In Scandal’s Episode 8: Thou Shall Not Forsake Thy Father, Mellie Grant finally lets her hair down and dishonored a marriage that had long ignored her. Meanwhile, Olivia Pope cried crocodile tears on the phone to get her father to attend a restaurant in order that Fitz and Jake would serve vengeance; or justice, perhaps. Scandal’s ending saw Rowan Pope’s violence and power at the restaurant as he revealed to Olivia his awareness of her efforts to capture him. Rowan’s message to Olivia highlights his understanding that Olivia’s actions too often result from her intimate associations. Indeed, we might want to ignore Rowan’s analysis, but I wonder to what extent it applies to most women characters in Scandal.
Olivia’s attitude toward sex and professional business make decoding her character difficult. The show’s first season introduced a savvy strategist with a goal to grow a law empire. Then, Olivia skillfully navigated the blurring lines between profession and intimacy. Now Olivia seems disturbed about what she fundamentally wants. Two members left her law firm. There has been no new hire since. The show features less scenes at Olivia’s work place which used to be a site of political strategizing—a site once important that government surveillance programs prioritized it. At the same time, the show features the president mostly inside the White House, Olivia’s father mostly in his own office, the attorney general mostly at an office. But Olivia is all over place—rarely returning to her own cultivated grounds to analyze what the streets revealed to her.
Obviously, the office—the symbol of law and resourcefulness—no longer grounds Olivia’s character. Olivia seems unstable, always in transit. Even her catwalk that once appeared powerful is now reminiscent of one who is about to fall down. As Olivia’s unstableness spreads like a curtain across the show, she barely has control over the business she built. Of course, she still gets things done, but notice that even her staff members no longer have the same reverence for her. Olivia couldn’t stop Huck from breaking child laws when he had his child in the office without the mother’s knowledge—a very serious offense. Any lawyer with integrity and a career dream would have addressed it. But not Olivia. She has new values. She is no longer in charge of business, because Olivia is busy trying to figure out her sexual desires.
Perhaps the big questions with which viewers no longer contend include—What is the next goal for Olivia’s law firm? Will Olivia’s political power expand? Newer questions would more likely include—What motivates Olivia? What does Olivia Pope really want? Sex from two men? Love (of which one?)? Political Power? Love and admiration of her father? Family?
My own view is that this lack of clarity into Olivia’s personality is deliberately designed. It sweetens the plot. It upsets viewers who usually think they admire empowered characters. The producers have done a good job developing Olivia’s goals as fuzzy. If the show had continued to portray Olivia as fully empowered, her character would have become predictable, uninteresting, and unreal. Viewers would have struggled with zero questions about Olivia’s psychological interior. Having no question-task to complete, Scandal viewers would have disappeared.
It is reasonable to suggest that viewers are also concerned about who seems to be the most formidable person in Scandal at the moment. I would say Rowan Pope. He suffered a temporary fall in the past. But even within that time frame, he waged significant power. What we should expect, given the tradition of film writing is that, Rowan Pope’s power will soon decline. The producers will have to do this if they hope to negotiate the characters’ balance of power. Aristotle in Poetics suggests that characters must face forces more powerful than themselves in order for them to have opportunities to experience fear, reveal their weaknesses, and gain our empathy as we desire their victory. Characters must also grow so we can celebrate them and believe we too can triumphant similar struggles.
To further balance power, Scandal’s producers would have to reconsider the plot and ensure the woman protagonist remains powerfully visible. If Rowan’s power continues to dominate the show even more so than President Fitz Grant’s, Scandal will become another film site characterized by male-power dominance. Rowan will become the interesting character; not Olivia. Of course, I know the show attempts to portray societal male dominance structures as it is. But I doubt that in our world, an African American waged so much power over any president and America’s White House.
By featuring Rowan as both a power player and an institutional structure, Shonda Rhimes creates an historical imaginary. What is America with an African American who can assassinate even a president if he wishes? We can better imagine that question—one perhaps far from our thoughts before now. And we can do so by accessing the hints Scandals provided us about how the political structure operates in manipulative and disguised ways.
Yet why does Scandal fail to feature a woman with judgment unclouded by sexual desires? I ask even though I admire the thoughtfulness that goes into the show’s production. If the show seeks to represent gender diversity, it is important to not just present women with power; carefulness must also reflect in the contexts that show how women amass and execute power. Rowan has power, but sexual desire isn’t a dominant player in the history of his accomplishments and professional conduct. However, when it comes to women, it’s troubling to note how sexual relationships cripple women’s professional judgments.
In the past, we felt Olivia’s power. The clothes she wore had power. Her runway pumps had power. The sassiness of her tone revealed power. The way she listened and made the last say revealed power. The physical speed she used to break security and enter rooms with her voice revealed power. But Olivia’s power falls within a certain shadow: her weakness to sex—or intimacy, if you chose to call it that.
Certainly, Olivia isn’t the only character facing this natural life experience. Both men and women confront it. But it seems sex histories do not significantly shape the men’s past and professional desires. Fitz is president whether or not Milly loves him. Cyrus Beene continues to operate even though the joy of his life, James Novak, died. And in a second, Cyrus will sever any relationship that threatens his professional life.
On the other hand, look at former Vice President Sally Langston. She lost her mind and her professional composure after responding to her husband’s sexual conduct. To be noted is that even the morally upright Sally lost her way due to an issue that involved sex. We also see Quinn Perkins initially portrayed as an insecure person. Overtime she developed confidence and combat skills. Nevertheless, if we pay close attention, this only happened after she engaged sadomasochism with the mentally deranged Huck who wields power even in his untreated psychotic state.
No doubt, grounding Olivia in the shadows of sex is good business for Scandal. It keeps viewers returning. But given Scandal’s failure to expand the notion of gender diversity and contextualize at least one woman outside of sexual desires, I wonder whether Scandal reinscribes the gender stereotypes it hopes to culturally dismantle.