(originally posted on 2/28/14)
Scandal, I might have to quit you.
I like that your protagonist is a strong black woman who’s smarter than everyone in the room and generally gets to tell everyone else what to do. I like the way you handle race – sometimes you treat it as though it matters (Fitz saying that if he were to marry Olivia, the country would have a real and meaningful discussion about race) and sometimes you treat it as though it doesn’t (it never comes up when, say, Olivia’s father calls Fitz a boy).
But when it comes to feminism, you are sometimes truly awful. Please stop solving problems by having a woman say “no” to a man, having that man forcefully grab her and kiss her, and having her submit. This is just terrible.
There are many feminisms out there – first wave, second-wave, millennial feminism, lesbian feminism, feminism for men . . . the list goes on. We could debate how useful these labels even are. But at the core of each of these sub-categories of feminism is the notion that a woman ought to have agency over her body and her choices. The first time Olivia said no to Fitz and he roughly grabbed her anyway, I shook my head. The second time I sighed. When he threw her against a tree I walked away from the TV for a bit. When he cornered her in some private room after his child’s baptism, with his wife and his staff just outside, and pulled up her dress even after she had slapped him, I ranted to my wife. After this most recent performance of this horrible dynamic, I had to rant about it to the internet.
The current backlash against women is a multi-faceted attack that leaves me gasping for breath. The anti-choice laws in Spain, Texas, Ohio . . . the list goes on. A little while ago the sponsor of that Ohio anti-choice law was asked if he had ever thought about why a woman might want or need an abortion. He hadn’t. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBKieGz5QiM). Politicians and the media now use phrases like “sexual assault,” which sounds less harsh than rape. The practice of blaming rape victims rather than the predator perpetuates a culture that allows rape to continue (http://www.buzzfeed.com/ryanhatesthis/what-is-rape-culture). Our society even blames unwanted catcalls on a woman’s attire, completely ignoring the men who feel free to accost women with their voices.
So, we’re still very much working on a woman’s agency, and the radical idea that “no means no.”
Scandal has a huge following (it trends on Twitter for at least a day after every new episode). Critics and audiences lavish praise on it for its representation of a strong woman. But when the show cannot grasp the simple message that “no means no,” we have to ask whether it really is a feminist portrayal of women.
Part of this problem is that Fitz and Olivia are terribly matched. He is the weakest character on the show — ineffectual and blundering, surrounded by people smarter than him who outmaneuver, manipulate, or ignore him. The only power he seems to have is over Olivia’s body. Let’s not overlook that she’s usually crying or on the verge of tears every time this happens. If the show really wants Fitz and Olivia to be together – to have sex with each other while his wife and the staff and the press are in the other room – fine. I’m not moralizing about their infidelity. But if this is what Olivia wants, then she has to start WANTING it, and stop protesting and crying and fighting against it until he puts his hands on her and she decides to submit.
Olivia’s catchphrase is “it’s handled.” Every time an emergency arises or a politician’s skeletons are about to be dragged out of the closet, people wring their hands and rend their clothes and fret, until Olivia arrives and comforts them by saying “it’s handled.” Given the way Fitz possesses her body despite her protestations, the catchphrase everyone else could have about Olivia is, “it’s man-handled.”