Women, Power and Political Influence in Scandal

Curator's Note

Scandal is a television drama that focuses on American politics with no pretense of realism of any kind, offering provocative content with the intention to shock the audience. In the series, the U.S. President is illegitimate, his Chief of Staff is an accomplice to a murder and Washington D.C. is presented as a spot where women are in possession of power, above men. In this way, Shonda Rhimes transfers her own personal situation to the possible world of the series: that of a female showrunner who has acquired celebrity status in a traditionally male world.

Masculinity in Scandal is weak, lacking leadership. From President Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III to David Rosen, the men in the series are often overwhelmed by conflict. Women, on the other hand, always seem strong and they have undeniable impetus, as is usual in Shonda Rhimes' television productions. However, unlike Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, in this case women use their power in all layers of the story. With Scandal, Rhimes has created an unusual conglomerate of genres where political drama coexists with soap opera, romantic melodrama, and even a touch of the thriller. In all these different scenarios, the female characters are those who take the initiative. Unlike Boss or House of Cards, in which femininity emotionally concedes to the megalomaniac male protagonists, in Scandal Olivia Pope transits from one genre to another without losing an ounce of power. Olivia controls the tempos of her relationship with the President in the same way she guides the capital events of the Grant Administration from a chosen distance.

But Olivia is no exception. The series works consistently with the idea that female characters dominate the mechanisms of power in the highest spheres. For example, it is a majority of women who conspires to manipulate a presidential election, it is also a woman who orders the assassination of the President —a job executed by a woman as well— and it is another woman, Vice President Sally Langston, who leads the nation while the President recovers from the attack.

Furthermore, the First Lady, Mellie Grant, also deserves a mention. She is always in the right place to influence political decisions and competes with the Chief of Staff, Cyrus Beene, for being the main advisor of an amenable President.


Great timing for your post in particular Rossend, with this recent AV Club piece from Todd VanDerWerff, "How Scandal became the perfect distillation of America's political nightmares": http://www.avclub.com/articles/how-scandal-became-the-perfect-distillati... Your points on masculinity, especially in the male-dominated D.C. world, are really interesting. I wonder how much of Rhimes' work ethos is put into constructing Pope, as she's also the leader of her own team of Gladiators.

Thanks for your comment, Stefania. I have not read VanDerWerff's article, but thanks for the recommendation. On the other hand, I read that Olivia Pope's character is based on Judy Smith, who is co-executive producer of the show. Even so, I am sure that Rhimes used her own experience as a showrunner for shaping that strong protagonist.

Really great post, Rossend. I could go on and on about how disappointed I was in the direction "House of Cards" took with the Robin Wright character, and "Scandal" is indeed a productive contrasting example. What do you make of the ways women are depicted in the romantic relationships on the show? I found myself at odds with some other fans when I really liked Olivia's first rival to the president, Edison Davis. Rhimes also seemed opposed to the practicality of the Edison choice, as conveyed in Olivia's impassioned speech about wanting love that hurts. She and Fitz have also argued about who is more weakened by the relationship. In the world of politics, Olivia dominates, but in her love life, she often despairs. Same with Mellie, a character I love, who has given up her own ambition to push forward the less talented Fitz. If the character of Olivia can be framed as a version of Rhimes own success in the male-dominated world of the TV writers room, can we read her fascination with doomed love as a depiction of the constant struggle required for a female showrunner to remain in power?

Hi Karen! Thank you very much for your comment. I agree with you, I was also really disappointed with the evolution of Robin Wright's character in House of Cards. Talking about Scandal, you are absolutely right. Women are not so powerful in their relationships. As you say, I think that's because Rhimes believes in this romantic idea of "l'amour fou" as the only possible choice. In this context, although Olivia often despairs, I think Fitz is not in a position of dominance. Neither of them controls the situation. Besides, if someone is willing to cede, it is Fitz. (Take, for example, the last two episodes aired). On the other hand, Mellie is probably my favorite character of the series. I see your point about her but, personally, I am not sure if she has given up her own ambition. The last question you pose is difficult to answer. I would say that this doomed love may well be a metaphor for the relationship between a showrunner and a network television :)

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