Olivia Pope’s character may be feminist but she is not a feminist character. This is but one view I’ve heard mooted recently in relation to the TV show Scandal. I have to admit that I’d never given it much thought, until very recently that is.
I didn’t watch the show until recently. I sat down over a weekend and watched the first and second seasons and on the whole enjoyed it. My husband, who is a huge West Wing fan (it’s his favourite TV show of all time) even enjoyed it. The first two seasons gave us twists and turns that included political intrigue, backbiting on the hill and a hefty helping of conniving, in addition to a strong ensemble cast with a range of back stories we couldn’t wait to uncover.
I was also pleased to see that there was a TV show with a woman at its centre that wasn’t about her raising a family, or being the side kick to a male lead. It’s great to see a female character on TV as a lead and particularly a black woman. I say this as there is a real scarcity of ethnic women on TV and in film in lead roles. When was the last time you saw a major lead in a blockbuster go to a woman who was black or Asian? They are few and far between.
Yes, Olivia Pope is a feminist too. She’s intelligent, an Ivy League graduate, has her own company and the ear of powerful people. She has definitely seized the opportunities laid before her and achieved more than the norm- she doesn’t question that she’s deserving of this and nobody challenges her for it. She is the professional equal of those around her and is treated as such. Well done that woman.
This, however, is where it ends. Although the character Olivia Pope may well be a feminist, she is not a feminist character. What we have regrettably is a rehash of a very old stereotype – strong woman who falls to pieces every time she is around the strong, powerful man that she loves; her bottom lip trembles, she throws herself into his arms, she succumbs to her hormones and emotions, everything is about him. If it’s not about him, it’s about her father.
This is a woman who has actively pursued a man who is married, essentially a kick in the guts to another woman and a complete antithesis to the take charge, decisive, rational persona her job requires. She allows this man to mess her about for years. She forgives him for often the most abhorrent of treatment, because she can’t control herself. She even uses their relationship to secure favours. This goes on, and on…. and on.
The pinnacle of this was in a recent episode when he explained away his abduction and abuse of her father, by blubbing that she understood how confused and scared he must have been…. Poor Fitz. It’s not a rationalisation based on his job as Head of State, which must ultimately mean making hard decisions got the right reasons. No, it’s all about emotions and “poor Fitz”, infantilising him and their relationship . They then kiss, again, after several more moments of lip trembling and cow eyes. Oh yes, lets not forget the shaking – she seems incapable of displaying genuine anger… remember that ladies, you’re not angry, you are being hysterical! Hormones I expect.
This scene prompted my husband to almost throw his mug at the TV and declare “that would never happen. No woman I know would allow someone to treat her like that”. Turning to me, he said that “this is what was wrong with the world. It plays down to the old fashioned stereotype of a powerful woman losing her senses as soon as she falls in love.” This is one of the many reasons I love him, he’s as much of a feminist as me, sometimes more so.
Of course, Scandal could be worse. Olivia could be a white, middle classed, Ivy League student. But it could be better – she could have come from nothing, rather than the Swiss finishing school. She could make the decision to focus on putting herself first and decide to have a relationship with someone else – hell; maybe she could even be single and perfectly happy with that! Maybe, she wouldn’t turn to a bottle of wine every time she has a bad day and remembers that the man she is in love with is unobtainable, married, and essentially using her. Perhaps, her mother, arguably the only woman in the show truly marching to the sound of her own drum, wouldn’t be a terrorist, a deceiver, a terrible person for abandoning her daughter for pursuing her own ideals; she could be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a brain surgeon, hell she could even be President. Maybe Olivia could be President with a white, middle aged “fixer” chasing her.
The way that this story is unfolding does not mean that Olivia is not a feminist. After all, she believes she is deserving of equality and she should have control over her vagina, which is essentially what being a feminist means. That said, we should not confuse her character as being a feminist one – it’s a step in the right direction, but this is a very, VERY, small step. I’d like to see a stronger message that feminism pays – you are deserving of equality, and that includes happiness. At the moment it very much feels that if you want equality in the boardroom, you can’t have happiness anywhere else, and how feminist a message is that?
Still, I suppose is it is some sort of progress, like pop stars dancing around in hotpants declaring they are feminists. Should I just accept that the benchmark is still woefully low? That some progress is better than none? I fear I must, at least in terms of TV as I will never have anything to watch otherwise… unless some station feels like doing another adaptation of a Fay Weldon book… now, there’s a thought.