Alas, "Scandal"...the Vultures Circle Thee

Scandal, Shonda Rhimes’s portrait of Washington, D.C., fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington)—a character based on real-life crisis-management expert Judy Smith—is meant to be a kind of power fantasy. Olivia is not only one of the few African-American female main characters on both network and cable television, she’s also one with a direct line to the president of the United States. In her cool suits (and sometimes great lingerie), there’s no one she can’t stare down, no scandal she can’t defuse, no trial she can’t undermine, no truth she can’t uncover.

But while it may be fun to imagine being Olivia Pope, particularly for those of us who live and work in Washington, Scandal actually has a remarkably conservative view of what power women have in the nation’s capital, and how we use it. If Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama The Newsroom was about the theory, as NPR’s Linda Holmes put it, that “nothing is more dramatically important than a man becoming great, and men cannot become great without women to inspire, provoke, and drive them,” Scandal explores an almost inverse idea. In Olivia Pope’s Washington, the most potent power a woman has is to destroy men who believe in their own greatness.

...Scandal began its run with one such woman in a position of power, President Fitzgerald Grant’s (Tony Goldwyn) vice president, Sally Langston (Kate Burton). But that character, a religious Christian who the more moderate Grant added to his ticket to bring along the conservative wing of his party, has been a minor part of the show, appearing in only three episodes of the first season. Even when she’s present on screen, she’s overshadowed by one of her own aides, who ends up complicit in the death of his pregnant lover. And ultimately, she’s blackmailed out of causing trouble for Fitz to improve her own presidential prospects in a plotline that mined the most predictable beats of conservative hypocrisy: her teenage daughter turned out to have had an abortion. She’s a problem to be contained, rather than a player.

By contrast, Fitz’s wife, Mellie (Bellamy Young), is able to carve out some power for herself in the Grant administration, but only by using her femininity and fertility as public-relations tools. On the campaign trail, she garners sympathy for her husband by suggesting that the coldness in their relationship was the result of a traumatic miscarriage. In the second season, she’s used her pregnancy with “America’s Baby” to push Fitz toward military intervention in an ongoing genocide. What gives her status is exactly what granted the Crazy Ladies in Ephron’s essay the little power they had over their husbands: the ability to continue playing, or to abandon, the role of a good political wife. That the show acknowledges that Mellie is a brilliant woman who had a promising career she put aside to stand by her husband doesn’t make it any more depressing to see her so neutered. Even Michelle Obama gets to do more than decorate a White House nursery.

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
. (Source)
The comments have been beyond priceless.
7 days ago
Ms. Rosenberg your white privilege is showing. You might want to tuck it in. This over-analysis is really reaching.

Nov 19, 2012
Over thinking analysis of a ABC Drama. If I wanted to know how "real" Washington women behave and comport themselves, i just need to tune in the cable news or watch Real Housewives of DC on HULU. Lighten up, its obvious from the other comments that everyone thinks your opinion of the show as a GINORMOUS stretch to seem like you are giving it a fair review. I like the show, my wife likes it and it has a lot of fans who enjoy the shenanigans a la Dallas, Knox Landing or any one of those old school non "reality tv dramas"...that's all that's important.

Nov 19, 2012
I agree with the other comments. Scandal is basically a soap opera, and that's it. It's not meant to be reality. People watch to escape from reality. I don't think the female characters on this show are any worse representatives of real-life Washington women powerbrokers than the female characters on Grey's Anatomy as representatives of real-life women doctors. The men on the show aren't even real. An anti-wa rRepublican President who is a former college professor and willing tothrow away his career to be with his black mistress? An openly gay Chief of Staff in a Republican administration? It's clearly all make believe!

Nov 16, 2012
Geeze...so steeped in "cultural progressiveness" that we can't discern TV drama versus the reality of the Capitol? Or is this more about the filter of privilege assuming the prerogative of imposing a litmus test of acceptable creative product developed by minorities?? Not quite sure what Shonda would do without your critical guidance....

Nov 15, 2012
"Mishandles women in Washington and political power"?? It's a TV drama. On ABC. It's not a documentary or am I missing something. This kind of deep analysis of a fictional TV show makes me scratch my head and wonder about the intellect of some commentators, not only here, but in pop culture in general. (Note I wrote pop culture and not history!) There seems to be an inability to discern real from unreal. Entertainment from reporting. Well, at least I have Michael K at dlisted.com.

Nov 15, 2012

I find it interesting that you have nothing but praise for Claire Danes neurotic character on Homeland that sleeps with a married man as well as the occasional stranger. Different standard for this character, I wonder why.

Your snark is misplaced. Trying to use Holly Petraeus for your obvious bias is low and a stretch. She's going through a real life drama. Trashing a very good fictional one isn't going to change that.
If this show stays on for another couple of seasons, it's going to be an interesting ride.


Scandal Season 2 Tumblr


  1. Faith Diva comment about Clair Danes role on Homeland is PRICELESS!

    1. I watch Homeland, so the commenter was spot on.

    2. Yes! Faith Diva was spot on with that comment

  2. Honestly, I'm shocked this bullshit didn't go down during season one.

    1. I think Season 1 was a whirlwind and white folks didn't think it was coming back.

      Well...*sniff*...whattaya know.

  3. Hee-hee looks like selective amnesia is at work big time with these people!

    Do them fools really believe that everybody in the Whitehouse are innocent? When I was teenager, I found a playgirlish like magazine on the school yard. I was read a section of it where this woman claimed that she worked in the Whitehouse. She said it was like working in an informal version of the Playboy Mansion: drugs, alcohol, freaky sex and corruption...all of it went on there,but all of this stuff will always go under wraps because of the powerful positions they hold and what they must portray.

    I don't know why some of those posters think this cannot be reality. On the LINCOLN movie, there was an truthful IR scene about a powerful US senator named Thaddeus Stevens who lived with his Black mistress for 23 years. Have they also forgot about Thomas Jefferson trist with Sally Hemmings? It was also said that George Washington had kid by a slave.If they want to also go there some more, lets not forget about Strom Thurmond with his mixed race daughter and it was said that Bill Clinton has a mixed race child by a Black woman, who lives in Australia. Initially, the GOP wanted to use that against his run for president. There was a former senator from NY( forget his name) who got in trouble for trying to get sex from a Black hooker.

    Do I think that a Scandal-like situation can happen for real? certainly though I hope that it will never be with the Obamas. Im a realist. They are men and women and they have sexual feelings.Traveling and/or being away from your family can take a toll from you. Far as Black woman/ White men concerned, its the craziest notion how some of those commentators think that it cannot happen..it has already happened .It just not only about men and women sexual tensions getting the best of them,but history is another thing that can be used against them when it comes to issues like this.

    I wouldn't doubt if it's happening right now,but it's being carefully hidden like every other dirty little secrets. I bet that some of those GOP'ers that criticize Michelle Obama good looks are probably already dipping their hands in some chocolate and/or desire to and it's always the ones that bark the loudest that are doing it. I wouldn't even doubt if a Strom Thurmond moment will repeat itself.

    1. Let me also add that I wouldn't doubt about a Olivia Pope situation taking place. I just love it when " It-wasn't-suppose-to-happen-moments" become reality.They know good and well that if a man like President Fitzgerald was working with a stunning Black woman like her, he would be trying to be with her. Ive always felt that one day the least expected thing like this( or maybe do a Mark Sanford(R-SC) number) will happen with the GOP. I have the strongest feeling that it will.Not wishful thinking,but as I always say, it the ones that always bark the loudest that has the biggest surpises.

    2. The commentators aren't dismissing the sex aspect as being unreal. They're dismissing the writer's argument that Scandal portrays political women unrealistically and has some sort of double standard.

      Judy Smith, who worked for Bush as a "fixer", said that there was nothing action-packed about her life or career, so Rhimes admits to glamorizing the job a bit. But that's the point. This is a TV show, and a soap opera like one.

      The question on the table is, had Olivia Pope been written as white, would the writer still be complaining about this show?

    3. I see what you're talking about.

      IfOlivia Pope was White those same folks would nominate her and the director for Emmy awards.I those same critics had it their way SCANDAL would be D.O.A. I don't picture Judy's former job as glamorous either,but Im glad that Shonda added the magic touch to the show.The problem with those folks and as well as Hollywood is that they only want to focus in fiction.They don't believe in change.


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