So there’s a new US show on the ABC network called Scandal, in which Kerry Washington plays a fictional version of a communications director for the Clinton White House who became a successful image consultant, or reputation-fixer.
The show is notable for being the only one on a mainstream American network built around a black female lead (and backed by black female showrunner Shondra Rhimes). It’s also a lot of fun. Kerry Washington is dynamic and compelling as the heroic-but-flawed powerhouse of a lead, the arc plot is suspenseful, the camera-work and direction is fresh, and the format creates the possibility of great variety within its episodic plots.
But the thing that really struck me on watching the first two episodes is how very feminist it is.
First we have the character of Olivia Pope, master of communication channels and fixer extraordinaire. Olivia is a real-life superhero, as we see in her first appearance, when she literally saves a baby from Russian mobsters through intelligence, connections, and sheer bravado.
The fact that Olivia is badass is telegraphed everywhere in the show—through flashy camera-work, physical characterizations like the speed with which she walks, and some memorable lines (“My white hat is bigger than your white hat”). She is awesome, and frankly a lot of fun to watch.
But it’s the way in which she is awesome that’s so interesting.
There’s a longtime conversation within feminism about the contrasting benefits of women competing and succeeding on male terms—in traditionally male fields and methods—and valorizing and dignifying traditionally feminine work, ways, and modes of being. Too often these different faces of feminism are pitted against each other, though the answer to which we need should be obvious: both, and more.
Popular culture recently has heavily favored the first mode of female power. We now have many warrior women, those who wield weapons, or otherwise demonstrate power in ways historically linked to masculinity.
There’s nothing wrong with these images, which are provide many women with fantasies of identification and power, as they have always provided men—but there is a problem when these are the only images of women accounted heroic, or recognized as strong. Without a fuller range of women’s skills and ability to be awesome, we erase how women—and men—are most often heroic in real life. And we reinforce the idea that women must succeed in traditional male roles and with traditionally male tools (weapons, physical strength) to be valued.
Scandal participates in this conversation in some interesting ways. As a powerful lawyer and entrepreneur who deftly negotiates public life in DC, Olivia is in some ways following a traditionally male path. But her success is clearly credited to her self-confidence, intelligence, and a hefty helping of intuition.
That emphasis on intuition—her gut—is a major theme of the show and expresses a feminist principle: the idea that a woman’s inner sense can be the most accurate and powerful guide to the world. Here the narrative very clearly valorizes a traditionally feminine quality; intution is Olivia’s superpower.
At the same time, Olivia’s work is often presented as nuturing. We learn early on that she has chosen each staff member because they in some way need fixing, and she has a big sisterly/life coach quality as she tries to help them through their problems. Many of her client relationships follow this same pattern; Olivia is often in the business of saving her clients from themselves, their own delusions, and capacity for self-destruction.
This too is traditionally female work, which the show professionalizes and valorizes by making it a highly-valued service for which Olivia and her staff are well-paid. Here traditional feminine qualities are how one powerful woman makes it to the top.
Then there’s the matter of what Olivia is not. Early in the first episode, she gently reprimands Quinn, the new staff member who idolizes her and wants to follow in her wake, for showing too much cleavage. And while the camera plays up Olivia’s beauty
—which, as she’s played by the ridiculously gorgeous Kerry Washington, is very easy—and presents her as highly desirable to her love interest, she is noticeably not sexed up by clothing or camera choices.
You could interpret her line to Quinn as policing women’s bodies. But in the context of the show, its larger argument about female power and heroism, it sends a message about alternative models. While the female fantasy heroine of the past two decades has increasingly been shaped by the male gaze—the woman wearing a bikini who swings a sword—Scandal emphasizes that that these women are not remarkable for their bodies, but for their minds, and this show is not going to display them for male (or other) gaze.
In other words, Olivia is the type of superhero who doesn’t need spandex.
The fact that Olivia is neither oversexed—nor, given her romantic plot, desexualized, is all the more important because she’s black, and black female character are still too often locked into this set of problematic stereotypes.
Her advice to Quinn is also a realistic reflection of women’s lives—professional women often do have to negotiate their clothing and mixed messages around it as they deal with how other perceive them. And of course, how other’s perceptions shape our lives is at the heart of a show about scandal, and protecting reputations.
Of course, one of the things that makes the show interesting is that while Olivia is presented as a hero, her work has the potential to be anything but heroic—to consist, in fact, of protecting the guilty and forcibly hiding dirty laundry. The show immediately engages with this potential for abuse by building the arc plot around Olivia doing just that—making a very morally wrong choice, and then working to right her mistake.
This plot is feminist in a couple of ways. In the first place, Olivia is allowed to be a rounded and full character, one with very real flaws. This should be basic for any character, of course, but women and particularly women of color are rarely such prominence as lead characters, and are sometimes flattened by misogynistic demand that they must flawless to be worth our time and attention, never mind affection.
Second, this plot connects to earlier feminist themes, because Olivia’s mistake comes from overruling her own instincts—in fact, from choosing to cleave to what a powerful man tells her rather than trusting her gut.
In a more traditional narrative, we often see this conflict between a male hero’s inner self and and a misleading female love interest—the essence of the femme fatale trope. Such portrayals ride on and reinforce misogynistic ideas about the evils and unreliability of women.
By flipping that script, Scandal tells a different story, about the conflict between a women’s integrity and inner self and the powerful outer male vocies that try to drown it out. In fact, it’s possible to read Olivia’s problematic love interest as a metaphor for patriarchy itself. (Thus far the show is firmly on the fence about how sympathetic it wants us to find Olivia’s love interest; we’ll see where his character goes.)
On a more mundane level, Olivia is negotiating a familiar conflict between inner and outer worlds, but doing it from a fiercely feminine perspective.
A final feminist element of the show is that it does not require Olivia alone to represent womankind, but gives us two very different women trying to follow her example—two Robins to her Batman, if you will.
Both Abby and Quinn, members of Olivia’s staff, clearly want to mold themselves on their boss. Abby is unabashedly excited about the work, and enjoys the power plays that come with it. Cheerfully callous—perhaps even amoral—she is tremendously effective, but doesn’t have that inner gut sense that Olivia has. She does however have an arc that echoes Olivia’s, in that her professional skills are balanced by a romantic weakness—a crush on a womanizing colleague that leaves her alternatively frustrated and vulnerable.
Quinn, by contrast, hero-worships Olivia and explicitly takes her as a model. She begins by focusing on her own gut sense—which interestingly comes to the same conclusion Olivia would have had she trusted her own. Quinn also has a backstory, as yet hidden, about having been a victim of scandal herself, and most clearly she embodies the nuturing qualities of her idol. Where Abby cheerfully blackmails a cheating cop into giving her access to evience, Quinn uses heartfelt emotion, including her own, to convince a client to trust Olivia.
Neither of these plots is groundbreaking, but we rarely see women learning from women on television, and the fact that their plots receive the most prominence after Olivia’s signals how women-focused the show is.
In fact, the biggest single thing I would critique in the show is who doesn’t get a plotline. Olivia as the lead naturally gets the most development; besides Abby and Quinn, four other characters are given nascent arcs: Stephen, Fitz, Cyrus, and David Rosen. All are white men.
The least-developed characters on the show are the two men of color on Oliva’s staff: Harrison Wright, a persuasive black laywer, and Huck, a Latino investigator. While Huck’s mysterious past at the CIA gets a brief mention, he is the only character not to get a last name and will only appear in 4 of the 7 episodes filmed so far. I hope in time both he and Harrison become more than facilitators for Quinn’s development.
But in the meantime it’s exciting to see a woman of color save the world. Without the spandex.
- Olivia Pope, Superhero: Feminism in ABC's Scandal