SPOILER ALERT: If you’re not up to date on Scandal, do not read ahead. This post contains spoilers that will shake your faith in the American political system, the institution of marriage, and the virtues of white pantsuits. Not to mention ruin some really good TV.
What makes a TV show feminist? Scandal is one of the most buzzed-about shows of the year, in large part due to its serious dose of girl power. Series creator Shonda Rhimes crafted a gem of a character in Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington. Despite the initial good vibes you might get from the series, how does gender play a role on Scandal?
The media likes to debate every year or so if women can have it all. At first glance, Scandal might appear to weigh in and give a resounding yes, of course, women can! Rhimes, after all, is the creator, producer, and writer of both Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and a single mom to three girls. She, of all people, must believe in having it all. Her protagonist Olivia Pope is one of the most powerful people in D.C. and still finds time to carry on a steamy affair with Fitzgerald “Fitz” Grant, the leader of the free world and the love of her life. That Olivia Pope is a woman — a black woman — doesn’t appear to have ever stood in her way during her climb to the top.
It would be fair to bet that television history has rarely seen a plot more feminist than the election-rigging scheme in Defiance, OH. Late in the presidential campaign, it becomes clear that Fitz might not be able to pull off a success on his own. A team of five co-conspirators gather behind his back to ensure he wins — and what a crew! Three women, a gay Republican, and a lone white, straight man conspire to commit a crime that scores Fitz, the charming but occasionally ineffective leader, the Oval Office. If that’s not proof of equality in Scandal‘s world, we don’t know what is.
Olivia holds most of the cards on the show — or at least it seemed that way until the season three premiere aired last week. Her unshakeable confidence and unstoppable career both screech to a halt when news of her affair with Fitz gets splashed across international television.
In an emotional confrontation, her father roars, “He told you that you would be First Lady and you believed him. Did I not raise your for better? … You know to aim higher. At the very least, you could have aimed for Chief of Staff, Secretary of State. First Lady? Do you have to be so mediocre?”
It’s an ugly statement, but he’s right. Olivia is far too intelligent, ambitious, and capable to sit idly by as Fitz’s First Lady. That’s not say that First Lady isn’t a position to be admired, but it’s not right for Olivia. She would never be happy with mere photo ops and volunteer work. She must know this; Mellie, after all, graduated top of her class at both Harvard and Yale Law School, and suffers hideously from boredom. (“At the very least, give me a war to run,” she complained to Fitz last week.) Marrying Fitz would land Olivia the love of her life, but deprive her of any personal fulfillment she draws from her career.
In a testament to Fitz’s ambiguous morals, no one is really shocked when he reveals that he alerted the media to his affair with Olivia. He’s the one who brought her down; her business, Olivia Pope & Associates, tanks the minute the scandal fixer becomes the scandal herself.
This creates a fascinating conundrum: in order for Olivia to “have it all,” she needs Fitz by her side. But once she’s thrust into the spotlight, she loses her reputation, her career, and — should she one day become First Lady — she’ll lose herself, too. It’s difficult to imagine fast-talking, strong-willed Olivia thriving in a career where her top priority is smiling demurely for White House photographers.
Maybe that’s the key to Scandal. Olivia comes so close to having it all, but that doesn’t stop her from needing that extra-large glass of red wine every night or her famous lip quivers. She’s not happy in her current situation, but attaining that coveted status of “having it all” won’t necessarily improve that. In a way, her character liberates women from the notion that they should have it all. If Olivia Pope, for all her fixes, can’t juggle it all, then neither can us mere mortals.