“I’m standing in a graveyard made by people I thought I loved.” -Olivia Pope
“Every woman adores a Fascist.” -Sylvia Plath
Ever since last week’s episode of “Scandal” filled in Mellie Grant’s back-story in upsetting fashion, revealing she’d been raped by her husband Fitz’s father, Jerry, and that she decided to stay quiet in part because she’s received a lecture from Cyrus on her wifely obligations if Fitz were to pursue higher office, I’ve been trying to decide what I think about the episode.
I agree with Margaret Lyons that the plot wasn’t meant to make Mellie more likable–if the episode had been constructed that way, it would have been a remarkably ugly means to punish Mellie retroactively, victimizing her before we were allowed to like her. Rather, as wily Jezebel commentator Scobies pointed out, the history was a missing piece in explaining the arc of Mellie’s reaction to Olivia’s presence in her marriage to Fitz: “Remember the flashback to the campaign, Fitz and Liv are getting it on in an elevator and the doors open to Mellie,” Scobies wrote. “She brushes it off as him having too much to drink and begs Olivia to forgive him. Of course she assumed that’s what happened. It had happened before, to her.”
Instead, my queasiness about the revelation was a larger concern about Scandal. Now that we know that Mellie is a rape survivor, it means that every major female character on the show is the survivor of truly outrageous abuse, whether directly or by proxy. I’m not, in principle, necessarily opposed to these kinds of stories. After all, I’m an enormously dedicated fan of Game of Thrones, which has as one of its major subjects how omnipresent violence against women poisons all aspects of a society. But I’m well aware that stories that make us sit through either the ongoing abuse of female characters or to relive memories of violence against them can be exhausting and emotionally degrading. On some long consideration though, I think I’ve come down on the side of thinking of Scandal the way I see Game of Thrones: as a story that has, as one of its subjects, the ways men try to destroy women or treat them as disposable, and the ways men degrade and ruin themselves in the process.
First, let’s consider Olivia Pope. Her relationship with Fitz is broadly consensual, but shot through with veins of coercion and violence, like the marbling in a steak. Fitz uses the office of the presidency to have Olivia brought to him, even when she’s trying to convince herself to stay away from him. He’s pushed her up against a tree and tried to take her clothes off in close proximity to his Secret Service agents, and repeatedly grabbed her by the shoulders. He has her spied on and brandished guns around her. She’s hit him, and then had sex with him. If the relationship were between two consenting adults of equal stature, it might walk a line between passionate and abusive. But because Fitz is the president, it can’t help but be a commentary on the power of the presidency, and how exercising it for personal gratification and personal gain can become a form of self-poisoning.
This year, the arrival of Olivia’s father Rowan has expanded that meditation to the subject of state violence. As the head of B613, Rowan doesn’t just exercise absolute power within his own family, though it seems he was a despot there as well. In his second on-screen interaction with Olivia, and the first real conversation we see between them, Olivia flinches from Rowan as if she expects him to hit her. We learn that his relationship with her has primarily been negotiated, his willingness to pay for her education tied to a demand that she see him regularly at dinners where he berates her and tries to mold her. Just as Olivia had to submit to Rowan’s parenting approach without anyone there to provide accountability or defend her interests, at B613, Rowan rides roughshod over presidents and has the luxury of Congress and regulators not appearing to know that he exists. He can literally consign men to holes in the ground, reshaping their minds according to his own desires. And, as we learned this season, he seemed capable of having his own wife killed, and ordering the future president of the United States to do the killing, though the last episode revised that narrative–Rowan only appears to have had his wife imprisoned for decades.
It might crush another woman to have this level of personal toxicity and romantic tumultuousness in her private life. But Olivia Pope has had her mother taken from her not just by her father, but by an uncontrollable government agency. She’s survived having her personal life buffeted by the power of the presidency, and the attention of the national media. Homeland used Issa, Abu Nazir’s son, to demonstrate how people indirectly affected by the power of the United States might turn against it, creating blowback. On Scandal, Olivia Pope, a person who is directly attacked and intimidated by state power, rather than simply being horrified at the victimization of others, is at the center of the action, and while she’s frequently bowed, she’s not destroyed.
If Olivia represents what it’s like to be targeted and surveilled directly by the state, Mellie Grant’s story explains what it’s like to be a survivor of the cultural norms of our politics. The two women have often been placed in direct competition for Fitz’s affections, and the loyalty of Scandal viewers. But the revelation that she’d been raped revealed that their stories are actually complimentary. Olivia’s experience with her father and with Fitz is a reminder of what the state is willing to do to us without our consent. Mellie’s rape by Jerry is a scathing reminder of what our political system asks us to do to ourselves to perpetuate its norms.
“Okay I’m going to give you a tip and this is for free because I’m done. If he is going to be Governor, if he’s going to be a serious politician, if he is going to walk corridors of power, he is your charity work,” we saw Cyrus tell Mellie in a flashback speech. “He is your full time job. You’re the wife–help him.” Their debate, the climax of an argument in which Mellie tried to convince Cyrus of Fitz’s seriousness, and to prevent him from quitting as campaign manager before the race had actually begun, was a brutal definition of what it means to be a Good Wife. Not only is Mellie made to be responsible for her own conduct and deportment, but she’s required to transform Fitz from an unambitious and undirected young man whose privilege could let him coast into a viable and enthusiastic candidate, ready to exploit the most attractive parts of his biography for political gain. She’s given the task of keeping his attentions in-house, and when he strays, she’s meant to paper over the flaws in their relationship by professing mindless adoration for him anyway.
Cyrus can’t have intended to tell Mellie that she should keep quiet about a rape. But in the formula he’s set up for her, women are responsible for everything and powerful men for nothing, not even their own conduct. Mellie does what she’s supposed to as a woman–she tells Jerry no, and it’s clear that she means it. But when he doesn’t stop, she follows Cyrus’ instructions to make herself and her interests invisible. She doesn’t scream, she doesn’t tell, and she doesn’t clarify the paternity of her first child. She’s a good wife, and the worst part is that she’s put in a position where this seems like her choice.
The two other significant female characters on the show, Quinn Perkins and Abby Whelan, mirror Olivia and Mellie’s experiences and deepen the show’s reflections.
Like Olivia, Quinn’s been treated as a tool by political campaigns and intelligence agencies. When her boyfriend was murdered as part of the cover-up of Defiance–a Cytron employee, he helped hack the presidential election–Quinn was framed for his death, then kidnapped by Huck, drugged, and given a new identity. While Olivia’s reacted against the grotesque abuses of B613 and the personally coercive exercise of presidential power, Quinn evolved in a different direction. Her evolving conflation of sex and violence lead her to torture Billy Chambers for Huck, and then to pursue Charlie, a B613 agent and assassin trainer, who she met at a gun range. Her thrill-seeking and infatuation with him ultimately leads her to kill for real, delivering a lethal dose of what she thought was merely a tranquilizer to a security guard. And while Olivia’s managed to stand apart from the men who want to crush her into compliance, Charlie told Quinn that B613 owns her now. Whether she can escape will be a test of Olivia’s power, and Quinn’s own will.
We’ve known that Abby was badly and repeatedly battered by her husband, the son of the former Virginia governor and a man who was expected to have a political career of his own, and that Olivia helped her obtain her divorce, for much longer than we knew about Mellie’s experience as a rape survivor. But her backstory, and the way it’s shadowed her relationship with David, along with Mellie’s own behavior, help contextualize Mellie’s own years of rage and humiliation. It’s by chance that Abby ended up with Olivia as an ally, while Mellie’s relationship with her has swung between collaborative and poisonous.
Learning about the terrible position Mellie found herself in all those years ago at the same time as we’ve discovered the extent of what Olivia survived at the hands of the man who was her father and the man who would become her lover doesn’t give either one of them the upper hand. Instead, it made me sad that circumstances and a dog of a president pitted these two formidable women against each other. Just think of what Olivia and Mellie might have been able to do together to all the people who wronged them, and all the rules of politics that allowed these things to happen, if only their common project had been changing the presidency rather than capturing it for Fitzgerald Grant.