‘Scandal’s Old-Fashioned View Of Women In Washington

The good people at The Daily Beast were kind enough to ask me to do some thinking about Scandal, a show I first though I would love, then got irritated by, and now am slowly becoming addicted to again, in the context of the election and the Petraeus email kerfuffle. I appreciated the assignment, in part because it let me get to the bottom of my frustration with Shonda Rhimes’ portrait of a Washington fixer who ought to be a female power fantasy: as a whole, the show limits the role of women in Washington to their ability to destroy or support a powerful man. I explained:

When Olivia’s firm takes on clients, they are often women with that same ability to destroy the reputations of powerful men, or, as Olivia puts it, “These girls, they come here thinking they’re going to change the world and then they get involved with some man.” She takes care of Amanda Tanner, a young woman who, like Olivia herself, has had an affair with President Grant, and believes herself pregnant by him. Her team helps steal the records of Sharon Marquette, an influential madam who is trying to keep her client list private. She represents a rapist against a victim who is attempting to make sure he goes to jail for an earlier attack on a dear friend. She helps get justice for a wild young woman murdered by an arrogant diplomat. Olivia and her team even reconcile the wife of a famous civil-rights leader and the mistress the man was having sex with when he died suddenly. Women may not run themselves into much trouble in Washington as Rhimes understands it. But they also remain off to the side much of the time, pulled into the great debates of the day when they have the capacity to humiliate the men who actually participate in them.

Even Olivia, for all that she has President Grant’s ear, does so because she’s both the source of his own potential bombshell—they became lovers on the campaign trail, and he continues to seek her out for late-night conversations, for stolen kisses in the Oval Office and country retreats—and of advice on how to handle sticky situations, to project power, even how to manage his own wife. And even there, Olivia is curiously removed from the actual debates of the day. Though there’s some suggestion that she and Grant have differing political views, the advice she offers him, and the influence she wields, is solely strategic. Like Dick Morris, the political animal in Olivia is a creature solely of the news cycle. She appears to hold no passionate perspectives on the issues, to be animated by no cause other than the call of her own gut and her undeniable attraction to Grant.

Women, believe it or not, have passions and authorities in Washington that don’t concern their intimate relationships with men, or that don’t even primarily address women’s issues. Part of the set up for the show means that Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), the show’s fixer protagonist, almost always has more official or implied power than whatever woman she’s dealing with, even though she has less formal power than almost all of the men. It’s be nice to see her have to help another woman who isn’t the mistress or the screw-up or the cause of disaster for a change, and give some crisis management assistance to a woman whose role in Washington has nothing to do with who she’s sleeping with, but has gotten herself in trouble the same way powerful men seem to, over and over again.