also not afraid to stand up for herself. Late in the series she becomes the White House press secretary. Concurrently she is dating another DC “fixer,” named Leo. Leo becomes embroiled in a raunchy scandal, and Abby feels that she must resign her position because of the backlash from the event.
“They cover the news and there are articles about how well I do at my job. But they also write about me. If I wear lipstick, I’m dolled up. If I don’t, I’ve let myself go. They wonder if I’m trying to bring dresses back and they don’t like it when I repeat outfits even though I’m on a government salary. They discuss my hair color. There are anonymous blogs that say I’m too skinny,”
Abby tells Leo, about how the media focuses on her, rather than how well she does her job.
The media’s scrutiny of women can be seen in their treatment of Hillary Clinton. Is she wearing makeup, is that a good color for her, how is her marriage doing? They analyze her haircut, her outfits, and the bags under her eyes. Harper’s Bazaar wrote a ludicrously sexist article all about her style, poking fun at her whenever possible. The Washington Post wrote an entire article about her pantsuits. In the article, the writer asks, “Does she even have hips?” Whereas, articles about Bill Clinton, her husband, are and will be written about his accomplishments.
Abby continues to explain the sexism to Leo;
“They also write about you. Every article that comes out about me has your name somewhere in it because apparently there’s this rule that in order to write about me they also have to report to the world that there’s a man who wants me. My work, my accomplishments, my awards, I stand at the most powerful podium in the world, but a story about me ain’t a story unless they report on the fact that I am the girlfriend of ‘D.C. fixer Leo Bergen’ like it validates me, gives me an identity, a definition. They can’t fathom the concept that my life doesn’t revolve around you. My life doesn’t revolve anywhere near you. It’s horrifying. ‘Property of Leo Bergen.’ Tell me, Leo, when they write about you do they report on your clothes? Do they write about your thighs?”
You can also watch parts of Abby’s monologue here and here. Trust me, you should watch it, Darby Stanchfield (Abby) is a phenomenal actress.
Shonda Rhimes, the creator of the series, was raised by a mom with a PhD, and a dad with an MBA. She attended Dartmouth and received her MBA from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Her shows; Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder; are known for their gender and racial equity between characters. Rimes also helped to write the Princess Diaries movies, with Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews. Kerry Washington, who plays Olivia Pope, talks about the magic of Shonda on Jimmy Kimmel.
Petty TV shows about sex tapes and murder is not where you’d expect to find subtle notes of feminism and equality. Next time you need a TV show to binge watch, or get riled up about gender inequality, Scandal is the way to go.