Scandal & Feminism

Scandal, ABC’s version of a prime time soap opera, is nearing the end of its fourth season; there are just two episodes left until the sure to be heart stopping season finale. The always dramatic show follows the life of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), a “fixer” in Washington D.C. She fixes bad press, she fixes murders, and she fixes elections. She is also involved with the married President of the United States, Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn). However, this overly dramatic and at times unbelievable show is more than it appears to be at first glance. Scandal is a shining example of feminism at work in modern times, which it demonstrates through its creator, through its content, and through its complex characters.

Shonda Rhimes is no stranger to dramatic TV. In addition to creating Scandal she has created Grey’s Anatomy and its spin off Private Practice and is the executive producer of the freshman drama How To Get Away With Murder. Rhimes’s shows have always been diverse. They included characters of many races, differing moral standings, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Scandal, however, was the first of Rhimes’s shows to have a black female as a leading lady. It was also the first of her shows to shine a spotlight on real problems in America in a real, albeit dramatic way.

According to Charlotte Alter’s article for Time.com entitled “Shonda Rhimes: Anyone Who Says They Can ‘Do It All’ Is Lying,” feminism – the thought that men and women can be equal in all aspects—is a topic of great importance to Rhimes. According to Alter, Rhimes sites her daughters as the reason for her focus on feminism both in her personal life and in her writing for her TV shows. “There is a land and it is named after their mother. In their world, mothers run companies. In their world, mothers own Thursday nights. In their world, mothers work,” Rhimes said in her commencement speech at Dartmouth, her alma mater.

Jessica Samakow of The Huffington Post addressed this issue of men and women being equal in her article entitled “How Scandal Gives Unsuspecting Viewers Subtle Lessons In Feminism, Week After Week.” “Scandal fans were challenged to consider nuances of a woman's role at home and at work (and in this case, when your home is White and your work is at home), and how a man would be perceived differently for doing the exact same things,” Samakow noted.

This drive and focus on feminism within Rhimes’s personal life can be seen as a direct consequence on her writing. Scandal specifically has had intense moments of understanding, of knowing, and of making its audience think about feminism each and every week, perhaps unknowingly.

Some specific examples of Rhimes’s feminism philosophy can be seen in The New York Post article entitled “Is Scandal the most feminist show on TV?” by Lindsay Putnam. Putnam sites instances of standing up against sexual assault, defending a woman’s sexuality, and correcting sexist language as some of the most winning feminist moments on the show.

The latter is perhaps the most notable of the three examples as it addresses something that is typically not addressed in society—that language matters. Instinctively people know, or should know, that sexual assault is wrong and that a woman has the right to make her own choices; but, do people know that words really can hurt? After The President calls one of Olivia’s friends “a bitch,” Olivia responds eloquently by saying, “Don’t say that. The words used to describe women! If she was a man you’d say she was formidable, or bold, or right,” Putnam says in her article.

Even just this one line delivered from Rhimes by Olivia Pope points to a larger problem that Scandal is trying to at the minimum address, but at the maximum fix. Feminism is not about women being better than men, it is not about women being more than men, but rather it is about men and women being equal. This quote seems to be Rhimes questioning why men are put on a pedestal while women are pushed to the ground.

This quote, along with the other scenes mentioned, would not mean anything if they were just fleeting moments that passed over an oblivious audiences head. As Esther Breger notes in an article entitled “A Mid-Season Assessment of Scandal's New Feminist Speechifying” on NewRepublic.com “These speeches are not anomalies. Almost every episode this season has included something similar.” They mean something because the audience responds. This is the genius behind Rhimes’s empire, particularly with Scandal—she does not just say something, she says something and then makes people talk about. She, through the medium of Scandal, is the one who is opening up the conversation; she is the one who is making feminism “cool.”

Olivia Pope isn’t the only one to have feminist moments on Scandal, many of the characters do. These moments are not always as cut and dry as use of sexist language, but rather they are complex, like in real life. “You’re not getting an archetype, you’re not getting a stereotype, you’re getting a fully fledged human being,” Dr. Brittney Cooper, co-founder of Crunk Feminist Collective, told Tanzina Vega in her New York Times article entitled “A Show Makes Friends And History.”

Lisa Kudrow, a guest star on Scandal who played Josie Marcus, a candidate for President whom Ms. Pope is advising, had one of the most well known feminist moments in the show’s history while talking to a reporter.

“I know what prejudice looks like. It’s not about experience James, it’s about gender. Reston says that I don’t have the balls to be president, and he means that literally, it’s offensive...It’s not just Governor Reston speaking in code about gender, it’s everyone. Here you are thanking me for inviting you into my home, that’s what you say to the neighbor-lady who baked you chocolate chip cookies…it reminds people that I’m a woman without using the word…You are advancing this idea that women are weaker than men,” Kudrow’s character said.

This speech of sorts highlights the issue that Rhimes seems to try and get across often—that women are not weak, that women are not delicate, that women are strong.

Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), the President’s wife, is one of the strongest points for this argument. Mellie is seen as manipulative, eager for power, and cold; she is also a woman. These things don’t seem to fit into a pretty First Lady package, but Rhimes made Mellie complex, smart, and, in turn, infinitely interesting.

This is clear when Mellie speaks to a former First Lady about being the current first lady. “I tell you something, when a woman is president, they’ll suddenly make First Lady an official paid position. They’ll hire someone to do it the minute a man has to do it, it’ll become a real job,” Mellie is quoted as saying in Breger's article.

This quote again points to the simple fact that women are seen as less than men. Women are looked down upon either for being a stay at home mom or for being a high-powered businesswoman who isn’t home enough. Whichever way a woman leans, someone, whether society as a whole or men specifically, push her in the other direction.

Scandal is a show that isn’t always pretty, that isn’t always popular, but that is infinitely important. Its creator crafted the show in such a way that the writing is smart, the content is challenging, and the characters aren’t cookie cutter. In the Scandalland portion of Shondaland people are talking about feminism, trying to change gender inequality, and are actively working towards a more equal society; a society that Americans can aspire to and take cues from.