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Olivia Pope, Superhero: Feminism in ABC's Scandal
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zahrawithaz
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.


I've only watched the first episode of this but I really liked it. I think I'm just waiting for a few episodes to pile up so I can watch them back to back.


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.


I write fantasy and sci-fi and this is one of those things that has concerned me more and more as I've gotten older. Is violence the only power worth acknowledging??? It shouldn't be.

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.


This was also bothering me a bit, it was raising a mammy flag, but then you mentioned that this is a valuable skill for which Olivia is well paid and I put the flag down. I'm very excited about this show. I hope it does really well.

I write fantasy and sci-fi and this is one of those things that has concerned me more and more as I've gotten older

Ditto! For me at least there is something about growing older that makes me understand and sympathize more with the strain of feminism that critiques using male models for power, and never valorizing traditionally feminine attributes (except when they happen to be held by men).

I hear you on the mammy flag, but in this instance I believe it's offset not only because Olivia's skills in this department gain her money and power, but because she's the protagonist and center of the show, and her own personal angst and problems are the most important ones in the plot. And that idea that she's the important one in the relationship, rather than a prop for the others, counters the most central aspect of the mammy trope for me.

I am very excited that Scandal has gotten a 2nd season, and from what I've read, it seems to be serving as a sign that other US TV shows centered on women of color may have a shot.

EXCELLENT. I'm really into everything you say here. I also noticed that Harrison and Huck have the least development and I hope that changes; both are sort of props for Quinn in a way that Stephen and Abby never are. I was glad to see Harrison getting some more characterization in episode 2 (out in the field with Abby and in his dynamic with Stephen), outside of showing Quinn the ropes.

I've been pretty ambivalent about Quinn mostly because I didn't feel she's been very interesting in the POV character role so far, but I really like the idea of her and Abby sort of mirroring each other in terms of the two sides of Olivia they are each emulating--her more ruthless side and her more nurturing one. I'm now hoping they interact with each other more as the season progresses. I already like both their dynamics with Olivia.

As I watched, I felt like the 'too much cleavage' comment maybe should've bugged me more than it did, so I appreciate your points about how the show rejects male gaze. It can be a slippery slope between that and shaming women who DO happen to like showing a little skin.

My favorite part of this post might be Fitz-as-patriarchy. Awesome. I'm also ambivalent about that storyline, because it's OBVIOUSLY problematic, but it's also super watchable.

But yeah, Olivia's just amazing in so many ways. Roles like that for women of color are so rare. I told myself I wasn't going to watch any more Shonda shows after Grey's Anatomy got so narratively weird, but I couldn't resist. ;)

I agree with you on Quinn, really haven't found her very interesting so far, but I hope her character will start to show more complexity once we learn a little more about her story.

Thanks!

And yes on Harrison & Huck. Sadly, as you probably know by now, Huck ultimately got quite a bit of development (in a scene I personally couldn't watch), but Harrison still sticks out (I feel) as the most underdeveloped member of the cast.

You are all too right about the slippery slope. Part of the humor of the scene comes from Quinn not listening to Harrison, but listening to Olivia, though that doesn't necessarily make it less problematic in terms of enforcing female behavior. But it's a very self-conscious moment.

The Love of My Life feels strongly that the "too much cleavage" comment was actually a direct meta commentary on </i>Ally McBeal</i>, which was famous for its female lawyers wearing improbably revealing clothing at work.

I believe she's right, and I would add that since AM was also famous for relying on the-black-best-friend-who-existed-only-as-a-prop-for-the-white-woman trope, there's also a 2nd element of distinguishing itself from that show in terms of racial power dynamics. So I think there's a lot of meta in that one line.

Alas, about Quinn I fear I agree. I had high hopes for her development after the 1st couple of episodes, but I think she became one of the weaker elements of the show. Though the way her story is wound into the setup for next season could intensify her role as a foil and/or parallel with Olivia. (I do still hope that her background, once ultimately revealed, will have some sort of connection to violence that makes her shock & trauma at the murder scene in the finale make sense in a PTSD way.)

And yeah, I still hold fast to the Fitz-as-patriarchy idea! I do so enjoy this show--it's a guilty pleasure of sorts--and am looking forward to next season.

oooh well all right then, I guess I'll give this a whirl! Thanks for the write-up, it sounds really interesting.

Thanks! I can imagine it wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea--the show takes place in that "realism without actually being realistic" spot that doesn't work for some people--but I really enjoy it, and I'm glad to be spreading the word!

I've never even heard of this show, but I do so enjoy reading your posts. I will look out for it here in the UK.

Thank you! I'm not sure this one will make it across the pond--its plot is so tied up with the US Presidency that I wouldn't expect non-USians to care, and also I think the attitude toward sex scandals among politicians in the UK is different--but I'm glad to spread the word.

Yay, thank you for writing this! I especially like your points about how listening to the powerful man led Olivia to making a bad decision, and also how the show presents the nurturing and mentoring work that she does as important and professional.

Thank you so much for commenting!

I did not hear about this show, but I am now really impatient to watch it. The characters certainly look promising from what you wrote. Glad to read another of your reviews !

I have since watched the show.
It is great, and I agree with everything you said, except one thing : I do not think the president could remain sympathetic/ambivalent in the long run if he does not show more positive qualities in the next episodes. His malleability is yet his most dominant trait, which is strange, because, as you said, he is a poweful, partriarcat-symbolising, influencial man.
I think I would love to see you review this show more.

Edit : I just watched the fourth episode. It's official, I hate the president. If you ever review this again, I'll be anxious to hear about your opinion on the revaltions on Abby.

Edited at 2012-04-27 08:10 pm (UTC)

Thanks much for posting, and for doing so twice! I am always lurking on other people's pages repeatedly, so it's fun to have someone else do it here.

And I am glad you enjoy the show. I have to admit that I can't stand Fitz, and I never really could (though I probably slip between "content to ignore" and "actively loathing" depending on the episode). In honesty, I think he's the show's weakest character, in multiple senses.

Mostly it's the writing--his character direction flip-flops more often than Mitt Romney, which is saying something, and he lacks the basic drive necessary to make him being president plausible. I still think he stands for patriarchy, and for traditional structures that may appeal but aren't good for women.

But I also think that in the show's greater interest in Olivia (and to some extent the other female characters), and in upping the drama through twists, they shift how they write him week to week. For the most part I'm willing to tolerate this, though, because a badly-written male love interest/enemy makes a change; I've seen the reverse too often. And I suspect that the show is setting up David Rosen as an alternative love interest after they've wrung all the drama they can out of the Fitz storyline.

(I also think the actor playing Fitz is one of the weaker members of the cast, which hurts when he's most often playing opposite the guy playing Cyrus, who is excellent, and Kerry Washington, who apparently never met a line she couldn't sell.)

I wish I had the time to review the show more often! Maybe next season.

Why write posts, when you can write long spoilery comments?

zahrawithaz

2012-07-09 02:27 am (UTC)

But briefly, I think feminist themes continue to percolate through the show, though they sometimes rub shoulders with problematic elements.

The "DC madam" storyline irked me, because it hit many of my pet peeves about common representations of sex work in the media, but I do think the show was trying to align itself with sex-positive feminism in its depiction.

Likewise, the rape case episode--personally, I feel the "lying rape victim" trope should never be used again, but the show ultimately makes the conventionally-attractive rapist the victim, makes the point that rapists rape because they can get away with it (which feminists have been saying for years), and sides emphatically not only on female friendship--women going to extremes to back each other--but on women inspiring each other to do the right thing.

And then there's Abby. I presume you are referring to the revelation that Abby is a survivor of domestic violence. I am of two minds on this.

On the one hand, I think Abby sometimes stands in danger of being received as a caricature of an "unlikeable" feminist--shrill, strident, amoral (though arguably she's just following a different moral code), and I'm leery that the DV revelation could be taken as minimizing or justifying Abby's tendency to challenge authority--you know, "she has problems with men because she has baggage."

But I really like Abby. I think she's a great character--very strong, realistically flawed--and I think for the most part we're meant to see her sympathetically. And I love the fact that they made her a survivor.

For the most part I think popular culture (and the popular mind) is still very much in thrall to blaming victims, and heavily invested in the idea that there must be something wrong with people who fall victim to abusers. Obviously people want to believe it, because it makes it easier to believe abuse couldn't happen to them or the people they love.

But the survivors I know are some of the most amazing, smartest, most capable people I know. (I did domestic violence work of one kind or another for about ten years.) And I think we really need to see more images of survivors in popular culture who are as smart, strong, and capable as they are.

I also think it's still important to acknowledge that many women have experienced abuse and then go on to have lives, jobs, romances, etc. after that. The fact that Abby's abuser is still out there and a danger to her is realistic, and another thing I'm glad to see acknowledged.

I particularly like the fact that the show had Abby call Olivia on messing up, because I think it gave her moral authority, and made it clear that she's someone we're meant to root for. At the same time, it humanizes Olivia enormously to have her need a reality check like that.

And it adds an interesting tweak to the dynamic I mentioned here, in which Abby is modeling herself on Olivia and learning her trade. It makes Abby a better student than Olivia (or we) might have realized--and someone who has more moral compass than we thought. All the more interesting when you contrast it with Stephen, who is the one member of the cast who manages to guess Olivia's secret--making him yet another student of Olivia Pope with yet another strength.

I like your long spoilery comments as much as your posts !
Abby really has a sizable fandom, and I am glad to see that you are a member too !
I wanted to hear your thoughts about her storyline because I feared just the the same thing about how the abuse would be handled, and your commentary highlights how problematic this could become.
When you think of it, the abuser being still free is really one of the most frightening ongoing arcs, and I wonder how they will handle it, if they use it at all...
What you said about Kerry Washington's great acting is very true. Sometimes, she utters a line with a gigantic cheesiness potential, and I tremble as she begins, fearing an epic fail, but she pulls herself out of it graciously !

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